If you want a boring career, look away now. With contract catering you could find yourself anywhere - in a City dining room, on an oil rig, in a school, on a racecourse, at an airport… or pretty much anywhere that takes your fancy. Rosalind Mullen reports.
Contract caterers have to work hard to win new business, and that makes the industry a very competitive one - which means they need to recruit good staff. There are some great opportunities out there: you could find yourself working anywhere - in an executive fine-dining room, on an oil rig, at an airport or railway station or in a school
It's almost impossible to pigeonhole a career in contract catering. You could start as a chef on an oil rig and end up being operations manager for an international caterer. You could join as a waitress and find yourself being offered the opportunity to train as a sommelier.
That's because contract catering is a competitive business where companies rely on winning contracts from rival firms for their success. And to do that, they need to nurture skilled staff who enjoy the challenge of working with both clients and customers.
No wonder, then, that it's peopled by smart professionals who enjoy good pay, sociable hours and a career development plan. It's no secret that many ambitious professionals move into it from other hospitality sectors because they want to get their life back - let's face it, impossibly long shifts and weekend work are almost unheard of in a business and industry or education contract.
What's getting harder, however, is being able to pinpoint exactly what contract catering is. You'll find it everywhere - from executive fine-dining rooms to restaurants, airports to train stations, staff dining rooms to oil rigs, race courses to museums, hospitals to schools, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) … and so it goes.
Operators are becoming equally difficult to pin down, too. There are the big boys such as Sodexo, Compass, Elior and Aramark; large independents such as BaxterStorey and Charlton House; and small players such as Vacherin and Bartlett Mitchell. Then there are niche party animals such as Rhubarb or Admirable Crichton. And, as you will see below, there are recognised in-house caterers to consider, too.
As a career choice, there is something for everyone, ranging from craft level in the kitchen, through to operations, marketing, area managers and directors. And it's quite possible to start off back of house and end up in head office.
THE CONTRACT CATERER
Who? Toby Hartley, 31
What? General manager
Which contract? Catering and Hospitality Services, British Medical Association, London
How did your passion for hospitality begin?
When I was 15 I washed glasses for the bar manager at Silverstone racecourse and I found I loved the industry. I carried on working through school and while I studied for a BA (Hons) Hospitality & Tourism Management at Anglia Polytechnic University, which included two six-month stints at golf and country clubs in the USA.
Tell us what you do today
I oversee the contract at the British Medical Association, which includes an 80-seat café, 110-seat restaurant serving 600 employees and 400 tenants, 26 external hire conference rooms and 18 internal conference rooms. I oversee a staff of 40 and four managers report directly to me.
How long have you worked for BaxterStorey?
Nine years, and I've gained regular promotion since my first role as a senior operations manager. Before that I worked for Sodexo Prestige as a senior operations manager - again at Silverstone - and I've also had experience of working in hotels.
Why do you enjoy working in contract catering?
I found hotels too regimented, but contract catering gives me a chance to make a difference. It's very broad and diverse and I love the people development side of it.
We hear the hours are shorter than in hotels?
Well, in the autumn and winter there are more conferences so I work longer hours, but in the summer it is quieter. I've got two young children so I try to spend some part of the day with them and I get most weekends off.
But you find time to get involved in industry incentives, too?
Yes, I'm in the process of becoming a Springboard Ambassador through BaxterStorey's Adopt a School programme to promote future managers. I won the Olive Barnett award in 2008 and I'm now working with the Savoy Gastronomes to establish an Olive Barnett alumni organisation to help young people in the industry.
Any advice on how you got where you are today?
I think you should work hard and study hard. I believe you need formal training to go far - whether that is on the job or at college. You also need to get your hands dirty and work your way up - to combine the practical with the theory. And get support from mentors in the industry - I had invaluable support from Robin Shepherd of Bespoke Hotels.
What's your ambition?
I would like to be as successful as Mr Baxter and Mr Storey. They are great role models and are still passionate about their industry. Like them, I'd love to start my own business in the future.
BaxterStorey in a nutshell
- The largest independent contract caterer in the UK.
- Growing company - gone from 304 accounts in 2004 to 926 in 2008.
- Feeds staff at many blue-chip companies, including English National Opera, ITV and Ernst & Young.
- Award-winning green programmes are in place.
THE IN-HOUSE CATERER
Who? Daniela Mandt, 25
What? Junior F&B manager
Where?Victory Services Club, London
Give us the lowdown
I am half German and half Brazilian. I came to the UK five years ago and got this job after four weeks. I started as a housekeeper and moved on to being F&B assistant and then I was promoted to F&B supervisor. I did nine months training in the restaurant and events departments and became junior F&B manager three months ago.
Tell us about the Victory Club
The club is a hotel, restaurant and bar for retired and serving members of all three of the Armed Forces. There are 10 chefs, 20 in the F&B team and I work in the restaurant and bar as well as in the conference and events function rooms.
What about your responsibilities?
I work 40 hours a week and have responsibility to oversee service for 50-70 people. If there are 250 guests I am supervised by the senior manager.
Sounds as if the company has helped you to realise your potential
Yes, this company provides a lot of training and I've learned a lot. Incentives include a staff buddy scheme for new employees, lots of staff social events and awards to recognise excellent customer service.
And will you continue training?
Next year, I plan to go to go to the University of Westminster or Thames Valley University to study hospitality. If possible, I would like to continue working here.
What's your goal?
I enjoy working in contract catering. A lot of our regular members are older and I feel I'm serving friends. However, I hope to work as an F&B manager in a big hotel one day.
So there is lots of scope for you
Absolutely. This industry has so much variety. You can work anywhere in the world - in a hotel, on a cruise ship - anywhere.
What qualities do you need?
To do well in this business I think you need to be communicative and able to anticipate what the guest wants and how they want to be treated. You need to have a smile and to be willing to exceed expectations.
Victory Services Club in a nutshell
- A club for 36,000 members of the Armed Forces with an in-house catering team.
- 191 hotel bedrooms, restaurant, bar and eight events rooms.
- It has won many staff training accolades and two categories in the Caterer & Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work 2009 awards.
- It champions the new hospitality diplomas.
- It has a 97% staff satisfaction ratio.
BEST PLACES TO WORK 2009
Where better to find your dream employer than by checking out the winners of Caterer and Hotelkeeper's Best Places to Work:
- The Victory Services Club picked up two awards - the Individual Unit Award and Innovation in Retention & Talent Management Award (for more information see page 52).
- Connect Catering won the Contract Catering category. What sets this employer apart is that communication lines are short, allowing management to keep in regular contact with employees and ensure they feel a valued part of the company. Training, award schemes, loan schemes and other benefits are all in place at the company, which has ambassador status with Investors in People.
OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS TRAINING
To get an idea of the calibre of training available at top contract caterers, check out a few examples of what's on offer.
Former Michelin-starred chef David Cavalier, who is the company's food innovations director, offers young chefs comprehensive training programmes. These include:
- "Going for gold", a skills-based training programme, which has three levels of competency - bronze, silver and gold. Although it is an in-house initiative, Charlton House is working with the Applied Ability Awards (AAA) for external assessments.
- A number of chefs are also completing NVQs in Food Preparation and Production, either through local colleges or through a current trial of an external company that carries out the assessments onsite.
- Back to Front, a programme that helps chefs move from back of house to front of house through developing their managerial skills. The training programme incorporates every aspect of a chef-manager role from food presentation, taste and knowledge, to costing and financial responsibility, accounting, health and safety issues and man-management skills. There are currently eight chefs on the programme, which takes about 12-18 months to complete. Four have come through the programme and are now in managerial positions at the company.
- To inspire and train the next generation of chefs, the company has teamed up with Michelin-starred chef John Campbell and has launched its own Chefs Academy. It has recently produced its first batch of graduates.
- Formal graduate schemes and management training is available at most of the big companies. Sodexo's Aspire Management Programme is a four-part training scheme that helps talented professionals progress from the first line of management through to executive roles - if that's where they want to go.
- The company supports staff through NVQ and SVQ training as well as City & Guilds