The secrets of Couture's success

11 March 2011 by
The secrets of Couture's success

Bond is back. Really back, as film company and rights owner MGM has escaped from a spot of administration, which means Bond 23 is go and the steely eyed Daniel Craig will shortly be the target of a battery of cameras at Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire.

Hungry to get back to being the world's most famous spy, Craig, his co-stars and the film crew will no doubt be hungry in the literal sense during what will be a gruelling shoot. The task of feeding them falls to concession caterer Couture, which landed a £1.5m annual turnover deal at the studios in March 2009. A relative unknown at the time, Couture now runs a staff canteen, coffee shop, bar and formal restaurant at the UK's largest film and TV studio complex, which typically has 4,000 people on site and 100 businesses.

Not bad for a company formed in 2006 - the very year Craig made his debut as Bond in Casino Royale - by Marc Warde. It's clear within moments why Warde works in hospitality. "I hate the ‘them and us' approach some caterers and clients have," says Warde. "I'm Marmite - you love or hate me. Life is too short to work with people you don't get on with."

quick off the mark

It would appear Warde has found enough people he likes, as he has built up the business to 12 contracts and an annual turnover heading for £7m with the sort of quick thinking and eye for opportunities that Bond himself would approve of.

Furthermore, Couture's spread of cultural venues such as the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot and London's Institut Français, as well as its Manchester museums (see panel) would surely warrant the classically educated spy's approval. In January Couture began catering in Nottingham, providing a bar and café at the Nottingham Contemporary art venue in a deal worth £2m in turnover over the three-year life of the contract.

"The café is at the heart of our catering offer, but at all our venues we also seek to sell the space for events. Surprisingly, galleries and museums aren't often set up for this," says Warde, who describes himself as being from the Mark Hix school of thought, favouring good British produce cooked and presented in a simple fashion.

"There is always a risk of overelaborating with ingredients and reducing what customers buy. The more you add to a grab and go sandwich the narrower you make the potential pool of buyers - so there's a constant battle with our chefs who understandably always want to add more and more," he says.

‘not posh'

Instead Couture offers fewer handmade sandwich combinations - eight or so - but done well (Warde points to the hot roast sandwich being a favourite across sites and offers the "50 sandwiches made in a factory" as the antithesis of what the company is about). There's usually a pie of the day, selection of salad and farmhouse table that offers British antipasti, and Couture's own-brand coffee, tea and water. "Not posh," Warde says of the Couture offer, which includes fine-dining and hospitality, "but regular with style".

The hotel graduate's route into contract catering consisted of a healthy dose of retail, with time spent at Greene King, Café Rouge, and at Massarella Catering Group's 22 cafes and restaurants in House of Fraser, Hamleys and Dickens & Jones stores. A stint as operations manager at smoothie purveyor Crussh preceded a move into the contract catering world, where Warde worked with Compass's new US import Restaurant Associates, running contracts such as LWT/ITV and the Willis Group. Prior to founding Couture, Warde worked at independent Artizian in operations then as sales director at the contract caterer.

"You reach a point where you want to go in your own direction, which for me was commercial, and a jumping-off point," says Warde of his decision to found Couture. "I left Artizian and joined another caterer where I spent four months setting up a B&I contract and thought, why am I doing this?"

While he admits to plenty of ups and downs since, he clearly enjoys being master of his own destiny. "The most important thing I have learnt is to keep to your values and not to try and be all things to all people. I don't want the company to be the biggest, but to be known as a beacon of quality."

The Couture name is a good place to start when talking about the business and its commitment to quality. Warde chose it as he liked the handmade connation and the inherent promise of attention to detail. He was also keen to link food with fashion (visual flair in presentation rather than style over substance), and with the event hospitality side of the business integral rather than a side project, the name neatly stretches to encompass this facet of the business.

style with substance

"We're strong on food style as a business - how it's offered and how it's packaged. We're also into genuine service - not the fake smile you sometimes get with the piss-off eyes," says Warde.

Given his background and the fact that all but one of the company's contracts is operated on a commercial basis, it is no surprise again that he views Pret a Manger as the operation to aspire to (on the grab and go side at least).

Warde describes his sandwiches, albeit with a smile, as great but specced within an inch of their lives. He also firmly believes the caterer's canteens, cafés, restaurants and bars would compete with the best of the high street, and it's this commercial mindset that is at the heart of the business.

Couture company profile

Marc Warde
Marc Warde
Founded 2006 by Marc Warde. First contract with now defunct office space provider Start International in 2007, where Couture provided café, bars and hospitality services across three sites. In 2008, with five contracts and a turnover of £1.5m, venture capital (VC) firm the Capital Fund bought 30% of the company to provide funds for expansion. Reaching 10 contracts and approaching £5m of turnover, Warde considered a trade sale, but with the aid of his financial advisor attracted in private investors instead. He then bought out the VC firm (which retains a 5% share in the business), retaining control of Couture's parent company (previously White Circle Organisation, now Ensemble).

Contracts 12

Contract mix Concession-style deals at public/leisure spaces and film studios in England, and two business and industry clients, including PR firm Ogilvy in London's Canary Wharf. Couture also has a standalone Food Hall [] in South-east London.

Staff 350

Turnover £5m, 2010; £7m, 2011 (forecast)

Executive team Chairman, Stewart Lund; managing director, Marc Warde; financial director, Brian Evans-Jones; operations director, Adrian Morgan; human resources director, Caroline Maitland Brain



Getting the first contract

Food service consultant Chris Stern conducted the Pinewood tender that ultimately ended in success for Couture. He shares his thoughts on breaking into a marketplace where reputation remains key to winning business.

It's tough for new catering companies to get their first job, as few clients want to try an unproven business - the recent decline of Restaurants at Work has scared off even more from taking a risk.

The key to success is ideally to have a clear USP. It's also helpful if the principals in the business have a track record. At Pinewood there was a unique situation; this is a commercial client whose core business is in itself risky, so they were less afraid of taking a risk with their caterer and looking for something different to what they had.

These sorts of opportunities are rare but still come up from time to time. Some companies like the kudos associated with being an early adopter of a hot new company - the challenge is in picking the right ones. Couture's success at Pinewood is proof positive that sometimes it's a risk worth taking. We could also point to BaxterStorey's early days when a large, prestigious law client took them on when they had no contracts. They still hold that contract today and, like Couture, are doing a great job.

breaking into the movies

007 film stage
007 film stage
Pinewood, which was taken on from Crown Group, has been Couture's breakthrough contract. Not only is it the caterer's largest deal to date but the scope of the venture has allowed it to set up a bakery on site - Couture Central - that now supplies all group sites with freshly made goods (with around £40,000 of cake shifted each week).

It has been operationally challenging as everyone from "the talent" - such as Jack Black, Tilda Swinton, Kylie, the stars of BBC's Dragon's Den and film executives - can be on site as well as the crews and employees of the many associated media businesses and workshops. Warde has dealt with this by having a range of offers and price points, with different products and styles of service throughout. However, he maintains that you'll find the "stars" in the canteen and not just the fine-dining restaurant the Brasserie.

With Heatherton Hall - backdrop to many a Carry On film - the perfect wedding venue, Pinewood, which currently has six films in production on site, has not proved as seasonal a location as you might suspect. Couture also runs an on location catering service in partnership with the client.

The contract has produced the endorsement any fledgling caterer needs to net other clients. In August of last year, impressed with Couture's work at Pinewood, Elstree Studios in Borehamwood signed the caterer up on a five-year contract worth £2.5m. It sees Couture running an in-house bar, canteen, coffee shop and stage catering at the studios. Couture is also tasked with developing the corporate event side of the business.

However, it's the nascent B&I side of Couture that Warde has big plans for, as long as he can still do his thing. "We have our own identity so I see little point in adopting a client's," he says. To this end Warde has been working on partnerships with other firms that will allow Couture to offer a catering and facilities management package within the corporate arena. Warde's ambition is to create a credible alternative to Restaurant Associates and Director's Table.

The manchester scene

Couture runs not one but three museum contracts in Manchester - the People's History Museum, the Manchester Museum and the Museum of Museums - and has a dedicated Manchester website.

Only five of its contracts are in London and at least part of the reason has been that the North has proved to be more fertile ground for the caterer to grow and build its reputation. "In London you are competing against everyone and often it goes to the cheapest bidder," says Warde.

Couture's £2.5m five-year deal at the People's History Museum is typical of what it does, with the caterer providing an on-the-go menu of sandwiches, wraps and salads, designed to complement the museum's remit of documenting the history of the labour movement. The catering operation extends to corporate events and weddings, with the venue operating as a café (called the Left Bank) by day and a bar by night.

On the buses

Couture Bus
Couture Bus
Never one to do things conventionally, Warde faced a logistics challenge at Pinewood, which is set in 200 acres. For some of those onsite a trek to the main facilities was exactly that, so Couture got hold of a Routemaster bus (subsequently used for contract pitches) and fitted it out with a fully functioning kitchen to provide a lunch service located near the 007 stage. Couture also has some unusual Piaggio scooters to deploy, used in the main for stage catering they are fitted with semi-automatic coffee bean grinders and sinks

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