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Fresh Thinking

14 February 2011

Alistair Storey, CEO Baxter Storey

Passionate about good, fresh food, Alastair Storey reflects on the first 10 years of Baxter Storey in contract catering, and its growing impact in meal provision in private and state schools. Jane Fenwick reports

“CATERERS ARE NOW RETAILERS” – a surprising statement from someone who has been in catering his entire working life and who is celebrating the 10th year of successful contract catering business, Baxter Storey. Then Alastair Storey, chief executive and founder of the caterers, Baxter Storey, knows his own mind and has built a £216m turnover business (2009) on his good judgement.
Storey has identified the competition in his key market sectors of corporate and education catering as being, respectively, the high street and parents rather than other caterers, with fresh food central to the offer from fine dining in its corporate clients’ facilities through to the state school canteen.
Alastair Storey came to head up the fifth largest contract caterer via 25 years in the large corporate caterers including P&O Sutcliffe and Compass/Granda Food Services where he was managing director, before leaving in 2000 to set up his own business with his former finance director, Keith Wilson. As Wilson Storey, the company soon acquired Groupe Le Duff of France and Houston & Church, before setting its sights on Halliday Catering Services in 2000 to become Wilson Storey Halliday, the then largest independent contract caterer in the UK.
The expansion into education catering came with the acquisition in 2004 of CaterLink and in 2007, of Holroyd Howe which became a specialist in the independent schools and colleges sector. The year 2004 also saw the merger with Baxter Smith to create Baxter Storey. The combined group retained its key business leaders in a strong management team with Storey as chairman and William Baxter Deputy Chief Executive.
Relative newcomes to the Group are Benugo (2007) and Portico its niche front of house management and reception service. Since its acquisition turnover at Benugo has doubled, from £13m to £26m (2009). Its cafes target the retail and leisure sector including London’s V&A and Natural History Museums, as well as Oxford’s Ashmoleum museum and in Edinburgh Castle.
Portico, on the other hand, is the only non catering offer in the WSH Group but, as Storey stressed, it is not an indication that company’s growth beyond catering to the wider FM marketplace is on the agenda. He was, however, clearly pleased that Portico has been proved so successful in its first years of providing niche front of house  management and reception service.
There is a clear cultural fit since all these organisations had won reputations of high quality and service levels, good value and commitment to staff training. In its first 10 years Baxter Storey has added significant numbers of blue chip companies to its client list including Barclays, Cisco, Deutsche Bank, Ernst & Young, M&S, Siemens, Standard Chartered Bank, Unilever and Virgin Atlantic.
Food quality is a key component of the Baxter Storey. “I am committed to fresh food,” he said. He explained that their chefs learn where the food comes from the source by not just visiting the fish market but going out on one of their fish suppliers fishing boats to see the process from sea to plate. The same level of understanding is applied in the sourcing of meat and other key ingredients, through to kitchen management skills.
He explained, “We spend about £1m on our chefs and our Chef Academy programmes that takes them through three levels of training from NVQ levels 2 and 3 through to BSc in Culinary Arts if they wish.“
BaxterStorey graduated 33 chefs from its Chef Academy programme last year alone, taking the total number of employees to benefit from the in-house training scheme to 94 since it launched in 2008, and significantly raising the supply of qualified and innovative chef skills available in the market. Retention levels at the company have grown to almost 80 percent since the course was implemented. Word has obviously got around as Baxter Storey claims to have 10- 15 applications for every vacant chef position in the organisation.
Strong links have been developed with leading chefs to provide a focused programme of mentoring and training for its chef brigade and management teams, that reflect the company’s commitment to delivering a truly local food service.
Part of this team are Nigel Howarth, Michelin starred chef and joint owner of Northcote in Lancashire and John Campbell, Michelin starred chef at Coworth Park on the edge of Windsor Great Park. They offer master classes and experience days which allow chefs to go behind the scenes and see the operations from sourcing ingredients from suppliers, through to the front of house. In the Chef Academy Culinary Arts Programme, chefs spend a week in John Campbell’s kitchen at Coworth Park to get real experience of working with a Michelin starred chef.
Explaining the strategy on the Baxter Storey website, Alastair Storey says “We’re working towards establishing a core team of the nation’s most highly acclaimed chefs who’ll inspire and guide our chef brigades and management teams. Nigel’s approach in his kitchen absolutely reflects the activity that takes place daily across our sites. Our focus on fresh, locally sourced food that revels in seasonality and provides customers with the best possible dining experience that is true to the community it serves."
Local sourcing is a key priority for Baxter Storey and central to maintaining its food security and quality standards. Last year the Baxter Storey parent company, Westbury Street Holdings (WSH) announced that all eggs it uses will be sourced from one independent family owned Staveley's Eggs farm in Chorley, Lancashire. This announcement confirmed that all the 7.5million eggs used each year including all 800 BaxterStorey, Caterlink and Holroyd Howe sites in the preparation of 25 million meals will be RSPCA Freedom Farm Assured free range.
Baxter Storey is also the first contract catering company in the UK to commit to using meat entirely sourced from within Britain. For the past three years it has ensured that the lamb, beef, pork and poultry it prepares and serves carries appropriate Quality Assured certification and is acquired from only British farms. In total, these meat groups comprise 95 percent of the fresh meat the company uses, with the remaining 5 percent being bacon.
It also uses its own brand of Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and the Soil Association approved coffee called Down to Earth, and it has developed a range of 100 percent natural and biodegradable handwash, salad wash and hard surface cleansers made from orange pips for use exclusively the BaxterStorey outlets and its education catering operations.
This passion for quality food does not stop at the school gate as both Caterlink, the state school catering operation and Holroyd Howe Independent (HHI), its independent schools and colleges operator continue this theme. Holyrod Howe, founded in 1997 and led ed by its founder Nick Howe, offers a fresh food menu with menu choices to suit varying age spread, ethnic diversity and dining preferences of each school and college for which it caters.
State Education catering specialist, Caterlink, is also proving that its commitment to quality and fresh foods is paying off with an increasing uptake of its school dinners. For example, Caterlink has been working with Camden since 2006 and Islington since 2007 helping them to drive the uptake of lunch to an average of over 70 percent across the two Boroughs. The national average in England is just 41.4 percent.
Last month it announced that it has been selected to provide services to both Boroughs, following an innovative joint tender in a £7.5m per annum deal for more than 100 schools and 17,000 meals a day. Every meal served will be freshly prepared on site using locally sourced ingredients. This contract award also marks the first time Camden and Islington have reappointed an existing incumbent school meals provider and it caps fruitful partnerships with both Boroughs that will now save Islington £900,000 and Camden £270,000.
Storey is just as enthusiastic about the school meals delivered in schools as the fine dining at any of the blue chip corporates. “ We need to pursuade parents that school meals are good value to get participation levels up. We set these targets ourselves. Caterlink is now £55m business but it could be more and go nationwide. “
Reflecting on the first 10 years, Storey is clearly not resting on his laurels and plans to double the size of the company every five years in future. Its most recent turnover figures showing a near 20 percent increase are a step in the right direction. He said, “This is a private company with no shareholder pressure. We are financially robust and there is cash in the business. Size not the issue for us. We are best in class in all our areas of operation.”

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