Now in his sixth year steering contract caterer Rhubarb, managing director PB Jacobse has overseen a rise in turnover from £4.5m in 2005 to £27m in 2011. He tells Janie Stamford how a strategy of satellite kitchens enabled the business to broaden its reach
You've been with Rhubarb for six years. How has the business changed in that time?
I joined the business in 2005 following a meeting with our founder Lucy Gemmell and chairman Clive Beharrell in October the previous year when turnover was £4.5m. I was based in the Netherlands at the time with my own business and we talked about Rhubarb's need for a managing director to help move the business forward. We're now predicting to hit £27m at the end of this year, or looked at another way, our run rate as a result of new projects we're starting is about £32m.
Tell me about your five-year strategy.
We focused on organic growth. The event business has grown from about £4.5m to about £10m this year. But at board level we realised that there are only so many events in London. We cater for about 800 a year and it's very complicated.
Ours is very much a bespoke product: it's devised in head office and then we use satellite kitchens that might be in a marquee or in an office building. So we decided to use our vast expertise in this area to help us first get into the venues market, starting with Ascot where we cater for the Royal Ascot Racing club, working in partnership with Sodexo, which does the entire stadium. Then we moved into restaurants, starting with Heathrow in 2008.
How did that come about?
BAA had asked us for a concept for a Terminal 5 landside location, but we recognised that we'd work better at Terminal 3 airside. UK passengers at T5 don't tend to have a lot of time - they usually arrive 45 minutes before the gate closes and we thought it was too risky to have an unknown brand in a landside environment. So we went for T3 airside, where people will typically have 90 minutes to kill. We operated a 75-seat restaurant and bar which was highly successful, turning around about 600 covers a day.
What are the challenges of operating in an airport?
Heathrow employs around 100,000 people and it's a challenge recruiting quality staff prepared to travel there to work - but we've got a loyal team.
We closed briefly because Heathrow gave us a new site which we opened last month, and we kept about 20 of the staff. We'd temporarily re-deployed them to other areas of the business and they've now moved back to Heathrow. We were pleased to keep that knowledge-base within the business. It comes down to how you treat and engage with your staff while constantly looking for new talent.
What prompted the two acquisitions made by Rhubarb this year?
Both Eventuate and Cottage Caterers were very close to what we did so it made logical sense. Rhubarb still does a lot of private work and weddings make up a big part of that market, but a lot of them take place outside of London these days. Cottage Caterers, a wedding business based in Cranleigh, Surrey, is a logical extension to our brand in the country. We first started working with them in September 2009 and the full acquisition took place in March this year.
We met Eventuate founder Simon Cromack about 12 months ago and when our operations director left Rhubarb six months ago Simon was the logical choice to fill the role. But he had one bit of luggage: he had a business in Henley. So we looked at his portfolio, what type of audience he had, and we decided to acquire his business and make him commercial operations director of Rhubarb.
How is the business divided up?
It's roughly a third each. Rhubarb Events is worth about £10m, while the venues side of things is worth slightly more at £11m.
Our restaurants and bars division, which includes the American Airlines First and Business Class lounge at Heathrow Airport, is about £7m.
Are there any other sectors you're looking to move into?
If you look at the sectors we're already in, I think Rhubarb has only touched the surface. We're aware that not everything will fit into what we do, so we're quite picky about what we look at. We would love to get more venues and restaurants, and even explore further opportunities in airport environments.
But it has to fit in well with what we're trying to achieve. It has to be quality-driven and premium. Long-term, perhaps we might move into high-street retail concepts. Currently we're in high-footfall areas like the airports and the Saatchi gallery, so we haven't really explored it but it could be something we look at in the future. It is high risk and also we're humble. We have been in restaurants for two years and we still have a lot to learn and to define the brand identity to make it recognisable.
How did Rhubarb get involved with Heston Blumenthal?
Heston and his team approached us about 18 months ago. He was often getting enquiries to do his Fat Duck style of cuisine outside the restaurants, but he doesn't have the logistics and the manpower to do that. After he did a survey of the market he came to Rhubarb and looked at us as a potential partner on specific events. After some discussion we changed it into a collaboration agreement so that we can really work together.
This is not a one-off. His development team works with our chefs and we can offer Heston with Rhubarb events to corporate and private clients. And with that Heston's business participates with Rhubarb in terms of shares. He's very inspirational and it's testament to what Rhubarb has achieved over the past 15 years.
You've also moved into franchising. How did that come about?
We started to build a relationship with travel concession operator SSP, which represents over 200 brands in the UK. We looked at the demand for more premium restaurant offers in an airport environment, and SSP recognised it was missing in their portfolio.
We agreed that they would take the Rhubarb brands in the UK outside of Heathrow airport and also internationally. As a result there's going to be a Rhubarb branded restaurant in London City Airport from September. SSP is going to operate it with our brand bible and our concept.
Is there a risk attached to franchising out your brand?
It depends on how you structure it. We have SSP working at our restaurant at T3, training with our managers and learning Rhubarb through and through.
The head chef for SSP is also Rhubarb trained. So there are definitely ways around the risk. We have worked together with them and embraced them and also we have a brand manager who will visit to ensure standards are being met on a day to day basis.
How much of your business is international?
We do five to 10 international events, often for high-profile private clients as well as air shows such as Geneva and Paris. But we would like to get more involved in international sports events and I think there is a demand for it. There are lots of German and French caterers that have tried to conquer this market but I think there's room for British caterers too.
However, catering abroad is very expensive because of the logistical challenges of transporting staff and equipment from London to overseas. So we try to source locally. We send the site manager in advance to work with local producers and staff, with just the management team coming from the UK, so that we can keep the costs in line for the end client.
British caterers can bring something unique to the table. Our French and German counterparts are quite old fashioned whereas the British can bring contemporary high quality and I think the European market is ready for it.
Getting ready for 2012
We deliberately didn't go for any of the Olympic contracts. There are other players out there that are better equipped and we have other business relationships that will provide opportunities for us.
We are at the start of conversations looking at three to five specific locations to cater for Olympic needs. We've tried to focus on a couple of key venues where we will drive sales and have stand-alone teams operating. So one could be very close to the Olympic Park, acting as a hub or a cool meeting point for people who then go into the park for the games. Another could be in central London.
We want to make the most of the increased footfall. But as a business we need to look beyond the Olympics as well. 2012 is going to be extraordinarily exciting and great fun however there's other business that we need to focus on as well.