The world of contract and event catering has become increasingly fluid over the past decade. Not only have the contract catering big boys infiltrated the event catering world by buying up smaller event specialists, but recent speculation has suggested that retailers (and Mark & Spencer in particular) may be about to enter the arena as well.
All this heaps pressure on what is already a crowded market. In the capital alone, there are about 150 event catering firms. Competition has led to price-cutting as smaller companies try to get a toehold in the market, and John Stockton, managing director of event caterer Moving Venue Caterers (MVC), believes this has given the venues and organisers the upper hand. "A leading event manager told me he could buy in catering at any price," he says. "The market is such that he can find something to meet any budget."
Add the combined weight of these upstart companies to the potential arrival of M&S, and it's not surprising the more established operators are looking around at where they might do business next.
An interesting example comes from MVC itself, which earlier this year was invited to provide the food at Jonathan Downey's two highly acclaimed Soho private members' cocktail bars, Milk and Honey and the Player. Downey ate MVC's food at the Observer Food Awards (where MVC was doing the catering) and was so impressed that he immediately decided it was just what his two bars needed.
"We had a reputation for exceptional cocktails, but I was convinced we weren't doing it for food," says Downey. "I know we can't attract passionate chefs when 80% of our sales are wet, but I still wanted the food to match. To be great, you have to get a lot of things right - not just one or two."
Technology With the new partnership, Downey gets to tap into MVC's better food production technology, its ideas and innovation, and its desire to deliver the very best product. "They are used to getting judged by their last event," says Downey, "so they are constantly looking at what they do, which is really important."
For Stockton, there is massive kudos attached to the contract. Event caterers have traditionally lived in the shadow of high-profile restaurants so this is a chance for MVC to garner greater recognition. "People just haven't heard of event caterers," he says, "but if we say we do the food at Milk and Honey, everyone says, ‘Ooh, yes, I've always wanted to go there'."
The financial arrangements are fairly simple - "a loose handshake," as Downey calls it. There is no fixed length to the contract, which will be assessed each year, and the food is produced in MVC's production kitchen and then sold to the two bars at cost price, so that Downey is paying for labour and food. A chef (on Downey's payroll) finishes the food on site, where it is sold through the bars' tills. At the end of the year, the profits are shared.
So far, the reaction from the members is positive. Food wasn't served at the Player before, but Downey says customers are enjoying the new offer, which includes gazpacho shots, halloumi and artichoke skewers, butternut squash parcels, chips with home-made ketchup and pork-and-cpe sausages. He is even considering expanding the arrangement to include the other venues in his Match group of bars. "MVC has totally removed the headache of food," says Downey. "I have six sites in London and one in the Alps - so there is a lot more we could do."
Partnership Looking at the bigger picture, this partnership represents something quite new. Although there are many examples of event caterers taking on more long-term contracts - think of Tate Catering at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, or Chester Boyd at the City of London's Butchers' Hall - what is different about this is that it involves a bar, where, in the case of Milk and Honey, food was already being served.
"What is interesting about this move is that it's an event caterer going into a bar and nightclub," says Charles Boyd, managing director of Chester Boyd. "It's like a restaurant outsourcing its cooking."
Boyd says that this is not as bizarre as it sounds, and could be a real opportunity for catering companies in the future. "It's the type of thing which could happen even more," he says. "Ultimately, there could be a restaurant company which thought that all it really wants to offer is an experience - to just be property managers, the way hotels have started to be run."
The hotel outsourcing model is a good example. "Just as hotels have farmed out their fine-dining restaurants," says Stockton, "there's no reason for them not to farm out their banqueting permanently too - beyond just for special occasions or because of religious or dietary requirements. We've already had hotels approach us, but we have never done anything about it - yet. But in the next two or three years it will happen."
When it does, could the floodgates be opened for event caterers to move into, as Stockton puts it, "the manor" of the established catering giants? "We always used to perceive food as just the serving of it," he says, "but in reality we simply provide a complete catering solution. The fact we have done it up to now at specific event venues is neither here nor there. It would be no different if we went into a big bank like UBS and asked them what they would like."
That is not going to happen overnight, however. Event caterers talk a lot about "cultural fit", and one of the main reasons why the partnership with Milk and Honey and the Player is working is because the two companies share traits: a relatively small scale, a focus on the more glamorous end of the market, and a willingness to operate under the aforementioned "loose arrangement".
Dealing with a huge corporate bank would have different demands, and Stockton accepts that, to begin with, his vision might only suit certain types of client. "It would only happen with the more creative companies," he says, "because we'd be able to do something truly different. Rather than bring in a Starbucks, we might say, ‘There's this amazing caf on the Amalfi Coast - let's copy it'."
As he recognises, that kind of innovation is difficult to manage on a large scale without losing its original appeal. There is an opinion in the industry, for instance, shared by Stockton, that event caterers such as Payne and Gunter, which was purchased by Compass in 1996, change forever once they're taken over by a bigger company. "At the beginning of the nineties," recalls Stockton, "Payne and Gunter was the dominant force in the market, very good at what it did and very busy - but as far as being competition, they're now off our radar."
Payne and Gunter has, though, become the biggest caterer at racecourses since it was bought by Compass. According to Tony Horton, managing director of food service consultant Tri-Con, this has inevitably been at the expense of its other contracts. "They are very accomplished and are a very important player in that world," he says. "However, there is some confusion from the client now as to what sort of company they are dealing with."
Horton adds that since event catering has become fashionable - almost as much about entertainment as simply catering - increasingly, clients at venues want a more personal service. "At the prestige end of the market, caterers go in and out of fashion now and in and out of favour with different venues," he says. "If you are a smaller company with a dynamic owner, then you can bring something more special."
The crux for the smaller company looking to expand therefore is to keep control - of quality, personnel, accounting and training. The problem with control is that it can lead to restraints - "I don't want to be told by some accountant in Leeds what chocolates I can buy," says Stockton. This means sticking with those clients that match your own standards and ambitions - and by implication your own expectation of cost - whether that is in their traditional market or not. "As long as we are able to do what is right for the customer, we'll give it a shot," says Stockton.
These are the challenges, but the benefits are also there to be reaped. Apart from financial gain, Stockton feels the new arrangement will enrich MVC in future environments. "What's good for us is the cross-fertilisation," he says. "We can now take stuff we do with Milk and Honey to our other clients. It gives us more depth."
Downey agrees, saying the industry should look even more closely at similar partnerships. "Bringing together complementary skills happens everywhere else, apart from in this industry," he says. "We all get a bit precious about brands, but I'm happy to admit that they can do it better. I'm not sure there are enough people in this industry who do."
If the market is indeed becoming more fluid, this is just the kind of flexible thinking companies might need to survive.
Moving Venue Caterers
Employs: 25 permanent staff
Annual turnover: About £5m
Managing director: John Stockton (pictured)
Executive chef: Manuel Martin
Contracts (examples): Natural History Museum (including ice rink), Tower of London, Victoria & Albert Museum
The Moving Venue Caterers Ltd
Unit 10, Deptford Trading Estate, Blackhorse Road, London SE8 5HY
020 8691 6661
Milk and Honey
61 Poland Street, London W1F 7NU
8 Broadwick Street, London W1F 8HN