IN the wake of the much-awaited Channel Tunnel opening in May this year came the opening of Channel Stop, a truckers' service area in Ashford, Kent, which is aiming to set new standards in roadside catering.
Channel Stop, which is wholly owned by tunnel operator Eurotunnel, is already pulling in drivers of all nationalities. It offers a range of facilities and serves upmarket food not generally experienced in this country by drivers of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs).
The 22-acre site can accommodate up to 260 vehicles in a secure parking area and offers overnight accommodation and a 24-hour restaurant with seating for up to 130 diners.
The original aim of the operation was to relieve congestion at the tunnel itself, explains catering manager Derek Telles. Tickets for the tunnel can be issued at Channel Stop, which is eight miles away on the motorway. But to increase commercial viability, the facilities have been extended to all truck drivers, whether on their way to the tunnel or elsewhere.
The disarray that plagued the opening of the tunnel extended to Channel Stop. Telles himself was brought on board just five weeks before the truckstop's May opening. "The place was like a building site when I arrived," he recalls. "I had to get suppliers and staff from scratch."
With the Eurotunnel name behind the venture, however, it did not prove difficult to recruit either suppliers or staff.
The next job was to decide on the menus. With so many drivers from all over Europe, the Continental influence could not be ignored. "The notion that all drivers are happy eating fried food soaked in grease has been dispelled," claims Telles. "They are now much more discerning, and for this reason we decided to offer an extensive range of meals."
In his search for staff, Telles had come across Johan Zalud, an Austrian chef who had been working in South America. Keen to get work in the UK, Zalud applied for a job as a kitchen porter at the site. When Telles interviewed him he realised he had more than a kitchen porter on his hands and offered him the job of head chef.
Bearing in mind that drivers are often on the road for many days, Zalud and Telles set out to create a home-from-home atmosphere with high standards of food. In many continental European countries HGVs are banned from main roads at the weekend, meaning that drivers arriving in Ashford late on a Friday night can end up spending the whole weekend at the stop.
Breakfast, served from 4am until 11am, is offered both English and Continental style, at £2.95 and £1.95 respectively. Cold meat platters, a selection of cheeses and filled croissants are also available.
Daily changing lunchtime and evening menus offer items such as home-made pies and casseroles, goulash, stuffed aubergines, lamb chops with garlic, and roasts with home-made stuffings. A salad option is always available.
A main course, a dessert such as tiramisu, carrot cake or lemon meringue pie along with tea or coffee costs £3.95.
After midnight there is a cook-to-order service, so that drivers arriving in the middle of the night can have a hot meal, although here the choice lapses more into fast fare such as pizzas, burgers and chicken nuggets. Prices for this menu average £2.50.
Aside from this, the emphasis across the board is on fresh produce. Telles, who started with Forte in 1978 and whose subsequent career has spanned the contract arm of Leith's, head chef at Blake's wine bar in London's Covent Garden and catering manager at Russell & Brand's American Community School in Cobham, Surrey, is a firm believer in buying fresh wherever possible.
Prices have been kept deliberately low to encourage volume trade. Mark-up on food is currently running at about 55%, a figure that Telles aims to increase to 65% once the operation has been running long enough to allow him to gauge volumes more accurately.
Turnover is about £1,000 a week, coming from some 100 drivers during weekday evenings, and from many more stopping just for tea and coffee or a brief snack.
It is still early days but Telles anticipates a turnover of £1,000 a day at the end of 12 months. To do so he will have to substantially boost the average spend, which currently stands at only £2.50 a head because of the high proportion of drivers stopping just for coffee.
A licensed bar, open only in the evening because Eurotunnel does not want to encourage drinking and driving, creates a relaxed evening atmosphere.
The installation was carried out by Whitbread, dictating a tie-in for beer but not for other drinks. Once again, prices are kept low to encourage volume trade, with £1.20 being the price of the most expensive pint. General mark-up on drinks is about 40-45%, far below the 65% often commanded by pubs.
Accommodation is in six sparsely furnished rooms but is not seen as an integral part of the operation. Most drivers who have an allowance while on the road opt to sleep in their cabs and keep the money. "We offer the rooms as a service rather than as a profitable concern," says Telles. Current room-rate is £13.50 including breakfast, but usually only three rooms are occupied on any night. Telles, who is also deputy manager of the complex, is keeping an open mind about this aspect of the operation. Eurotunnel owns all the land surrounding Channel Stop so it will be easy to expand both the accommodation and the restaurant operation, should need dictate.
Marketing to date has been low key. Leaflets publicising the stop are given out on Le Shuttle itself; other than that publicity has been mostly word of mouth. But during the next few months, advertisements in truckers' magazines, a CB radio station link and a campaign targeted at local businesses will boost the profile of the stop.
Most truckstops work on the basis that there is a charge for secure parking. Trucks carrying dangerous loads are often allowed to stop only in specific areas and a recent bout of theft of HGVs has encouraged drivers towards the safe parking option. There is no charge for parking at Channel Stop for any vehicles whether or not they are using the tunnel, although this may change in the near future.
Longer-term changes could include putting the catering out to tender, but this, explains Telles, is a long way down the line. "We've got to establish our-selves as a profitable operation first. Once we've done that we'll review who runs the catering." n