The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Mike Lucy, Company of Cooks

23 November 2012
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Mike Lucy, Company of Cooks

It has been three years since Company of Cooks surprised the catering world when it won the sought-after £52m food and drinks contract at the Royal Opera House. Janie Manzoori-Stamford speaks to founder Mike Lucy about building a business from scratch and his unique approach to venue catering

What inspired you to follow a hospitality career? I bought a book on the cooking of Burgundy when I was 12 years old and on holiday with the family and I had a crack at making a beef bourguignon. God knows what it actually tasted like but my parents were typically complimentary. The feedback gave me the appetite for making people feel good through some kind of hospitality.
That's the proper aim of any person in this kind of business: to exceed expectations and to have your customers leave in a better mood than when they arrived.

What was your background prior to founding Company of Cooks? I worked for contract caterer Grand Metropolitan. My first apprenticeship management type job was at the headquarters of the British Railways Board (now the Landmark Hotel) in Marylebone, where they had about 10 different levels of eating associated with their incredible management structure.

I was very lucky. My boss encouraged me and others in his management team to get out once a month and go to some of the better restaurants in London at the time, like Carriers in Camden Passage, Islington, and Kevin Kennedy at Boulestin in the piazza of Covent Garden. That very genuinely was what really opened my eyes to the business of enjoying hospitality at that level, and the excitement of trying to provide it.

After that I did a variety of senior roles at regional and national levels for two businesses, including Grand Met after it had become Compass Group, and Kennedy Brooks, a London restaurants and regional hotels business that was later acquired by Forte. I'd ended up back in a big company again and felt that I needed to do something on my own account.

How did you go from wanting to run your own business to winning your first contract?
I used to go walking at Kenwood, Hampstead, most weekends. It has an amazing estate but back in 1995 it had really poor catering. I contacted English Heritage and asked them to consider me the next time there was an opportunity to do the catering. Nothing happened for six to 12 months until the business running the operation went bust. I was still working at the time but I put together a very enthusiastic pitch for it. Afterwards I was told I was successful because I recognised the opportunity to provide quality to the type of people who had the time and money to spend when they were getting the type of food and service that they want.

They also saw that I was dependent on its success and would work as hard as possible. And that's what we did, winning the contract again two years later. We took that business from about half a million in turnover to over £2m and we still have it now.

How did you first finance the business? Sold the house, rented, and used the proceeds. I'm quite traditional and felt that we didn't want to be in hock to the bank. That was probably a fairly naïve judgement but it worked. Our investment at that time was about £140,000, mainly in kitchens and front of house servery equipment. We couldn't have made this bold move without the support of my family.

Bank managers were quite limited and cautious at that time and of course the thing about our business in comparison to the restaurants and high-street brands is there's no leasehold or property value available as security against lending. The banks call it cash-flow lending, which effectively means they're lending against your future trading performance and most of them do not like it.

Do you borrow from the bank these days? We use overdrafts because of the scale of the business and also because we have seasonality. We have our business outdoors, which generally peaks in the spring to autumn seasons and dies in the winter, so we have facilities to allow us to maximise our use of money, but no specific lending.

We balanced our business. We originally started trading in outdoor locations but now across our £32m turnover, half of it is traded indoors, half is traded outdoors; half of it is in food and half of it is in drinks. We've got to an equilibrium that I think is important.

Is that a common split between food and drink? I don't think so. I suspect other businesses, such as Benugo, Peyton & Byrne and Harbour & Jones, will take more in the hot drinks, soft drinks and food department. Our business at the Opera House and at the South Bank Centre means a good proportion of our revenue is from licensed drinks. That's a good place to be.

Do you think your approach to funding is one that could be emulated in today's economy? It comes down to a person's sense of confidence, opportunity and priorities. I certainly don't think someone should take the route that creates a level of discomfort that affects their thinking about their business.

I've been a critic in the past of people in this or similar businesses that think about the money first. If you do that, it's bound to have some sort of negative effect on the quality of your offer, service or generosity. If you've done a reasonable deal and you've got a good location, the money will take care of itself. Those that over-leverage their situation, or have a culture of money men in their company, often end up in a bad place, one where there's not enough pride in what you're doing.

We could be more profitable if we thought just about the money but only for a short period of time. We're here to grow, remain independent and try and achieve a position whereby the Company of Cooks business and name can continue for a long time.

What is your impression of the market over the past 10 years? With the greatest respect to the late Digby Trout - he was a wonderful guy and a pioneer in our industry - but it's so sad that people like him and Michael Milburn established these types of businesses, sold them and they completely evaporated. There's no sustainable footprint that follows them and I think that's quite sad. One of the ways that I'm trying to avoid that is by not having a business with my name on it. It's a team game and in my view it's ill-advised to make it too dependent on an individual.

How do you form a successful relationship with your client? It's a hobby horse of ours but I think we're one of the few that publicly and habitually talk about them as business partners, not clients. The most important commodities behind a successful business model are mutual respect between both partners and a shared vision. We work particularly well where that exists because we naturally want and are allowed to take a good amount of ownership. It's not just the planning and decision-making about what's going on the plate and in the glass, but also the ways in which the host operation can enable the food and drink enterprise to do better, whether it is house management, maintenance investment, box office ticketing, websites or marketing. All of those things happen really well if you feel equal in the enterprise.

Can you give me an example of that shared vision in action? We're going through an immense campaign at the Opera House. From day one we lobbied Lord Hall, the chief executive of the Opera House, to create a programme for the food and drink that moves in personality, content and price with the programme of 300 performances of 30-40 productions that are put on each year.

What we inherited from Searcys, and I'm not being critical, was a very static situation. So whether you came for a low ticket price ballet or a high ticket price top-cast AÁ¯da, it would be the same menu, same price. That kind of thing varies in most other parts of the real trading world, from an airline flight to a retail shop.

To enable that to happen, and to be able to let people know that what is on offer varies with the programme, we've had to go through a lot of development and change with the Opera House.

Have you had to approach venue catering with a different mind-set? We've taken what was a restaurants and bars management and culture and changed it to an event catering mentality. This helps because the whole thing is about creating a joined-up special experience and event caterers with a one-take culture are good at that, whereas restaurateurs sometimes say "Hmm, we got that wrong but we'll do it better tomorrow".

Our method has also changed. We plan and prep for each of our evenings as though it's an event. We consider things like matinees, five o'clock starts, five-hour operas, no intervals and all manner of variables, with a spreadsheet that takes every performance and translates that audience into all the possible eating and drinking opportunities and matches them to performances.

Was there a need for investment in technology to support the change in working style? For several years we've prioritised and continued to try and do our best in three areas we consider most important to being competitive: food and its continuous development; people; and IT, which years ago I recognised as absolutely vital because your average caterer has a relatively low appetite for it and I thought we could perhaps seek advantage. Technology is relatively cheap these days but there is real value in the information and time it releases for your management.

We wanted to catch up with the high-street world and now we have web-based labour and sales planning, HR systems, web-based F&B systems and brand-new accounting software. We pieced this all together - quite painfully, I hasten to add. A lot of people underestimate the man hours involved in getting it set up properly. You've got to commit a lot of time, effort and determination. Most people probably give up or leave it as a botched job and that doesn't provide any value.

A couple of years ago you signed Pierre Koffmann as a consultant. Is he still working with you? No, it was only for a six-month period, though there was an option to run it for three years. He and Henry Harris from Racine, who has been working with us for the past seven years, helped us with the Opera House project and then Pierre went on to open his restaurant at the Berkeley. The six months he worked with us were fantastic.

The Company of Cooks philosophy is to work with superior talent, and that may be in the restaurant world, but we have the attitude, the culinary team and the technology to take that and turn it into really useful content.

Who else have you worked with? Most recently we've been working with Claire Clark, who has developed the puddings for the autumn/winter menus here. She has done a terrific pastry range, which is produced out of our craft pastry and bread kitchens in West London, and she has also developed an afternoon tea offer that we're planning to introduce next year. I'm hoping she's going to stay with us forever because we get on very well and she has become increasingly influential in all that we do with our food. The pastry kitchen is the hardest section. It's the one where if you get the detail wrong it shows so easily and it's also the one where the greatest amount of preparation and discipline is required. I've just summed up all the things that are important to anything that you do.

Earlier this year Las Iguanas chairman Ian Neill came on board as chairman of Company of Cooks. What prompted that? I don't have the knowledge and experience to be the chairman of this company. I haven't done it before, so what is it I possess that makes me think I can do it? Whereas he chaired Wagamama from one site to 200, he has chaired other companies and most importantly provided leadership and advice to chief executives. Ian combines business savvy and experience with tremendous enthusiasm for the subject matter and the satisfaction of the customer. He's a caterer as well as a businessman. It's not just about the money; it's about enjoying it as well. With that kind of strength added to the business platform that we've built I think we're in a position to grow.

What's next? After we took on the Royal Opera House we decided we'd go pretty quiet and do a bit of what I call growing up with our growth. We needed to grow the management structure, the back office resources and get through the period of about three or four years in which we grew from being a £7m business to around £30m, which was quite a challenge.

We've got a couple of opportunities to add new retail developments to our existing contracts at the South Bank centre and the Opera House. We've recently submitted for a tender in the Parks and Gardens market and we're hoping to grow further in the museums sector.

We're also looking to pitch for more venues and events business, which now makes up about £4m of our turnover and we've had a look at feeding people at work. The sector is moving much more to a high-street standard.

Why diversify? My responsibility, with Ian's help, is to broaden our base but not diminish our act; to be true to what we do and not attempt to do things we can't or shouldn't do. Benugo and Rhubarb have shown that you can operate in complementary markets off the same business platform and there's a duty to test that out, but we're going to see how it goes. We'll keep working on the people, the food, the IT and keep enjoying ourselves.

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