The directors of fledgling contract caterer Vacherin are celebrating two new contracts this festive season. Chris Druce went to learn how they got this far
The directors of London contract caterer Vacherin - Clive Hetherington, Mark Philpott and Phil Roker - are in celebratory mood ahead of the Christmas period, having just won new contracts with law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse and property agent Cushman & Wakefield.
Typical of the bulk of Vacherin's existing business, its 16th and 17th deals, which together will add £500,000 of annual turnover to the caterer's books, will see Vacherin deliver hospitality services and fine dining as well as managing a meeting space.
Unlike many of the larger caterers which are discount-driven, Vacherin prides itself on working on a fee-only basis. It believes that this helps set it apart in the fiercely competitive London market, and it maintains the quality standards that are the bedrock of the company through the simple expedient of being able to shop around.
"We wanted Vacherin to be client-focused and to offer exceptional service," says Philpott. "Because we're not taking discounts [on goods], we don't have to worry about volumes - so if a supplier's quality is not good enough, we change them."
Philpott is adamant that a culture of discounting is an insidious one that touches every individual in an organisation, whether they are directly involved with purchasing or not. As a chef by trade, he believes that there is nothing more demotivating than being told that you can't cook good food because it's too expensive or not on the preferred supplier list.
Vacherin has a policy of using local suppliers and constructing seasonal menus featuring specials, so freedom to "shop around" complements these commitments perfectly.
"Ultimately," says Philpott, "it's about trust and integrity between us and the client, which a single source of income provides. They know our worth and we can go away and do a fantastic job for them."
Although a rise in the number of in-house procurement teams means that, for some clients, catering remains a numbers game where the cheapest offer is always going to be in pole position, Vacherin has found plenty of like-minded businesses this year willing to deliver something extra to their staff.
It's fortunate that Roker, whose job it is to track down new business opportunities, competes in triathlons and does Iron Man events for fun because, as director of business development since last June, he's had plenty of ground to cover as Vacherin has developed.
A recent sprint in business activity has seen Vacherin start the year with 10 deals and turnover in the region of £3.5m but end it having added seven contracts and about £2.5m of turnover. It now provides everything from top-end dining and hospitality at functions and events to running staff restaurants and coffee bars.
This has meant that Alan Eggleston, director of food, and Zoe Moulson, operations manager, have had plenty to do in 2007, and with Vacherin lengthening its stride there have been some new faces added. Former Artizian operations manager Chris Giannangelo has come on board as an additional operations manager, and a new staff member has joined the accounts team.
Despite this year's growth and 125 permanent staff, Philpott is amazed that the company he founded in late 2002 with friend and former colleague Hetherington "doesn't feel that much bigger" now than it did then - important in a firm where knowing the people who make up your business remains a source of obvious pride.
To maintain standards, Vacherin remains focused on developing its employees' craft skills, and it runs four workshops a year to make sure that its chefs "get the details right". Philpott says that the workshops are about imparting knowledge, but they certainly have an inspirational quality.
"We know our chefs can all cook," he says, "but the workshops are about showing ways to make an extra impact."
A recent workshop was on chocolate presentation, and earlier this month Vacherin held a workshop on canapés, hosted by Eggleston.
The approach appears to be paying off, as in September Vacherin won the Association of Catering Excellence's fiercely contested Ready Steady Cook! competition for the first time, beating 14 competitors, including some of the biggest names in the sector.
This was fitting for one of the new breed of caterers that has arrived on the London scene. "We try to avoid doing anything too traditional," says Philpott. "Vacherin is about being innovative and creative."
Risking it all
So why do two senior executives in the contract catering industry in their 40s leave their comfortable jobs and start over by launching a new company?
Philpott had trained as a pastry chef, learning his trade at the Café Royal in London's Regent Street before working in a number of West End establishments and for companies such as Hilton.
By the mid-1980s he was interested in a career in management and, having concluded that the route to the top seemed to lie in contract catering rather than hotels, he joined Gardner Merchant (now Sodexho) and grafted his way up to be managing director of Directors Table.
It was during his early years at Directors Table, as is so often the way in contract catering, that Philpott met and became friends with Hetherington. Later on he would work with Roker there also.
Hetherington, an accountant by trade, moved on from Directors Table to join Catering & Allied as finance director before it was bought by Avenance (now Elior UK). But although he had moved on to another caterer, he still wasn't truly fulfilled.
Both men were self-confessed foodies who felt they were fighting their own employers to do the best for their clients. Disillusionment with large corporates had taken an irreversible hold. In 2002, in a ballsy move, they stumped up £40,000 each to found Vacherin and concentrate on their passion for food and service excellence and on "removing the boundaries to doing a good job" that they had encountered day-to-day.
"In hindsight," says Philpott, "we were incredibly naÁ¯ve, as we founded the company without any clients in mind. There was a moment, walking back from our graphic designer just after setting up, that I stepped off the pavement at Tooley Street and this hit me - and I just thought, ‘Crikey, I've given up a good wage for what?'"
However, the following April they had signed their first client - largely off the back of a social meeting the previous September with communications and design agency Imagination. If ever there was one, this was most definitely a Champagne moment.
In June 2006 Phil Roker, who had also worked at Directors Table and was sales director at Compass's fine-dining division, Restaurant Associates, joined as director of business development.
A hotel and catering graduate, Roker had cut his teeth in front of house and service roles before working up to food and beverage manager at London's Athenaeum hotel.
When he moved into the world of contract catering and fine dining in the 1990s, Roker couldn't believe all the fantastic equipment and facilities he had at his disposal, compared with those in the hotel industry. All in all, it was a world away from the image of the sector portrayed at college.
Ultimately, though, working at Sodexho and Compass was not what he wanted. He explains: "I always wanted to work in a small business environment."
Vacherin: the story so far
London-focused contract caterer with 17 contracts, 125 permanent staff and forecast turnover of £6m for 2007.
Head office 19 Bedford Row, London WC1R 4EB
Tel 020 7404 2277
Set up late in 2002 with £80,000 of equity by Mark Philpott, managing director at Sodexho's fine-dining arm Directors Table, and Clive Hetherington, formerly finance director at Catering & Allied.