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The Caterer Interview – Chris Mitchell, Genuine Dining Company

30 August 2013
The Caterer Interview – Chris Mitchell, Genuine Dining Company

It's been almost two years since Chris Mitchell pitched the idea of a management buyout of Yes Dining to serial entrepreneur Luke Johnson. Soon after, boutique foodservice business Genuine Dining Company was born. Janie Manzoori-Stamford find out about this young gun's approach to contract catering.

When did you join the business and how did the management buyout (MBO) come about?
I joined Bright Futures Group (BFG) from Couture in June or July of 2010, just over a year before the MBO. At the time it had two trading subsidiaries: Restaurants At Work and Jill Bartlett Company. BFG was in the process of acquiring Yes Dining from Castle View International Holdings with the idea of merging the three entities into one to reduce overheads and streamline the businesses. It would have worked because it was a very good plan, but it wasn't to be.

The bank took control of the situation and decided it wouldn't happen, which led to Restaurants At Work and Jill Bartlett falling into administration. That left Yes Dining as the only trading company within BFG by late 2010. The other two went to BaxterStorey, which bought the assets.

I had the choice to TUPE over to BaxterStorey but I didn't really want to go as they're just too big for me. I stayed because I'd gone to BFG to do something and make it work and there was still a glimmer of a chance to do that. I've never been one to take the easy route.

What happened next? About six months later, Yes Dining was struggling to keep up with the listing fees of the PLC because it was the only trading subsidiary. There was talk of doing an MBO with some of the existing directors and I said I'd quite like to do an MBO but not with them for a number of reasons. I approached three or four investors, one of whom was Luke Johnson. I called his office and spoke to his PA, who gave me an e-mail address and I sent through a business plan. He rang me at 10am the next day. I was in his office the day after that and I had the funding about a week-and-a-half later. It was really quick, really slick.

Why did you change the name from Yes Dining to the Genuine Dining Company? Yes Dining was seen as a low-budget caterer without any quality. We wanted to change that and make it a niche catering company based on the reason we do foodservice, which is that we love food. The reason that Yes Dining had been doing it was for the money, which I don't think works with food. It was about having a new identity and it was well received by our clients. What does Yes Dining mean anyway? It's an awful name.

We had a complete rebranding, the management team completely changed and it was effectively a brand-new start for all of us. It wasn't that big at only £4.5m. The last two years have been a bit like running a startup.

Was it challenging to re-establish it as a credible alternative to the competition?

Aside from the name change, how has the business evolved? We pretty much completely transformed the people who were running the business with a new management team. I brought in a lot of people I'd worked with in the past to run the business with me.

Then there was the actual food we were serving. We tried to come up with a unique selling point, so we looked at branded operations and how they were successful by creating specifications for products and delivering them consistently across the whole business. It's worked out really well. Our sandwiches are exactly the same in every site because a good sandwich is a good sandwich. Each offer is built with bolt-ons and then there's the training that goes behind that. My staff know what they should be delivering.

We use technology like iPads for training devices and we've started doubling them up for use as tills and for ordering. We don't want our managers sitting in offices; we want them out running their business.

And there are our relationships with clients. We had to win back an angry client base that felt let down by Yes Dining. A lot of clients thought we weren't doing a good job and it was about showing them what we could do.

Which sectors do you work in? The core has always been business and industry catering, known as Genuine Dining. We've also got Genuine Hotels, because when we bought Yes Dining it had a one-hotel contract in Kent. It didn't fit in with Genuine Dining so we split it out and called it Genuine Hotels because it doesn't work the same as the rest of our business.

We recently launched Genuine Events, through our Shepperton Studios contract, after being asked to run events for our clients. Now we can offer expertise in that area, and it's working really well. Running a lunchtime food service is quite different from organising a party or an event.

When you take over a contract, how do you grow the sales? We look at more than just the food. Normally we've only got a weekend to change it because the incumbent caterer finishes on a Friday and we take over on a Monday.

hat probably makes us different is we invest quite heavily in the way it looks as well as the food. We use things like vinyls on walls with images from Bank Farm in Kent, which acts as a local supplier hub in the area and delivers to all our sites.

We do things like recladding the counters, putting in new signage, bringing in new crockery and new cutlery, and together it completely transforms a space. Recently we've started offering a lot more, such as in Shepperton, where we have Genuine TV, an all-day show-reel of our promotions, our suppliers, where the food is coming from, fun snippets, facts and interviews.

How else do you use techonology? We put our own iPad till systems in as that's the way we manage the business. That's something all our newest sites have and we're going back round to do the others.

The change of food offer is a given. It's in line with GDC's food offer and according to the client's needs.

Instead of the foodservice space being client-branded it's Genuine Dining-branded and that gives the people who work in that building somewhere to go that doesn't feel like work. We're trying to build a branded place for them to go that's a bit cooler, a bit more fun than being at work.

There's a big drive from employers to keep their staff in the building because obviously they're more productive and talking to each other. But if you look at the high street, there are some really cool places that people want to visit. What we've tried to do is bring the high street into people's workplaces through the environment that goes with it. We try to make them places where people want to be.

How do you do that? We do it with things like table football and pool tables, if the client is willing. Anything that makes it fun and quirky. At Shepperton Studios we astroturfed a big space to make a funky seating area, which is a bit Google-esque. Not everyone wants it, but there are lots of elements of design we can work on to make them fun places to be.

Most staff canteens look awful. They're just soulless and branded to match the client, but people don't really want that on their break. They want to get away from work.
Everyone will offer good food, especially in the tender. I think we actually do offer really good food. You wouldn't enjoy a really good meal in a really shitty environment, but you would if you had a really good meal in a great environment. I don't think anyone else really looks at that unless they're going into a site that hasn't been built yet, where they can have that kind of input.

We've worked with some brilliant designers on new ideas, building up renders and models of what a space will look like when we've finished. That provides a good platform for discussion in the negotiations - if they don't like some of it, we can offer alternatives.

Who pays for it? We pay for it. It is a commitment in terms of costs but what we've worked out from doing it is that while we're investing upfront we're retaining a bigger proportion of the audience that uses the facility, so it actually pays for itself. The amount we're investing is spread over the life of a contract, often five years. It does make the contract less profitable but it certainly makes it a lot more fun for our staff as well our client's. It has to be fun. Our staff don't get paid enough to go to work to be in a bad environment and not enjoy it.

At 31, you're a young foodservice MD. Does that make a difference to your approach to the business? I think so. We probably make more mistakes than most people, but we learn from them very quickly. We have a very different approach to the business because we haven't been on this journey before. Our approach is completely different to anyone else's. It's taken us two years to work out how we do things and the way that things work. We're a different proposition for clients as well. I would say that we're probably much more streetwise and current than most other caterers because of our age.

The whole management team is relatively young and, without being rude, I'd like to think we have our finger on the pulse a little bit more than some of the other caterers.

Are you shaping the look of the next generation of contract catering? I'd like to think so. The biggest thing with contract catering, from what I could see, is no one had a USP. Everyone says they can do fantastic food at good value, but at the end of the tender the person that wins is the person with the best relationship with the client or the cheapest offer. I don't think that works. What we needed to do was give ourselves some USPs to show that Genuine Dining is a bit different and exciting, with ideas that aren't all around food but also delivering a whole staffroom package.

It has made a difference and like all good ideas I don't think it will be long before people start emulating. That's where we need to stay on our toes and keep innovating and coming up with new ideas to keep ahead of the market. We never sit still.

Tell me about Luke Johnson's involvement. How does his retail background translate into contract catering? We not only draw on his wisdom but we draw on the product as well. Using Feng Sushi as an example, we've worked with them to deliver sushi into our units under their brand name, which works really well. We've got quite a few brands that we can draw on and Luke encourages collaboration between the partners.

His understanding of branding is second to none. He'll soon tell us if we've got something wrong - trust me. I think what he quite liked about us is our efforts to deliver consistency and the way that we're trying to do something different.

After the MBO we wanted to make the company and clients more sexy and we wouldn't have been able to do that without Luke's involvement. He definitely gave us a level of credibility that made people stop and think.

Johnson joined the Harbour & Jones board in June. Is there potential for a merger? No, there's really not. I think that Nathan [Jones] and Patrick [Harbour] are looking at acquisitions; they want to grow and that's why they've got Luke involved - that's what he's very good at.

Never say never, but there's certainly nothing on the cards at the moment, that's for sure. Luke's enjoying learning about contract catering. It's a very different world to the one he's used to. When you're looking at a branded offer, the cost price is the same, the labour should be about the same - everything is very static. If you look across the P&L, your GP fluctuates by maybe one or two percent across your whole portfolio.

Whereas with our business, we've got different subsidy levels and so many different revenue streams, with vending and hospitality, that no GP is the same. You can't look at the front sheet of the accounts and say what the GP is. You need to know the business and every contract to understand how it performs.

With Luke there's always a master plan. He's a very clever man. Harbour & Jones is a very good company and, if it was a suitor, I think it would work. But nothing has been discussed and it's very early days. I think we're worth a lot more to Luke if we carry on making money for a couple more years.

The Genuine Dining Company

  • Annual Turnover £10m
  • Staff 350, including casuals; 250 permanent
  • Contracts 20
  • Sites 40
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