Contract caterer Centerplate has been branded “unprofessional” and “bullying” by a judge following a legal dispute with Gillingham Football Club.
Centerplate was told to pay the League One club damages of more than £1.35m after a judge ruled in its favour following a walkout in 2015.
Judge Sir Alistair MacDuff was extremely critical of the catering firm for reneging on a contract that was set to run until 2021.
Kent Online reported that in his judgement, Mr MacDuff said: “The defendant (Centerplate UK) undoubtedly found this to be an onerous contract, a contract under which they determined they were unable to make a profit, and they walked out mid-season.
“The behaviour of the defendant was wholly unprofessional and something of which it should be ashamed.
“Mr Stewart (acting for Centerplate) has urged me otherwise, but I am entirely satisfied that the defendant indulged in bullying, blackmail (a word introduced into this case by me) and the breaking of undertakings.”
Gillingham had initially agreed a contract with caterers Lindley in 2011, which was renegotiated a year later, an agreement which included operating the club’s matchday kiosks, what was formerly the Blues Rock Cafe (now The Factory) and their banqueting facilities, according to the paper.
It said turnover had been declining under previous contractors Compass from £1.7 million to £880,000 between 2007 and 2011.
Centerplate took over the running of the operation after their acquisition of Lindley in 2013, with a starting turnover at Priestfield of £904,000 dropping to about £750,000 at the time they quit the club. They subsequently admitted breach of contract but argued over how much they owed the club.
Mr MacDuff said: “Centerplate was looking again to “renegotiate” the terms of the contract. In fact “renegotiate” is a euphemism. What it means is that they were intent on getting Gillingham Football Club to agree to take another large hit or, if that did not work, to get out of the contract either at no cost to themselves or at minimum cost.
“It was not in any way accepted by the defendant that its behaviour was abominable, but it was. On 14th March 2015, the defendant did what may only be described as a moonlight flit, albeit that it was done during the hours of daylight.
“Centerplate exited the stadium, there was a recognition that they were repudiating the contract and that they would likely be sued.
“Those involved at management level were well aware that they were doing wrong. Internal emails made reference to the police being around. There may even have been consideration as to whether they were acting criminally.
“It would be difficult to imagine a worse way to terminate a contract, in the middle of the football season, with clients due to attend on the following Saturday or the Saturday after, with bookings and so on, short of some worse act of vandalism on the way out.
“They had been telling Gillingham Football Club that they were going to exit come hell or high water (my words) at the end of the season, but they had given an undertaking to stay to the end of the football season, an undertaking which they broke.”
Kent Online reported that the club faced a legal bill of more than £500,000 to fight the case, which will now have to be settled by Centerplate, who must also pay their own costs.
Centerplate – which is entitled to appeal the decision – responded to the judgement by saying: “We value all of our client relationships and are disappointed by the tenor and course that this particular contract has unfortunately taken; but we are relieved to finally have resolution and to focus on our other valued partnerships.”