Company of Cooks poised to go nationwide after a fresh start

15 November 2023 by

It's a fresh start for Company of Cooks. After a round of acquisitions the caterer is poised to go nationwide with a deluge of deals.

Some big changes have swept through Company of Cooks. Following its acquisition by CH&Co in 2019 and subsequent merger with Venues by CH&Co last March, the events and venues caterer has emerged with a fresh approach to business, service and people.

Although the brand has been around since 1996, the new leadership team are positioning it as a start-up and are poised to compete for a bigger chunk of the events, venues and visitor attraction space against the likes of Searcys and Benugo.

"I don't think there's been a legitimately new entrant into this sector for quite some time," says managing director Rob Fredrickson. "A lot of what we are doing is designed to differentiate us as a new entrant because we have a new approach and we have no legacy. Yes, we have held some of our contracts for 15 years, but our words are new and our approach is new. I would like us to be the new upstarts."

Three commitments – craft, creativity and community – underpin the reimagining of the company: "craft" reflects handmade techniques used to create quality food and drink and a consistently great service style, supported by the recently launched Company of Cooks Service School; "creativity" is about using new, interesting ways to approach not only food and drink, but also technology and marketing, as well as working with design partners when reworking spaces for clients; and "community" embraces sustainability, ethics and its duty of care towards the people it works with.

Significantly, Fredrickson has also redefined the company's culture. "Under [Company of Cooks founder] Mike Lucy, the narrative was about Mike. We are moving away from a narrative that orbits around one individual and trying to change it to focus on a group of people who have something to say about food and drink and sustainability unencumbered by the burdens of the past," he says.

Reinventing the Company of Cooks brand

The opportunity to reinvent the brand was triggered by series of events, starting with CH&Co's acquisition of Gather & Gather in August 2019, followed by Company of Cooks a few months later. Then Covid struck, putting all plans on ice, compounded by the departure in 2021 of Company of Cooks founder Mike Lucy.

Fredrickson, who had moved over as part of Gather & Gather's senior leadership team, was by then managing director of both Gather & Gather and Creativevents and was the obvious candidate to take over – not least thanks to his experience as head of catering at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010, where he helped design and operate seven F&B spaces at the newly refurbished theatre.

"I was effectively tossed the keys for Company of Cooks and asked to restart the business," he says.

That is no exaggeration. For a start, Covid and the departure of Lucy had seen most staff leave. Fredrickson picks up the story. "There were about 20 employees left and, as we went through the unlocking in 2021, we effectively restarted the business. We recruited 1,000 people in a three-month period and remobilised six contracts, so it was a Herculean effort by all, particularly as I was still trying to run Gather & Gather."

But restart it they did and in early 2022 Fredrickson was made managing director of all leisure businesses at CH&Co, including Company of Cooks and Venues by CH&Co. He quickly saw an opportunity to streamline the brands.

"It became clear there were real synergies," says Fredrickson. "There were also a number of tenders where the two brands were rubbing alongside each other, and it felt unnecessary to carry both, especially when there was such huge equity in the Company of Cooks brand – it felt like the stronger one."

So, in March, Venues by CH&Co was brought under the Company of Cooks brand, taking its revenue of £35m pre-Covid to a prediction of over £85m this year. Its 35 contracts have an average value each of more than £2.5m and include the Royal Academy of Arts and Historic Royal Palaces in London. The business employs 2,000 people, including 1,200 seasonal workers.

"We are now a business of scale," says Fredrickson. "But our relationships have endured and that is because of the newness of our team. I like to think we have a start-up culture. We don't have lots of historic data to work off or historic insight, which is a blessing and a curse because sometimes when you need a steer on how things have been done previously, they are not there. But equally a blinkers-off approach –which is that we have in these fabulous spaces – allows greater opportunities for what we can do with them. The feedback since we merged from clients has been positive."

This is supported by a 97% retention rate of contracts across both brands, including the Old Naval College, Chelsea Physic Garden and BMA House.

"It shows clients enjoy working with and want to continue working with us," he says, citing the fact the team achieved record revenues at the Royal Opera House last season, which has led to discussions about opening up new spaces with them.

It's a similar story at London's Southbank Centre, where the contract, which covers all the public and events spaces, has just been extended to 2029. As part of the agreement, in the next 12 months the caterer will work with its design partners and the Southbank team to undertake an ambitious redesign on levels two, five and six and the Roof Garden bar.

"It comes back to being, in effect, a start-up," he reiterates. "We listened to clients, looked at the data, and tweaked and changed with the situation. They have enjoyed having new perspectives and dealing with new people."

New deals for the caterer

Fredrickson is understandably happy to have retained £120m in total contract value this year and adds that the business has grown organically by 7%-8% "by doing things better". However, he knows the real currency in the industry is contract wins and he is the first to admit that the fallout from Covid and the focus required to build the business back and retain existent partnerships temporarily distracted the team from winning new clients, with just one addition – London's Courtauld Gallery. But the caterer is now poised for that to change.

"I acknowledge that any business that has only won one contract in 12 months has work to do, but the contract retention rate shows that our approach and delivery is resonating. It is about the market coming to terms with what Company of Cooks is today. It's only a matter of time before we get back to meaningful contract wins."

As it happens, Fredrickson is waiting for decisions on five large contract tenders – two museums, two venues and one membership organisation, which are collectively worth £9m. One contract is 45 minutes outside the capital, which would kickstart Fredrickson's ambition to evolve the business beyond London – the furthest contract currently is at RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey. "I would like to be nationwide because I can see some venues where we could add and broaden audiences for clients – food and drink helps with that," he says.

Fredrickson also plans to double-down on community and sustainability (see panel) and believes the brand's message is a big differentiator among competitors. "The clarity with which we hope to convey our targets and sustainable initiatives I haven't seen anywhere else. When people engage with that community element it really seems to resonate," he says.

"Any business that doesn't double-down on that important stuff will end up coming out the wrong side of every tender," he adds. "It will help with winning new business and with client and staff retention and attraction, and so it does make good business sense, but on a deeply personal level it is the right thing to do and that is a core part of Company of Cooks."

Feels good, does good

To that end, he is keen to talk about the recent collaboration with social enterprise coffee companies Well Grounded and Union Hand-Roasted Coffee. Together they have launched Community Blend, which sees the caterer makes a £2 donation towards Well Grounded's coffee training academy for every kilo bought. Fredrickson says it is already on target to raise £90,000 in year one, with the aim to help 100 young Londoners into work in the coffee industry over the next three years.

He is also benchmarking performance by rolling out a customer insights programme, enabling customers to give feedback via a scan code and giving clients access to the dashboards. In addition, mystery shoppers are being introduced and the sales teams will get cold calls once a month and a mystery show-around once a quarter.

"We are testing and benchmarking ourselves," he says. "The growing importance to me is what we can do with data – not just in tracking sustainability – but also to better understand business and make us more efficient. I want it in our arsenal because, channelled properly, it can be a huge tool for operational and commercial improvement."

The benefits of operating within the infrastructure of a nationwide company such as CH&Co are obvious, with access to expertise around procurement, finance, marketing and other areas, providing a layer of support.

Fredrickson is also enjoying flexing his entrepreneurial talents. "I have an enormous amount of freedom to craft Company of Cooks, though there are checks and balances, finance reviews and one-to-ones. But CH&Co's chief executive Bill Toner and chairman Tim Jones are entrepreneurial, and they allow me to be that – notwithstanding contract growth has been slow."

But he is confident that is about to change. "The future for us is to be get back to contract growth in London and further afield, and I have every reason to be optimistic on both those fronts. It's our start-up approach. We are not afraid to try out new things or propose new things because there is no weight of history."

What ‘community' means to Company of Cooks

Company of Cooks' commitment to "community" is particularly important to Rob Fredrickson. "Community is a differentiator. We have a triple-lock commitment to all things sustainable," he says.

The first is for those who work with the company, but the team also work with organisations such as Well Grounded, Springboard and Luminary Bakery to give people who struggle to find employment opportunities in the industry.

The second applies to suppliers. Last year, the caterer sourced 48% of ingredients from local small enterprises, using only British meat and cheese, and did not buy MSC-rated 4 and 5 fish or accept airfreight deliveries.

These initiatives link in with Company of Cooks' pledge to safeguard the planet, which has seen it find alternatives to single-use plastic and collect data on its carbon footprint.

"The ability for us next year to report on the carbon footprint on every contract down to individual restaurant level will give us fabulous data to work with," says Fredrickson.

Harnessing people power

Rob Fredrickson is unfazed by the industry-wide staff shortages and inflation. "I don't view them as challenges any more – they are just part of being an operator in the UK," he says. "Market differentiation and change in leadership are our focus."

He is getting that message out to potential clients through a series of lively short films uploaded on the Company of Cooks' website that feature team members, clients, suppliers and collaborators talking about what it means to work with the business.

"They outline our change in approach and management and the ‘we' narrative, not the ‘Mike Lucy' narrative," he says.

Fredrickson has also founded his recruitment strategy on the new company culture. "We stopped paying whatever it took to bring people in [after Covid] because that was the road to ruin," he says. "I think the clearer you are about the definition of your culture and approach, the more attractive you are to future employees."

That has proved to be the case, with staff turnover now the lowest in the group at 27%.

"It's intangible, but the feedback I get is that people enjoy working [with us]," he says.

He believes with high-turnover contracts operations managers should only have five or six relationships to oversee. As most of the operations team have only been in place for two years, contract wins will provide all-important opportunities for other employees to progress.

"I don't like recruiting; I like to progress people. That way everyone can see that the opportunity is real, so it lifts everybody."

In preparation for new contract wins, the Company of Cooks Service School has just been launched. Its remit is to embed a consistent service style across all contracts, whether it's a private dinner for donors at the Royal Opera House or a café for the public in a museum. Staff are also being offered a range of apprenticeships front and back of house, as well as CH&Co Group learning for levels 2 to 7 to help people move into management.

"Whoever I employ, I make three commitments: I will give them opportunities to learn about themselves personally, to grow professionally, and the chance to earn more overtime through progression. That is my definition of a growth business, and that is the approach we are clear about."

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