How to refresh a catering contract at low cost

18 June 2010 by
How to refresh a catering contract at low cost

It's important for caterers to keep customers at long-standing contracts interested by revitalising the offering from time to time, but how can this be done when everyone is short of cash? CH&Co seems to have come up with the answer. Tom Vaughan reports.
Innovation can be in danger of standing still during a recession. Inspiration and creativity can be at a premium, but lack of funds might mean ideas never reach fruition; no one wants to shell out cash in the rough times. So, if you're a contract caterer, how do you convince clients to let you refresh their offering? The answer: you have to do it on a very tight budget. Easier said than done, you might think - but there are examples that can prove otherwise.

Realising that many of its contracts needed rejuvenating, CH&Co (the new name for the umbrella group incorporating Charlton House and its sister companies) set about looking for a means of sprucing up its clients' cafeterias. But how? "Deli bars and restaurants have come full circle," says managing director Caroline Fry. "From looking very pristine once upon a time, people now want them to look more earthy and more friendly. It's a big challenge; to take it away from the clean metals and minimalism might sound mad, but it's the way things are going."

The inspiration cam from co-founder Robyn Jones. Watching developments on the high street, she was enthused by the design of Jamie's Kitchen, the new Italian chain founded by Jamie Oliver. "They have all their produce on display," Jones says. "And at Charlton House we have great ingredients but we hide them away in the refrigerators."

Groceries for sale

High-street restaurants have been steadily using this farmers' market style of design to great effect - the Carluccio's chain of delis has enthused customers for years with its array of Italian groceries for sale, while Jamie's Kitchen, and lately MasterChef presenter Gregg Wallace's Putney restaurant Wallace & Co, have lured in punters with the opportunity to take home fresh produce. Why couldn't this work for a business and industry contract?

In order to convince her colleagues that this was the answer to rejuvenating clients' restaurants, Jones had to take them to the Canary Wharf branch of Jamie's Kitchen on three separate occasions, finally hammering home the potency of such a look. And the most appealing characteristic of the design: it was cheap to accomplish.

"No one wants to spend money in a recession," Fry says. "It's getting better than it was two years ago - people are a bit more relaxed and it's getting easier to convince people that after two years things need to be moved on - but it's still not easy."

To help persuade other sites to adopt the proposed new look, Charlton House offered to pay for the refurbishment for one of its clients: Sony headquarters in Weybridge, Surrey. Spending someone else's money in a recession is hard enough, but spending your own is even more galling. So the new design had to be cheap. How cheap? Well, while the new look was discussed, the company got in a designer to quote on replacing the counter and putting up new signage. The cost he estimated at £12,000. In the end, Charlton House spent a mere £2,000, and has had nothing but positive feedback.

Its prudence meant using what it already had to better effect. The instinct, says Fry, when rejuvenating a cafeteria in pre-recession days was to replace units; do away with the old and bring in flashier, better counters and fridges. That, of course, wasn't an option. To convince other sites that they could achieve the same look, it needed to be realised on a very tight budget. The counters stayed, but the eyes needed to be drawn away from them, so that fresh produce that Jones talks about was brought out front. "People have fallen in love with things like farmers markets," Fry says. "They want to embrace it and they want to embrace British food and ingredients, so why not show off ours."

Second-hand crates were bought, and stained and stencilled at home, then put on display to store the fresh fruit - tomatoes, asparagus, peppers and so on, as well as the different breads. Everything that is on display is used either in the deli or in the staff restaurant.

"The last thing you want is for the new look to be a drain on resources," Fry says. Chains of garlic and chillies hang from shelves, which host a selection of deli goods including tins of olive oil, jars of capers and the like. New chalk-boards with hand-writing-style fonts now spell out customer options, while pots of herbs adorn the counter top.

Everything is very rustic: even the salad leaves are kept in wooden crates in the fridge unit and staff wear olive-green aprons like you'd find in an upmarket grocers. The staff themselves were consulted about and involved in the new look, and the enthusiasm is palpable, helping sell the new-look restaurant to the customers. CH&Co has named the new concept Naturally Good, and so far the 1,100 staff at Sony are delighted, comparing the look to Borough Market and to Jamie's Kitchen.


The plan is to roll out the Naturally Good concept to other CH&Co clients. Of the 130 sites, Fry estimates that 110 are suitable for the concept, and at least half of those will be happy to put up the added cost of refurbishment. While the first Naturally Good site has cost £2,000 to put together, Fry estimates that future ones will come in nearer to £1,000. Although if CH&Co is likely to benefit, it is happy to help out with the cost, says Fry. Already, the deli bar at Sony has seen a 9% upturn in business.

Although one thing Jones and Fry are wary of is moving the concept wholesale to new sites. "It's important they're not all the same," Fry says. "One thing doesn't fit all. You can't just pitch up and drop - places have different fabrics, different walls, different counters and different customers." The pair are conscious that ideas can become clichéd very quickly, and are eager to conjure up some new concepts to introduce to clients. One, a coffee concept also inspired by the high street, they are keeping close to their chests.

When money is short, creativity needs to be a premium. The lesson Naturally Good teaches us that you don't need to have stacks of cash in the coffers to rejuvenate things. In fact, you probably have the resources on site now, you're just not using making the best use out of them. Be resourceful, be attentive, and, most importantly, be creative, and your offering won't stand still during this recession.

Refreshing a contract on a budgeT

Take inspiration from the high street The high street is naturally a contract caterer's biggest competitor. Look what the successful bars and restaurants are doing and how they are designed. But don't copy wholesale: imitate, tweak and adjust for your market.

Be resourceful Rather than buy new props and design elements, use what you already have, such as fresh produce. Don't pay for someone to design what you can design yourself. If you want vegetable crates, buy them and stain them yourself.

Adapt existing structures Use what is already there, such as breakfast or deli bars rather than replacing them. Changing facia or top surfaces can create a completely new effect.

Make sure staff are involved The staff working the restaurant will need to sell the new concept on a daily basis. If they are involved in its conception they will be more eager for customers to enjoy it.

Use a range of seating Particularly in business and industry, seating can be used to create an atmosphere which encourages both socialising and meetings. Variety will make the facility more appealing for longer periods of the day.

Don't rest on your laurels Just because the new look works in one staff restaurant, don't just move it wholesale into the next. Keep evolving and keep involving staff; otherwise the concept will quickly become tired, jaded and even clichéd.

Freshening up Hampton Court PalacE

When Elior came to reconsider its offer at the Privy Kitchen at Hampton Court Palace, it too looked to make fresh produce more visible.

A tired counter meant declining sales, so the firm searched for a more contemporary and appealing appearance. It referred a concept it had developed elsewhere, Phileas, and aimed to couple the best of Phileas with the existing Digby Trout British savoury classics range.

Around £10,000 was spent on the 80-seat café with a focus on fresh, quality ingredients straight from the kitchen. It now displays fresh food on wooden chopping boards, while white writing on the glass counters emphasise the freshness.

"We removed the old counter and the built-in chiller that was previously there, replacing it with a new oak wood surface with a curved glass counter," explains Raymond Santamaria, marketing manager, Concessions (Elior). "The food is displayed on wooden chopping boards, set at different heights and there is no packaging on any of the sandwiches or cakes."

This does much to back up the focus on freshness and since there is no pre-packaged food on display customers really buy into the theme. Sandwiches and cakes are made fresh throughout the day, complemented with a hot plate to sell Tudor sausages, King's ale pies and wild boar stew.

So does the redesign deliver? "So far we are generating about £500 additional sales per week in the unit and expect the refurbishment to pay for itself within a year," Santamaria adds.

The challenge now is for the site to remain fresh, even when the changes have fully bedded in. Elior intends to maintain the vibrancy with consistent delivery combined with new initiatives. It will introduce small bites and sweet bags individually wrapped in site, for customers to take with them on their tour, and is working on developing branded sandwich bags and disposables to reinforce the brand positioning.

Selling a refresh at QVC

Though QVC is moving to a new office in 2012, the online shopping channel wanted to refresh its restaurant to create a sleeker, more welcoming environment. With only two years at the existing location, Compass's executive dining business, Restaurant Associates, wanted to make as much of an impact as cost-effectively as possible.

The south London office houses 550 employees, all of whom have access to the 80-seat restaurant and coffee bar, which meant that as well as being affordable the refurbishment had to be made gradually. The aim was for maximum aesthetic transformation with minimal structural change in order to keep costs low.

Over a six-week period Restaurant Associates went about brightening up the space by repainting the walls in crisp white to reflect the natural light, adding simple wall canvases with food imagery and soft furnishings to create a sense of warmth, informality and identity.

The whole project, funded by QVC, came in at less than £20,000, a significant proportion of which was taken up by new carpet and flooring throughout. Elsewhere, dark vinyl counters were replaced with brushed stainless steel and, while soft seating in the corner was retained, it was enhanced with new co-ordinating green accent cushions to blend into the area and give employees a space in which to relax.


Charlton House's recent rebranding into CH&Co is a significant step in the company's 15-year history. "As we've grown bigger we've acquired lots of different types of business," says co-founder Robyn Jones. "We got to a stage where we didn't know if we were a big small company or a small big company. We wanted to be very specific about where customers could go to get a specific type of contract and the rebranding does that."

Now split into five divisions ("specialisms", the company calls them), Charlton House looks after business and industry sites, Chester Boyd, which was set up by Charles Boyd and acquired by Charlton House in 2007, continues to operate in the livery halls and private venues, Ampersand now looks after the catering at iconic venues such as the Law Society, Lusso provides large-scale corporate hospitality in the City of London, while It's The Agency will launch as a stand-alone bespoke booking service for all venues within the CH&Co group.

The rebranding has been a long time in the making, and the company called in specialists to help divide up and rebrand the separate specialisms. The creativity of Naturally Good is very much the tip of the iceberg for a company fast on the grow. With over £24m of new business and contract retentions secured since January, including a deal at Mansion House estimated to be worth up to £1.5m a year, 2010 could well be a year to remember for the newly named CH&Co.

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