How does a medium-scale events company cater for the might of Westfield Stratford during the Olympics? The answer is by partnering up wisely. This summer, Absolute Taste has joined forces with contract caterers ISS Food and Hospitality to land a plum job overlooking the Olympic site, at Westfield. But it'll be no stroll by the Park. Tom Vaughan speaks to Absolute Taste owner Lyndy Redding to find out more
How did the partnership with ISS Hospitality and Westfield come about?
We didn't go for anything in the Olympic Park as we didn't really love the idea of what the caterers were doing there - the same thing in every place - instead we wanted to do something that suited our creativity more.
We heard about the Westfield site in the very early stages of the tender but felt it might be too big an operation for us to do on our own. However, we have a relationship with ISS as we both operate at McLaren and we came to realise that if we did it with a big organisation like them it would be possible.
We've always done events, and they've always done big contracts, so it was a good fit - it is our qualities and our food, but their infrastructure and technology, they process the payroll, the staff check-in, the rotas and all of that. We really wanted to do it - we didn't pitch for anything else.
Westfield is a funky brand - they're young, they're cool and they've got an amazing site overlooking the Olympic Park. We put a tender document together and went into such detail - we lived and breathed it - and I think that came across.
What will day-to-day operations involve throughout the Olympics?
Absolute Taste will be catering for about seven big areas and lots of little ones - a mixture of rooftops, shops, a big office building and so on. We'll be catering for a mixture of hospitality clients, experiential clients, broadcasters - probably six big clients - and they all have different needs, which is what attracted us to it. It's not 'Menu A for 2,000 people'; it's different every day.
Westfield has presented us with a huge and fabulous central kitchen, and food will go out on trolleys to service kitchens in each area. We'll be manned by about 2,000 daily staff and will be doing about 65,000 covers over the course of the Olympics.
What unique challenges will the Games present?
The logistics of moving the food is pretty impossible and we've really embraced that challenge - we are used to Formula One and working in difficult situations. We've been presented with the peaks and flow of when people are moving, and when we can get the food into the different areas. My dread is that I look out and see a throng of people and a chef carrying a box of tomatoes between them. But there are quite a few underground passages and service routes to help us.
Getting our supplies is far from easy; everything has to go to a central depot where it will be security cleared, like at an airport, then come in between 1am and 6am. We need a 24-hour operation to make sure it arrives, is cooked and then out before people start arriving. We'll be working about three days ahead of ourselves as I know we will have challenges from that perspective. With that, at least we have a couple of days to recover, and we can walk produce in if there is a problem.
Staffing issues will be more of a problem -100 employees sitting on a tube that is delayed, or someone ending up being two hours late and deciding to head home rather than getting told off.
Is this new partnership with ISS a taste of things to come?
Yes it is a long-term plan; this will be the first of many. We can do bigger things now. We've done lots of big things before but nothing on this scale. We know exactly what we want to do next - it's a big sporting event, that's all I can say at this stage.
Aside from potentially lucrative contracts, what opportunities will the Olympics present for UK-based caterers?
Everyone seems to be doing something during the Games, from big boy caterers through to smaller guys such as ourselves. We are showing what we're all about - everyone will be heading for the restaurants but caterers show off something different. We travel around the world, as do our competitors, so there must be something amazing about what we are doing here in London and we can show that off.
How did the 2008 crash and subsequent recession affect Absolute Taste?
At the time, not a huge amount changed as everyone was still doing their budgets and we are not massively City-orientated. The next year was OK, but 2010 was tricky.
Our main change in the business was the in-flight catering, as not so many people were jumping on private jets and that has dropped even more this year. People were tighter with their budgets and wanted more for their money, so it forced us to be more creative and people actually came to us looking for that creativity. We've managed to do some fantastic stuff as a result and have probably doubled our size since 2008. But that's what happens in a recession - you either go big or go bust.
You teamed up with Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH) when it was flying high. Over the past few years, however, it has taken quite a few knocks. How has this affected Absolute Taste?
It has affected us a bit, as there is more uncertainty, but it hasn't made a big difference. We're no longer doing Gordon Ramsay by Absolute Taste, as Gordon's not in the UK so much. If someone wants it as a one-off we might do it but he's rarely available these days and a lot of the chefs that were there in 2008 have left.
When GRH and Absolute Taste took over La Tante Marie cookery school, it was mooted by many as a prototype of a Gordon Ramsay cooking academy. Four years on, where does the school find itself?
The college is full as everyone still wants to be the next Gordon Ramsay and it's now a bit more chef-orientated. It's good for us - people come out and they have the full skills, attitude and passion, just not the speed, so they couldn't necessarily go into a restaurant kitchen. So we're a good stop gap, they come to us for a little while - six months, a year - then go elsewhere. As for adding more sites, we're always looking to expand but at the moment there are no plans.
Your company has numerous strings to its bow: McLaren, Absolute Taste Inflight, La Tante Marie, cafés, restaurants and the events and catering arm. Is it difficult maintaining focus on all the different aspects?
It can be! It's probably harder for me because I'm not directly in control of each area, but I've got great people who have been with me a long time, so I feel confident.
People get very into the Absolute Taste family and there is a really strong bond within our brand. The big chains such as McDonald's and Strada manage to churn out the same thing in each place, so we adopt their values of consistency and suppliers - just because our product is different and higher quality doesn't mean we can't also do that. Other people get big and maintain standards so there's no reason we shouldn't; it's all about the people you have in your company.
Finally, with hospitality companies having focused on the Jubilee and the Olympics for so long now, how can you stop staff going a bit flat once it is all over?
It's hard; it's been on our radar for two or three years and it's been a big thing for the past year. We have a busy September with our normal clients, so we will fall out of the Olympics and Paralympics into that, but October is always flat and this year will be even worse than normal, as those with budgets are putting them into the Olympics.
People will have holiday to take so maybe they can do that then we can regroup for Christmas. It is a worry, but hopefully we can make enough money that we just plan a big party to keep everyone excited!
Absolute Taste: From a VW Golf to private jets
Schooled at La Tante Marie - a cooking college she would later go on to buy in partnership with none other than Gordon Ramsay - Lyndy Redding's route to the top had the humblest of beginnings, loading up food into the back of her VW Golf to cater for the London dinner party scene.
Stints working in chalets and boats took her around the world before she joined a company cooking for Marlboro, sponsor of the McLaren Formula One team. When Marlboro moved on, McLaren boss Ron Dennis suggested he and Redding go into partnership to continue catering for the McLaren team and Absolute Taste was born.
After two years of running the company from her home, she hired premises in Wandsworth, south-west London and slowly began to expand. In 2003, at the suggestion of some McLaren employees, Absolute Taste Inflight was formed, a 24-hour, 365-day operation catering for private jets.
The Ramsay connection comes via Formula One, with the pair first meeting in the McLaren tent before becoming friends and then business partners. Gordon Ramsay by Absolute Taste, which saw the company provide signature Ramsay dishes for catering events, began in 2006 although it has since wound down, and in 2008 the pair teamed up to buy La Tante Marie cookery school.
In addition to its events arm, the company - which employs 320 full-time staff - operates cafés in Chelsea Harbour, Farnborough airport in Hampshire, Burghley House in Stamford, Geneva and provides the catering at Mercedes Benz World in Surrey. In 2010 it opened its first branded restaurant, at Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor in London.
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