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Quality before quantity

10 April 2008 by

Vacherin was formed by two contract caterers who were sick of having obstacles put in their way and having to fight every day simply to deliver their best to clients.

At the company's heart was the need to put food back on the top table, and to deliver a level of service and attention to detail that the founders felt London City clients had a right to expect but didn't always receive.

In our first Adopted Business instalment, last November, Vacherin managing director Mark Philpott stated: "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."

Of course, the ability to shop around is only part of the equation. Vacherin, which has 18 contracts, has 35 to 40 recommended suppliers, with at least two for each major product type (such as fish and meat), to provide flexibility and to keep everyone on their toes.

Although not everyone on the list will supply Vacherin as frequently as do the butchers, the directors believe that healthy competition promotes quality, and are always on the lookout for new companies to work with.

Vacherin co-founder and finance director Clive Hetherington says: "I've always seen Mark's and my role as making sure our chefs have the tools they need to do their job. We want to encourage them to experiment and improve their food. The worst thing would be to have them say to us they can't get the ingredients they want."

As well as overseeing chef development, director of food Alan Eggleston spends a lot of time seeking out such new contacts, assessing products and working with Vacherin's partners to pull together the menus he writes weekly.

He is another member of the team who had become disillusioned working for a large company, and craved a return to something intimate. He joined Vacherin in 2003, around the time it was starting its first contract with Imagination.

He now finds himself on the phone through the week to suppliers, although now it's to make use of their expertise rather than fending off a seemingly never-ending succession of speculative calls.

Clients appreciate good grub, of course, but having top-quality product is very important to Vacherin's staff as well, says Eggleston. "It's hugely motivational, as a chef, to have prime ingredients," he says.

Philpott and Hetherington had a few starting contacts to get in touch with for their initial supplies, thanks to their former jobs, but adding to these as they forged their reputation in the marketplace hasn't always been straightforward, as in the case of meat supplier Rare!.

Set up in 2000 by David House and Justin Preston, two traders who had faced the same frustrations as the Vacherin founders, the butcher initially refused Vacherin's advances, replying flatly that they didn't do contract catering because: "You don't get paid and you lot always want poor quality."

Having no doubt shown them the money and promised that they wouldn't backtrack on quality, Vacherin has had no regrets, although Hetherington and Philpott still argue over which of them it was who first spotted a Rare! van driving around the capital and thought: "I wonder who they are?"

However, they do agree that the well-kept condition of the van, and the professionalism this promised, has been maintained since.

Around a year ago, Vacherin also started working with fishmongers James Knight of Mayfair (which is actually based in London's Vauxhall area), a relationship that introduced them to Dave The Fish (Knight's representative) and a level of traceability that Eggleston half-jokes extends to a picture of the fisherman who caught the fish.

Vacherin's executive team was naturally impressed by the quality of the product - the company has two royal warrants and is going for Organic Food Federation accreditation - but jaws hit the floor when they realised that, compared with what they were already laying out, they'd be paying the same if not less for much of the catch.

Eggleston is perhaps most impressed by the level of knowledge among the fishmonger's staff, and makes use of it when planning his menus

"They've always been absolutely professional," he says. "The packaging is stunning as well, with each box wrapped to avoid odour - although that's unusual because it's so fresh - and the fish individually wrapped to avoid contamination, and not directly in contact with the ice so there's no burn."

Fresh, top-quality produce is a bedrock of a good business, but it always helps to have something spectacular to end with when you need to "turn the amp all the way to 11" and create a real wow. In Vacherin's case, this role is filled by MSK, which operates in the same sort of field as Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck in Bray. Want some space dust on that, sir? Or maybe a flaming sorbet, or orange floss on a trio of clementine? Well, you can have it.

This is not exactly mainstream but is certainly illustrative of the company's fierce determination to do things its own way.

"We're always looking for something new and different," says Eggleston in conclusion. "But it has to be good."

The story so far

Vacherin is a London-focused caterer with 18 contracts and 126 permanent staff. It is forecast to turn over £6m for the year to August 2008.

It was set up late in 2002 with £80,000 of equity by Mark Philpott, formerly managing director at Sodexho's fine-dining arm, Directors Table, and Clive Hetherington, formerly finance director at Catering & Allied.

In June 2006, Phil Roker, formerly sales director at Compass's fine-dining division, Restaurant Associates, joined as director of business development.

Key personnel

Managing director: Mark Philpott

Finance director: Clive Hetherington

Director of business development: Phil Roker

Director of food: Alan Eggleston

Operations managers: Zoe Moulson and Chris Giannangelo

Head office: 19 Bedford Row, London WC1R 4EB

Tel: 020 7404 2277

Website: www.vacherin.com

Food for thought

Rock band REM have just released their latest album, titled Accelerate. A decade ago they released Up. Take your pick, but they both describe what's happening to global food prices.

Peter Backman, managing director of food service analyst Horizons, believes that the issue will continue to make headlines for months to come. (See Opinion, page 20.)

"Just a year ago," he says, "operators in hospitality were seeing food rising at just 2% - a sufficiently benign figure that no one really needed to bother about and some suppliers absorbed rather than passed on. Fast-forward to the end of 2007 and food costs for the sector were growing at an alarming 5%."

The good news, if that's the correct term, is that, owing to the mix of products bought by contract caterers, food inflation has been effectively pegged at this rate for now, but restaurants are having to stomach a rise closer to 6.5%.

"Food inflation is always a concern, but manageable at the moment," says Vacherin coâ€'founder and finance director Clive Hetherington. "Of course, we've been in a benign climate in recent years, but God forbid we returned to the sort of high inflation seen in the 1970s. That would require us to take immediate action."

Vacherin has seen beef prices soar, dairy and cheese shoot up and coffee rocket in recent months. Even eggs are more expensive now, as animal feed prices increase and are passed on. Alternative cuts of meat can be used in some cases, but higher oil prices mean deliveries cost more to make, as do disposable products and chemicals to produce, and the reality is that the costs are now being passed on to operators such as Vacherin.

Hetherington says: "We're keeping an eye on the situation and we'll see if it flattens out. Inflation is not a super-serious issue for us at the moment, but if the situation does become worse we will need to be very quick in talking to our clients to make sure it's managed as it should be."

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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