The Association of Catering Excellence and The Caterer asked foodservice's movers and shakers to discuss the industry's best assets and upcoming challenges. Katey Pigden reports
Several misconceptions surround the contract catering industry and it's often not given the recognition it deserves, according to a group of young professionals working in the foodservice sector.
Earlier this year, the Association of Catering Excellence (ACE), which describes itself as a "lively and innovative foodservice networking organisation," held a roundtable event at Lusso's Club Lounge 39 in Canary Wharf, east London, to discuss some of the challenges the industry faces and what attracts people into the world of contract catering.
From chefs to managers and account directors, 12 individuals from companies including the likes of BaxterStorey, Restaurant Associates, Sodexo and Vacherin came together to discuss the draws and drawbacks of food- service, compared to other areas of hospitality.
Robert Burden, HR business partner at CH&Co Group, said: "It's the nature of our industry that most of the fantastic work we do is behind the scenes. We need to get it into the public eye a bit more."
But as Tilly Morgan, a consultant at Troika Recruitment pointed out, describing contract catering to people can often prove a difficult job in itself. "It's often misconceived," she said. "People don't really understand it."
Nikki Low, head chef at international law firm Ince & Co, one of Vacherin's clients, echoed the idea that there's a misconception of the industry. "People don't know what we do and don't seem keen on the idea of contract catering," he said.
The former head chef at the Warrington hotel in Maida Vale previously worked as a chef de partie, sous chef and head chef within Gordon Ramsay Holdings. "If I knew what contract catering was about before, I would have left restaurants a lot sooner," he said.
"As a chef I feel you get a greater amount of freedom in the foodservice sector, with more flexibility in terms of food and working hours. There's also more support within the hierarchy as people higher up the chain still like to be hands on."
Ming Lai, regional manager for Restaurant Associates, said: "There are now more Michelin-starred chefs on our side of the industry. There's certainly a better work-life balance to be found in contract catering.
"In order to change perceptions, we have to start with our customers. We need to convince them we are not just staff canteens," he said.
Jessica Clark, general manager of Lusso, added: "Some of our clients don't like us mentioning the site, which can make it difficult to explain to people what we do. Contract catering builds relationships with customers as it's the same people coming in, whereas in a restaurant, you may only see someone once."
Bid manager for Bartlett Mitchell, Hannah Carmichael, explained that there's a strong focus on doing things as a team within contract catering, but that there are also plenty of opportunities for individuals to develop.
Marlies Hoogeboom, account director at Sodexo, said the sector has evolved and become more sophisticated over the years."Expectations have changed and it's more interesting now," she said.
Barriers to entry
The hospitality industry as a whole can often struggle to attract people to pursue a career within the sector but, as many of the roundtable participants argued, foodservice presents some challenges of its own. The group highlighted that the sector is relatively unknown to those outside the industry and that even those looking to enter hospitality are told very little.
Martin Holden-White, business development executive at BaxterStorey, first become interested in catering as a result of his food tech classes. Despite studying an international hospitality management course at Oxford Brookes University, he said there was hardly any mention of foodservice from guest speakers and most career talks revolved around getting jobs in hotels or restaurants.
Paul Matthews, head chef at Vacherin, argued that some chefs could be put off the idea of contract catering because it's considered "too safe".The 2016 Acorn Award winner, who also won the ACE Ready Steady Cook competition last year with Vacherin colleague Steven Lickley, said: "Chefs love discipline and service. They enjoy working in a pressured environment and some may feel they won't experience that in contract catering."
Daniele Quattromini, manager of Club Lounge 39 for Lusso, said there was no reason why people couldn't think of working in both contract catering and restaurants throughout their career. He said the industry also needs to be more confident in letting younger people run a business. "Everyone wants progression, but the younger generation wants it quicker and, in some areas, it feels like a case of having to wait to fill a dead man's shoes," he said.
The 2015 Gold Service Scholarship winner said there also needs to be more role models for young people to look up to. "We should see school pupils and not just graduates to attract more people into the industry," he said. "I also think that organisations should promote competitions to their team to raise standards."
William Cane, graduate trainee manager at ISS, said he felt the industry was good at providing opportunities for people to develop and stressed the importance of feeding back ideas.
The group also discussed pay levels within the sector and said the low pay structure within hospitality could tempt potential candidates to look elsewhere.
All participants were keen to have a greater involvement in the wider industry, but some argued that younger employees are rarely told about events and networking opportunities.
Michael Burchmore, co-founder and director of Wilcox Burchmore, said: "Unfortunately price will determine if people get to go to certain events and that could prevent them from being as active as they would like."
Paul Hurren, who became chair of ACE in July 2015, said: "It's our duty to connect and do more with the industry. We're trying to attract the younger generation with initiatives and competitions such as Ready Steady Cook and the ACE Robyns."
The managing director of Lusso said he is working hard to make the association more appealing to the next generation of catering professionals. Speaking about the roundtable, he said: "This is the first time we have done something like this to find out what is important to you. Hospitality is not usually considered a career of choice, but we need to try and change that mindset and shout more about this wonderful industry. It's great to see people want to be more involved."
He added: "We used to be called industrial caterers before the term contract caterers, but perhaps it should be ‘workplace dining' instead. If we change the language we use, it might help change the perception people have."
The history of ACE
The Industrial Catering Association (ICA) started in 1937, when contract catering was first introduced. During the 1970s the ICA joined the European Catering Association.
In 2006 it was decided that the needs of the UK members differed from that of the parent group and it was agreed that a new organisation was required. The ECA evolved into ACE and the current Association of Catering Excellence was formed.
The main objective of ACE is to get staff at all levels within the catering industry networking and having fun together. The membership includes a cross-section of managers, chefs, consultants, students and suppliers from the hospitality and foodservice sector.
Throughout the year, ACE runs a series of events, including Ready Steady Cook, wine tasting dinners, an annual quiz night and a summer party.
The ACE Council is made up of people working within the foodservice sector and the whole council meets around four times a year, with further sub-committees organising individual events.
Michael Burchmore, co-founder and director, Wilcox Burchmore
Robert Burden, HR business partner, CH&Co Group
Hannah Carmichael, bid manager, Bartlett Mitchell
William Cane, graduate trainee manager, ISS
Jessica Clark, general manager, Lusso
Martin Holden-White, business development executive, BaxterStorey
Paul Hurren, ACE chair
Marlies Hoogeboom, account director, Sodexo
Ming Lai, regional manager, Restaurant Associates
Nikki Low, head chef, Vacherin
Paul Matthews, head chef, Vacherin
Tilly Morgan, consultant, Troika Recruitment
Daniele Quattromini, manager, Club Lounge 39, Lusso
Ready Steady Cook
This year's ACE Ready Steady Cook competition will take place at East Wintergarden in Canary Wharf on 22 September.
As well as the new open-plan venue, the event will focus on the next generation of chefs, with teams of two being required to include one chef under the age of 25. It will also feature additional facilities such as the use of an oven instead of just an induction hob.
Organisers say the new format will offer better networking and extended supplier opportunities.
Street food stands will also be provided and the event will help support ACE's chosen charity, the Wiggly Worm, which aims to improve health, wellbeing and self-esteem among the vulnerable and disadvantaged.