If you're over the age of 30, you may remember eating Space Dust in the playground - little packets of sugary crystals that crackled and popped when you put them on your tongue. The retro confectionery is making an unlikely comeback at this year's Royal Ascot horse-racing meeting, thanks to Steve Golding, Sodexho Prestige's executive chef for racing. All hospitality guests will be able to round off their lunches with a Space Dust Bon Bon from Town and Country Fine Foods.
Come 20 June, it should be a sight to see as some of the wealthiest figures in the world - including the Queen and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai - pop the chocolate truffles into their mouths and a fizzy eruption takes them by surprise. Rather than cause a diplomatic incident, Gold says with a grin: "It'll make a memorable difference."
Of course, fizzing petits fours won't be the only difference at Royal Ascot this year. The old 1961 grandstand is history, replaced by a brand new, light-filled gallery including 265 boxes and seven restaurants.
Architect HOK Sport, also the designer of the new Wembley national stadium and Arsenal FC's Emirates stadium, has designed a grandstand that curves like a sail to afford the best views of the track, and a roof supported by tree-like structures that blend in with the Berkshire woodland. The total redevelopment of Ascot cost more than £200m and, unlike Wembley, ran perfectly to schedule, taking only 20 months from start to finish.
For Sodexho Prestige, it means no longer struggling with out-of-date facilities. The caterer has held the full contract for Ascot's hospitality and public concourse catering since 1998 when it took over from Letheby & Christopher, and its current five-year deal runs to December 2007. Its investment of £6m in new kitchens and tableware says something about its confidence that Ascot Racecourse Ltd will renew the contract.
Sodexho Prestige's racing director, David Johnson, reveals just how primitive the old facilities were. "There were no separate entrances for deliveries," he recalls, "no goods lifts, no heated gantries, limited refrigeration and very small satellite kitchens that served a number of hospitality boxes along narrow corridors. Plated-up food had to be pushed on trolleys down these corridors, getting in the way of customers on their way out to place bets. It was terribly difficult to operate."
On a preview visit in late May, Johnson shows me how that has all changed. Supply vehicles now come through their own entrances and drive into a service "street" that runs the entire 370m length of the belly of the grandstand. Delivery times now stretch to 10am instead of 8am, and can take place in emergencies at any time without disturbing the public.
As we walk along the street, fork-lift trucks carrying pallets of beer pass by. Johnson says: "Behind the scenes gets narrowed down in most projects, but here there have been no shortcuts. Ascot Racecourse has realised that this is the real engine room, and food is such an important part of race-going now."
The central production kitchen, fitted by Botes, is found off the street. Compared with its open-plan predecessor, the new facilities have separate refrigerated rooms for raw fish, meat and vegetables. All the walk-in fridges have doors each side, and the rooms are also designed to enable a continuous production flow from east to west.
The main kitchen has four combis, a double wok station, three ranges, three bratt pans, two fryers and one tilting kettle boiler. At the west end are three double-door blast chillers. Stepping out of the blast chillers, you come into the plating-up area which has a 4m conveyor belt. From here, the dishes are transported up in four service lifts.
This is all very different from last year, when the Royal Ascot meeting was held in York. There, Sodexho Prestige had to improvise and ended up using the recently vacated manufacturing plant of Chocolate Orange maker Terry's as a preparation area.
In the 265 boxes of the new Ascot grandstand, welcome improvements include coat rails at the entrances topped by a generous shelf for hats. Every box has dedicated kitchen facilities, comprising two turbofan cookers, one fridge and one dishwasher, with two such kitchen units sharing a room between boxes. In the old stand, there was nowhere to store hot food; now, food can be stored in the fridge and heated up before serving. "You will no longer see food and drink being transported around on race days," Golding says.
In its first full year (2007) after the redevelopment, turnover from all hospitality operations is expected to be £24m, compared with £13m in 1998. Sodexho's net profit margin is 5% to 6% for its race business, which also includes operations at Sandown, Epsom and Newbury. Non-race day hospitality is bread-and-butter for the firm, and Johnson says £2m-worth of business and events sales is already on the books at Ascot.
The grandstand has more than 4,000sq m of exhibition space, and a hotel was included in original plans for the redevelopment. But planning permission for the latter was refused because the plot encroached on green belt land. "It was a blow," Johnson says. "For business and events, we'd have much rather had a hotel on site. But, instead of delaying the redevelopment with a change to plans, it was felt, ‘Let's go ahead with the new racecourse'."
Johnson doesn't rule out a hotel in the future. Though running a hotel in the UK would be a new revenue stream for Sodexho, the company does hold hotel management contracts in other parts of the world.
The build-up to Royal Ascot, considered the most glorious five days in the racing calendar, takes months of preparation. To cope with the peaks and troughs of racecourse hospitality, there is a team of 47 permanent staff, but from 20 to 24 June there will be 4,000 staff a day.
With guests in the Parade Ring Restaurant (see panel) paying as much as £1,200 per head for hospitality, high service standards are crucial, and all staff go through two training sessions. Sodexho Prestige has its own recruitment agency, Prestige People, which also sells its services to other firms. There will be an extra 100 chefs this year to make use of the additional kitchens.
On the main public concourses, there are two table-service restaurants with kitchens at each end, and nine catering outlets serving Asian and Italian food, fish-and-chips, seafood and grills. Golding admits that he did wonder where he was going to find the extra staff, but working through the Craft Guild of Chefs got results. "Everyone's interested in Royal Ascot and they want to see the new facilities," he says.
A successful dry run took place on 27 May when sponsors, stakeholders and the press attended a race. But only 8% of the facilities were put into action. With as many as 70,000 hospitality covers and 300,000 race-goers expected, Johnson, Golding and the team are looking forward to the biggest catering operation Royal Ascot has ever seen. Luckily, they now have the kind of back-of-house facilities that such a prestigious contract deserves.
PARADE RING RESTAURANT MENU SAMPLE
Royal Ascot 20 - 24 June 2006
- Ceviche of scallops, quail egg and pepper confetti, prawns and Ki Cho chives, Thai asparagus and Serrano ham, Tomato and greem Tobasco consomme, celery salt tuille
- Chevre and banana pepper ravioli, tomato and pickled shallot fondue, basil foam
- Seated sdiver scallops, sauted lobster linguine, white truffle and lobster veloute
- Blackened fillet of sea bass, crab beignet, shiitake mushroom, baby fennel and capers, and langoustine and vanilla cream
- Roasted artichoke and twicebaked chargrilled souffle, petit ratatouille basil and rapeseed dressing
- Chilled lychee monago and passion fruit soup, basil ice-cream and coconut shortbread
- Bitter chocolate and clementine tart, hot chocolate ice-cream
RACING TIP: GREAT LEIGHS
- Great Leighs in Chelmsford, Essex, will be th efirst new racecourse in the UK for 80 years
- The first race meeting akes place on 6 October
- Sodexho Prestige has secured a 20-year contract as the sole provider of hospitality including concourse catering
- In its first full year (2007), total hospitality turnover is estimated at £5.25m
- The contract includes hospitality packages for as many as 750 diners, 40 corporate boxes, and open-plan public restaurants. Full capacity is 22,000
- Sodexho Prestige has invested £1.3m in kitchens and tableware
- Unlike most racecourses, which host 12 to 40 race days a yhear, Great Leighs all-weather course is expected to hose 100 race days a year.
- The venue can host business events for as many as 1,200 delegates and concerts for 10,000