Contract Catering: Singing the company song

15 February 2013
Contract Catering: Singing the company song

Employee engagement is a tough nut to crack at the best of times. But for contract caterers who regularly inherit their staff, almost always operate in "someone else's house" and in multiple locations, the challenges are amplified. How do you ensure your people know who they work for? Siobhan O'Neill finds out

For all the several dozen contract caterers in the UK, there are as many different brand identities and varying approaches to maintaining them. But when you have staff working at sites from Aberdeen to Exeter, and for a wide array of clients each with their own unique identities, how do you ensure that your employees remember who's paying their wages?

"I think it's very easy for staff in contract catering environments to feel like they're left alone, and the further out of London you go the more that happens because operational support is much more spread out," says Chris Mitchell, managing director of the Genuine Dining Company. "We have a very structured way of working, which makes it easier to train staff and to help them feel like they're a part of Genuine Dining.

"We buddy them up with sites nearby where they can go to learn the products from people who've been doing it a long time and build that relationship. Our offer is the same in every single site, giving them a product specification to work towards and that definitely helps them become more positive about our brand, so they're working more for us than the client that we're catering for."

Belonging to a team Staff need to strike the balance between remembering their service is for the client, while knowing that they are a part of the contracting team; but, importantly, they need to feel as if they belong to that team.

Noel Mahony, chief executive of BaxterStorey, agrees. He says communication is key to ensuring that employees are kept up to date on company developments, and also that they feel able to participate and offer feedback.

BaxterStorey has a range of methods for staying in touch with staff: the company uses an intranet site that features a weekly magazine called The Hob with key information from health and safety to recipes and news, as well as internal vacancies and details of staff benefits schemes. It's in the process of upgrading the system to include a live chat function to increase interactivity and sharing of ideas between sites. The caterer's regional operations managers, who each have 12 sites in their patch, also like to switch staff between units for short periods to encourage a cross-fertilisation of knowledge and skill.

Expertise is also shared through the company's Food File scheme, where around 20 sites will meet with a BaxterStorey executive chef and the regional managing directors to showcase their individual innovations over the quarter, as well as socialise over a glass of wine. It fosters healthy competition and friendliness between units that ensures the whole business runs more smoothly. "All of these things enable our people to feel that they are not just isolated in a client site and are part of an organisation that actually shares ideas and really looks after and cares for their people," Mahony says.

With fewer employees, the Genuine Dining Company also likes staff to feel valued. "We make sure that all the managers and staff can contact us so 
we give them our mobile numbers and business cards. They can phone us for a chat, 
it doesn't matter what it's about," Mitchell says. "We get phone calls from junior staff who've come up with a good idea and we love that! And if they come up with an idea and we roll it out across the whole group, that helps people feel like they're involved in what we're doing," he says.

"On Brand" Of course, keeping employees "on brand" is easier when they've chosen to work for you, but how easy is it to induct whole units of staff into the company when they're being TUPE'd over on a new contract? Especially if they're burdened with a 'but we've always done it this way' mentality?

"Sometimes when staff have been TUPE'd over to us they've become browbeaten by the old ways, but when they see a company that cares about the food and can buy fresh, good-quality products it re-engages them. And they go 'Wow! Food should be exciting!'" says Harbour & Jones director Patrick Harbour.

With outposts in London, Scotland, Manchester, Birmingham and Somerset, the Harbour & Jones management team have a schedule to ensure that all their sites are 
visited regularly. They give new people a 
flavour of the company culture by running a London gastro-tour, where participants 
are encouraged to buy a product they think 
will work well at their unit, and, where 
appropriate, those items will be added to the offer.

Once a year they bring everyone to a summer party, and all employees get "1UP" cards handwritten by both Harbour and co-director Nathan Jones, thanking them for their hard work on each anniversary of their joining.

For the majority of staff, enthusiasm will flourish as trust builds in an environment where they feel listened to and where they can have some fun, but every so often disenfranchisement will build - sometimes in a unit manager - and their loyalties switch to the client: also known as "going native".

"In most instances this happens when they didn't get the support they require from their employer," Mitchell says. "The turning point is when the manager has no choice but to ask their client for help, support or advice. We make sure we build a fantastic relationship with our managers by involving them with our business and giving them the tools they need and the support to do their jobs properly," he says.

Mahony has a simple formula. "You absolutely cannot lie to anybody. You can't sit in front of them and say 'There are not going to be many changes, or we're not going to reduce the numbers of staff or change the ways of doing things' and then do it, because they will never trust you again. But when they're on board I don't have a problem with their loyalty to the client because that can pay huge dividends for us," he says.

BaxterStorey Inducting inherited staff into the company culture

No strangers to TUPE, in 2012 BaxterStorey took 1,450 people into the company via the process. More than half of those staff came via a contract for Royal Bank of Scotland. That's a lot of people to induct and expect to quickly adopt the company's culture.

Eighteen senior employees made certain to speak with every member of staff and talked them through the transition process.

Employees were told what would happen from day one of the new service, what had been agreed with the client in terms of the look and feel, 
as well as the company watchwords. Importantly, they were told the specific training they would receive in the first three to six months that would enable them to make the journey to becoming a BaxterStorey employee.

"You have to do it on an individual by individual basis," says chief executive Noel Mahony. "Some people come on board really quickly; others take a little bit more time, but they do that by having good leadership, good training and good people."

Company of Cooks Aligning with the client

Company of Cooks won the contract for the Royal Opera House (ROH) from Searcys, a company with a strong branding presence, but founder Mike Lucy prefers a way of working that mimics the client brand. Now employees work under the collaborative name of Royal Opera House Restaurants, which he feels provides a more seamless experience for ROH visitors, from cloaks to bar to dining.

Lucy felt most staff saw the intelligence of the new approach and were quick to adopt it. But to ensure a smooth transition, management team member Jackie Nairn ran a series of one-to-one and team discussions to better understand how the staff were working, before beginning a process of information, education and training, particularly around familiarising the team with the new drinks offer and menu that they would be preparing and serving.

"We even took them out for a beer. Anything to get that momentum going because you have to do things that enable people to take it, and move on with it and work together organically. You can't spell it out in newsletters alone," Lucy says.

Subsequently they took team managers and supervisors to visit the company kitchens and see first-hand the scale and quality of the work. "It made them feel better about the company," Lucy says. "It's showing them things they hadn't had properly explained to them."

Tips for keeping employees "on brand"

Teamwork Away-days and team events help to foster morale, boost interactivity and give employees a better sense of their employer's style and culture.

Be honest with them about how their jobs might change and how you will support them.

Information and training
Give staff the tools and resources they need to do the job. Fun
Employees respond well to an environment where they're allowed to be relaxed, and customers like to see friendly, smiling faces.

Ensure staff know what's expected of them and what they can expect in return. Community
Bringing people together, recognising and rewarding achievements and allowing employees to let their hair down all helps them feel valued and builds loyalty.

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