A contract catering career is the unsung hero of hospitality and, according to Acorn Scholar Simon Houston, it's about time something is done to change that. Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports
That hospitality as an industry continues to struggle to attract the number of talented and enthusiastic young people it needs is well documented. But within that, contract catering has an even tougher time.
Just one in 130 hospitality graduates go into contract catering, yet if you ask that one person whether they regretted not following the other 129 into the likes of hotels and restaurants, it's doubtful the answer will be yes.
Simon Houston, BaxterStorey's group manager for Europe and the 2012 recipient of the Acorn Scholarship sponsored by Villeroy & Boch and Unilever Food Solutions, has tired of the stigma attached to food service and he's not alone. In fact, it was this determination to raise the profile of contract catering as a credible career choice for young people that impressed the judges enough to award him the scholarship, worth more than £7,000.
Houston kicked off his tenure by arranging a round table discussion chaired by Acorn judge and LearnPurple managing director Jane Sunley, with individuals from fellow contract caterers to establish why their sector has it especially hard and, more importantly, what they can do to change that.
Scott Wakefield, a general manager for Lexington Catering, said the main problem is a general misunderstanding - a lot of graduates think it's just event management and weddings.
Simon Price, corporate development chef at ISS, agreed. "There's a stigma attached to contract catering. Hospitals and school meals also spring to mind, but the diversity you can get from contract catering is ten times what it was five years ago."
It quickly became apparent that part of the problem stems from a lack of endorsement within education. A common experience around the table was that much was made of going into the more "glamorous" arms of hospitality. "Contract catering is not discussed enough in colleges," said John Hicks, chef trainer at BaxterStorey, and a runner-up in the Acorn Scholarship. "Lots of graduates are encouraged to go into restaurants and our sector is downplayed. We need to change the mindset from the college up."
The sector doesn't have enough of an identity, according to Bartlett Mitchell HR administrator Frankie Reilly. "With contract catering firms, the branding is there, but outside hospitality you don't really see it. Hotels come into contact with people. You can talk with your parents about them. Contract catering falls behind."
This point was picked up by Lorna Burns, impressions project manager at Compass Group's Restaurant Associates, who said: "Contract catering has no real face. We all know the big hotels and they use it to their advantage. They get in quickly and pick the best people."
As a result, it was felt that operators can make themselves more attractive by making more noise about their clients.
Rebecca Culpitt, a project manager at CH&Co's Lusso business, said it was an exciting presentation by her future employer that piqued her interest. "Since then I've been involved in the presentations and we now get, on average, 80% of applications because we flash names like Buckingham Palace," she explained.
Host Contract Management's food academy executive chef, Stephen England, also felt this would be a productive approach to attracting talent. "If as a student I'd seen some of the environments that I've had the opportunity to work in, it would have made me sit up a bit," he explained. "And in an organisation in which I'll be valued, trained and allowed to grow. We need to bring this image to the students."
The assembled group decided to work together as a taskforce, named "Sauced: hospitality's best kept secret", in a bid to dispel the myths and raise the profile of contract catering.
They agreed that a three-pronged attack would be necessary in order to reach the intended audience of universities, lecturers and students, in order to promote the sector.
The sauced taskforce
Lorna Burns Impressions project manager, Restaurant Associates
Rebecca Cupitt Project manager, Lusso
Stephen England Food academy executive chef, Host Contract Management
John Hicks Chef trainer, BaxterStorey
Simon Houston, Group manager for Europe, BaxterStorey
Jeremie Lusseau General manager, Harbour & Jones
Simon Price Corporate development chef, ISS
Frankie Reilly HR administrator, Bartlett Mitchell
Scott Wakefield General manager, Lexington Catering
the barriers & The Benefits of working in the sector
Misconceptions Students are often under the impression that it's all event management and cost-sector food service
â- Syllabus Lecturers are generally hired from hotels and restaurants and, as such, this is what the course content and careers advice tends to most reflect
â- Under-exposed Contract caterers are too slow to get out into colleges and recruit
â- Inaccessible Unlike hotels and restaurants, students are unable to walk into a contract caterer's client site to get an idea of what the sector is like
â- Uninteresting Not enough is being done to show hospitality students the sexy side of the sector, such as the exciting venues and high-end food
â- Lucrative Contract catering gives more people the opportunity to achieve wealth and success than other hospitality sectors
â- Career development In-house training is often a high priority in contract catering and progression can be swift for the talented and keen
â- Work-life balance The working week mirrors that of the client and as such it is less likely to involve evenings or weekends
â- Big names While the name of the operator might not seem high profile, the name of the client often does and makes a worthy addition to any CV
â- Autonomy Client contracts give you the chance to manage your own profit and loss and hone easily transferable business skills
â- Lorna Burns, Simon Price and Frankie Reilly will produce a downloadable information pack to be made available for students considering a career in contract catering
â- Simon Houston, Scott Wakefield and Rebecca Cupitt will develop a versatile format for presentations by operators to give to students and lecturers
â- John Hicks, Stephen England and Jeremie Lusseau will work on a promotional video that can be linked to at Caterer and Hotelkeeper's YouTube channel and website
The Acorn Scholarship
The Acorn Scholarship, now in its 11th year, is an independent award that "seeks out young, talented individuals within the industry and helps them to realise their career ambitions, generating the leaders of the future". Three of the past 10 winners have gone on to win a Caterer and Hotelkeeper Acorn Award.
The self-nominated award is open to individuals who are UK residents and are able to work in the UK without restriction. Scholarships are awarded each year to people who demonstrate "passion and potential and who are at a point in their career when winning the scholarship will make a real difference".
The 2012 Acorn Scholarship will be open for entries from 10 September 2012. Look out for further updates in Caterer and Hotelkeeper, online at www.catererandhotelkeeper.com or visit the Acorn Scholarship website at www.acornscholarship.org.uk