Vacherin on keeping its boutique values after joining CH&Co

26 April 2023 by

Three years after its sale to CH&Co, Vacherin's managing director tells Rosalind Mullen how it is retaining its boutique, independent caterer ethos while being part of a bigger player

There seemed no better place to meet Vacherin's managing director Phil Roker than design agency Imagination's stylish premises in London's Bloomsbury. It was here in April 2003 that Vacherin's founders Mark Philpott and Clive Hetherington launched one of their first B&I contracts as a boutique independent caterer and, significantly, it's a contract the business still holds 20 years later.

It's significant because it is an example of the London-based caterer's successful strategy of tailoring its London-based hospitality, catering and reception services to the client's business and always rolling with the times.

"When we pick up a contract, we tell the client: ‘what we are telling you now is right for now, but it won't be right in a few years' time'. We listen, we deliver and we change," explains Roker.

Business is also about relationships, he adds: "We kept the Imagination contract because we have a relationship with the client. At the final stages of tender, I always tell clients: ‘any of us could do the job, but it is who you want to work with that matters'."

Good staff retention helps (see panel). At Imagination, operations director Tom Rule has been with the team for 10 years and the head chef since before the contract started. "Everything focuses on people and communication. We know them intimately and how to look after them and that is important. But we have to evolve," says Roker.

National anthem

So it's fair to wonder in what ways this agile company has had to change since taking the decision to sell to national group CH&Co in February 2020. Vacherin was founded in 2002 by Philpott and Hetherington, with co-owner Roker joining in 2006 and becoming managing director in 2016. Their reasons for selling will be understood by many independent caterers.

"We were approaching the £30m turnover mark," says Roker. "We had 45 sites, [650 employees] and to expand further we needed to find a new office, invest in technology and systems and build the team. To do that, we either had to invest or jump in with somebody else."

The trio had spent two years looking at technology systems while the potential CH&Co deal was rumbling in the background.

"The team were in the dark," says Roker. "Eventually, we had to tell them what was happening. It was a hell of a time. Then, literally two weeks later, Covid hit."

At which point, being able to tap into the expertise and resources of a bigger company proved to be more of a blessing than expected.

"There was a suggestion the pandemic would last a few weeks. It was an incredibly tough time – but it would have been tougher if we hadn't joined CH&Co," says Roker. "It would have been difficult for we three owners coming out of Covid."

He was grateful, for instance, that CH&Co's central communications and HR were there to help decipher the stream of new rules, and he could share information with the managing directors of the other brands in the business.

It's certainly a deal that seems a good fit. CH&Co has a proven model of bringing together businesses with similar values – Vacherin's former competitor Harbour & Jones, for instance, had merged in 2017. Having sold 100% of the equity to CH&Co, Philpott and Hetherington are no longer involved. Roker's commitment was to stay and run Vacherin as a distinct London-based B&I brand in the group.

"We had conversations with CH&Co chief executive Bill Toner and chief operating officer Allister Richards and the message was: ‘if you want to buy Vacherin, you have to buy into the Vacherin brand'," says Roker.

The deal saw Vacherin take over CH&Co's existing London B&I business, growing from 45 to 100 contracts, with Roker holding fast to brand values. "I wanted the [new] business to fit our portfolio. I would say: ‘I know you think I am being precious, and I am'."

Vacherin, which now has 1,110 employees, prides itself on creating good working environments, so the process of the new contracts started at ground level, with a focus on wellbeing, sports, charity and social events.

"We're a tight group. We work and play together and set high standards for ourselves," says Roker. "Clients began to understand we weren't going to brand everything with Vacherin – we are discreet, but we have a strong culture."

Machine learning

Vacherin's ethos is also protected operationally. There is a dedicated Vacherin front-end, which includes operations directors, the culinary team and head of sales to make sure the brand stays true to its values of providing bespoke, quality F&B and wellbeing initiatives. Then there is the CH&Co central engine room, with access to HR, finance, procurement, marketing, sustainability and learning and development, technology, systems, sustainability, communications, its quality, health, safety and environment policy, legal services and more. Crucially, this embraces a hybrid element as Vacherin has a dedicated marketing manager, two dedicated HR managers on the central teams who benefit from training and shared ideas – and similarly with procurement and sustainability.

"Vacherin can tap into a big machine, but still have a name and a face. Those are the things that help us remain distinct and retain clients," says Roker.

Inevitably, Roker had to reassure Vacherin's clients when the business was sold. "But now, three years in, I can say: ‘I told you. I am still here and the people who used to look after you are still here, and we are still true to our values, but with some new faces and input'."

Moving into a bigger operation was a transition for Roker, too. "I don't always agree with everything, but they are open to listen to me and we've carved out a good niche for ourselves. I can't just pick up the phone to one or two people any more, but I have freedom to run the business the way our clients and customers need it to be done, and I don't pick fights about things I can't change."

A few of his key people did leave after the deal, but Roker says: "I've brought in people who are thriving in this environment and can see the benefits. I call it ‘the best of both worlds' because we still have the independent spirit and personal touch of Vacherin, but it is backed by bigger resources."

Roker's operations team now comprises two operations managers from Vacherin (Chris Purser and Tom Rule) and one from CH&Co (Laurent Lepelletier), all reporting to him. Director of food Paula O'Neill, who heads the culinary team, joined Vacherin 18 months ago from a hotel and events background.

"It is a nice blend of those who know how CH&Co operates and the Vacherin team, who can share the ethos of the brand, but also get new ideas. So, we have a great blend," says Roker, who regularly meets with the other managing directors in the group as well as Toner and Richards.

"It's a really mature corporate team and I'm part of that strategy," Roker adds.

Room to grow

Importantly, the move into CH&Co has given Vacherin the clout to flex its ambitions to expand. Previously, there was a cut-off point for the size of contracts it could go for because clients wouldn't take them seriously. That changed when it inherited the CH&Co business, including six contracts worth £2.5m a year each. "With that sort of portfolio, we can get taken seriously to go for bigger contracts in London," says Roker.

The team have gone on to win more contracts and retain others, with turnover of £60m in 2022 and projected turnover of £70m in 2023.

Essentially, the CH&Co business is segmented, with brands for education and healthcare, destinations, stadia, venues and events. Vacherin and Gather & Gather split the workplace category, with the latter focusing outside London.

"We have to be confident of our differences both within the market and within the group," says Roker.

One point of differentiation is that Vacherin is based in the capital. "We are London specialists," says Roker. "The majority of the team are from top-end hotels, restaurants and caterers in London. We are in a unique market and so we'll be using the strapline We Live London. We know where our customers will be eating at the weekend, we know the pressures they are under from commuting – we understand London."

He adds: "We would never bid outside London, but after joining CH&Co, we inherited some contracts in the regions, including in Bristol, Sheffield, Folkestone and Hove. But we have a group manager in London and share that ethos," says Roker. Another powerful benefit to joining CH&Co has been access to its technology department. "Flexibility is important as demand is variable. And there is a big focus on technology now to collect useful data to manage waste, sustainability and provenance," he says.

Not least, being able to see exactly what the sales are, what the trends are and what items are popular helps Vacherin stay on the front foot.

"Our message is ‘We've got you'," says Roker. "Customers know our ingredients will be ethically sourced, Red Tractor-accredited, seasonal, nutritionally balanced and on-trend without worrying about it, and clients like that message."

The 20-year milestone prompts a moment of reflection for Roker. "In the early days, we reinvented the wheel when we got a new contract, which meant extra work. Now, we bring our knowledge of what works everywhere else and then coat it with what works for the client."

And he is excited about Vacherin's next chapter. The past three years have seen the brand navigate the fall-out from Covid, find its place within a group and strengthen its platform in the market, all of which has crystallised its position. "[We're] putting our foot on the accelerator, showing London what we are about and getting more of those big contracts," he says.

Top, from left: Phil Roker, Tom Rule, Paula O'Neill, Chris Purser

An initiative with sparkle

Since joining CH&Co, Roker has recruited his first full-time ‘head of sparkle'. "Sparkle is a commitment to clients that we would never stagnate," explains Roker. "We collect ideas from everyone from baristas to managers – to increase sales, reduce costs, make things greener – and incorporate them into a presentation to the client. "Every team is smaller than pre-Covid, so some of those things are on the back foot. The head of sparkle gets the conversation back to the fore and gets the magic back."

On offering flexi-working opportunities post-Covid

Since Covid, Vacherin's clients have been battling with how much they mandate the return of their employees to the office or allow freedom to work from home.

In response, Vacherin set out its proposals for a flexible approach to catering in a paper called ‘Beyond Covid-19: The Future of Workplace Catering'. These include offering building-wide catering delivery; call-order and table service; and flexible dual-purpose catering areas with work-free zones. It also offers ideas to enhance the work-life balance of employees, including mini-markets, a concierge one-stop-shop service and Vacherin at Home.

"We've put them all into action," says Roker. "Covid accelerated change that was happening already and if we're talking to a client about designing a space now, we look at flexibility so that no matter how usage patterns change it will be fit for purpose. We're making spaces hybrid – where people come on their own to do some work and have a coffee or hold small meetings. We're getting away from the traditional staff restaurant with two hours of service at breakfast and two hours at lunch. It is about enhancing office life."

So, while Covid has changed things, Roker says it is not all for the worse. In fact, he can confirm that in the last quarter of last year the run rate was 83% like-for-like pre-Covid.

"People coming into the office for three days a week have the same budget as when they came in for five days and are using the facilities more during those times," says Roker. "They are more relaxed because in the days they are at home they can also run errands or do chores. Back in the office, they want to spend more time catching up with colleagues over a cappuccino."

New working patterns have also made him rethink how he employs his own teams. Fridays are used for staff training, for instance, while he recruits some team members for a four-day week. "We offer the chance of 40 hours within four days – maybe working at evening events. Monday to Thursday is busier and we are taking as much money as ever," says Roker.

Team spirit

Staff retention is healthy at Vacherin. Long service awards are an annual fixture, with 50 staff notching up five years and 50 at 10, 15, and 20 years' service. Roker does a Yapster shout-out to anyone who has a one-year anniversary in recognition that they have "got over the first hurdle".

"Having the right culture and working with great clients helps. And being part of a bigger group affords more opportunities for promotion," he says.

The focus on wellbeing is important for both recruitment and retention. "At our induction, we say: ‘we know you work to live'. We get people involved in sustainability or sports or charity days," says Roker.

For the past 10 years, for instance, Vacherin has raised funds for Luminary Bakery, a not-for-profit that helps disadvantaged women in east London. As part of the 20-year anniversary, operations director Tom Rule is organising the London 20 fundraiser – a 20 mile walk or jog along the River Thames that will end in a pub get-together.

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