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The Caterer

Capital contracts

15 October 2004
Capital contracts

London is hot when it comes to contract catering. There's every opportunity you can imagine - whether it's working for wacky party specialists such as the Admirable Crichton, providing nutrition for patients at the country's top hospitals, keeping tourists well fed at world-famous attractions, or cooking up a storm at cutting-edge restaurants in high-flying City firms.

You'll recognise the big players from the regions, but you'll notice that many of the contracts they operate are more glamorous in London. Compass, for instance, has flagship contracts such as the chic Rhodes Twenty Four at Tower 42, overseen by Michelin-starred chef Gary Rhodes, while Sodexho's standard-bearer is Allium in Dolphin Square, where former Savoy hotel maestro Anton Edelmann trains staff to fine-dining standards.

But the beauty of London is that there are many flourishing smaller contractors to choose from, too. BaxterSmith, Charlton House and Wilson Storey Halliday (WSH) are three of the most prominent players in the City, holding prestigious contracts at blue-chip firms. WSH, for instance, has just been signed to provide the catering at the ITV studios, and one of its biggest recent deals is to cater for Barclays Bank staff at Canary Wharf in Docklands.

The growth of smaller independents such as Holroyd Howe and Vacherin adds to the evidence that the sector is healthy in the capital, with the latter, for example, running the prestigious contract at design consultancy Imagination.

For those of you who thrive on innovation, contract catering has never been a more exciting sector to be in. In the hospitality arena it's forcing restaurants and hotels to compete on new levels. Party food, arguably, is at its most colourful, with caterers embracing customer demands for creative environments, imaginative presentation of food and trendy, well-trained staff.

The sector is also challenging the bastion of fine dining. The more sociable hours and relatively good pay in City contracts are drawing some of the finest talent away from London's top restaurants and they are bringing their high culinary standards with them.

So it's a great time to be looking for work. Hospitality has been picking up steadily after the stream of setbacks caused by terrorism and the wars in the Middle East.

Recruitment consultants such as David Goldfarb, director of Mayday Executive, report a vigorous job market in London last year, and claim there are even more opportunities out there this year. One big contractor claims it has already sold more business nationally than last year.

As for specific opportunities - chefs as always are in demand, but there are also vacancies across the spectrum from juniors to supervisory staff. Even the senior end is seeing movement as general managers seek other challenges and open up the field. It's a capital opportunity, so go for it.

The nitty gritty To put contract catering in context, the sector provides 1.6 billion meals annually, with a turnover of more than £3.7b throughout the UK. In recent years, there has been a shift in the type of contract operated - from cost-plus to fixed-price contracts and to contracts involving some element of risk.

Companies, particularly in London, are therefore adopting a more commercial approach to business. The trend towards nil catering subsidy will continue, with more clients operating their catering facility on a commercial and even on a concession basis.
Source: figures drawn from the British Hospitality Association

Marcel Fernandez, 21
Job:
Assistant manager for Digby Trout at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London
Salary range: £18,000-£22,000

How long have you been in London? I came from South Africa about two years ago. My first job was as a waiter at the Gretna Hall hotel in Gretna Green, then I moved to London and took a job as a waiter at the Royal Court for about 18 months before being promoted to assistant manager.

Sounds like a meteoric rise Yes - I'm in charge of 16 people aged 22-30. It was difficult in the beginning, but I took it all in my stride.

So what do you do? The restaurant here seats up to 65 people and the main bar has a capacity of about 100. We do both lunch and dinner, although I tend to work evenings as I function better then. I enjoy managing a team of people and dealing with the financial side of the business. It's quite a big responsibility.

Any perks? Yes, I get to meet the actors and actresses if they come into the bar. That's certainly a fun aspect of the job.

What's the worst bit? It can be tough having to deal with drunken customers. On one horrendous evening we had a gentleman who started throwing things. I and the other duty manager had to deal with him, but fortunately there are security guards, too. On the whole, though, I love being part of the team and working with the public.

What about your social life? I sometimes find myself without one. No, I'm joking, that's not true. The restaurant closes at 10.45pm and the bar closes at 11pm, so we're out of here by midnight and I can shoot off to Soho down the road. We also get two days off (the theatre is always closed on Sundays) so I go out then.

How do you rate contract catering versus hotel work? They seem similar, but it's difficult for me to compare because I was lower down the career ladder at Gretna Hall hotel and didn't know how the company worked. One of the challenges here is that I have to meet the demands of the client as well as my employer. But I thrive under pressure - it's stimulating to reach a target and then go beyond it.

Any drawbacks to living and working in the capital? No, it's great. I'm happy to settle here. OK, it's expensive compared with Cape Town, but so are most world capitals. I live in Colliers Wood, which is affordable, and I can be at work in 30 minutes.

What of the future? I would eventually like to work up to manager level and I don't think it will take too long when I decide the time's right, but at the moment I just want to get really good at what I'm doing.

So you'll stay in catering? Well, catering is also a great launch pad into other careers. It teaches you to deal with people and work under pressure. But, no, I don't think I'll be leaving it in the near future.

Key contacts

Aramarkwww.aramark.co.uk

Avenance
www.avenance.co.uk

BaxterSmith
www.baxtersmith.com

Charlton House
www.charltonhouse.com

Compass
www.compass-group.com

Holroyd Howe
www.holroyd-howe.ltd.uk

Sodexho
www.sodexho.co.uk

Vacherin
www.vacherin.com

Wilson Storey Halliday
www.halliday.co.uk

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