City slicker: The inside story of how a London caterer turned an empty railway arch into a £400k production kitchen

Grazing kitchen

When FEJ heads south of the River Thames to check out Grazing Food’s brand new commercial kitchen facility, talk quickly turns to the uncertainty of what Britain’s impending EU exit might mean for business.

And you could excuse owner Sam Hurst for feeling a little anxious, especially since talk of big corporate and City businesses shedding jobs and relocating staff would be a dagger to the heart of its core customer base. But, as it turns out, he’s taken it all in his stride — for the simple reason that the business has been here before.

Less than six months after the company started trading in 2007 the bottom fell out of the market, the credit crunch struck and firms began laying off workers in their droves, so he’s fully qualified in dealing with economic adversity. “We grew our business in a recession and that’s all we knew for the first few years. [Brexit] doesn’t fill me with joy, but it doesn’t scare me either. It is what it is — short-term jitters will hopefully end in the next few weeks and we will see what the coming weeks and months have to offer. I don’t think it’s a good thing, it’s absolutely not a good thing, it is not going to do our business any favours whatsoever, but we will just deal with whatever comes at us,” he says.

sam-hurst-needs-to-be-cut-outOriginally Hurst’s plan was to launch a chain of very British-themed cafes. He’d spotted a gap in the market for a quality, freshly-prepared, locally sourced QSR concept and he was convinced there was room for one on every street corner. But after the first café opened in Great Tower Street, it quickly became apparent that there was another, much more lucrative, opportunity staring it in the face.

“From very early on we started delivering to local offices because they said, ‘we like your sandwiches, can you deliver 20 bacon rolls for a breakfast meeting, can you do a platter of sandwiches for lunch?’ So we started building up a nice trade in catering at the same time as operating the café and, over the course of time, both businesses grew. Within two years we reached the point where we couldn’t do any more out of the little café space we were in. We had a very small kitchen and the chefs were on top of each other — no amount of the latest catering equipment was going to help us because we had maximised it all from a small footprint already.”

“Over four years we have learnt that, by God, you cannot reheat a paella! There is no bit of kit out there that anyone has invented which can do that successfully!”

This was at a time when Pret and EAT were expanding massively and highly-regarded players such as Leon and Chilango, along with new Mexican and Japanese chains, were making their mark. Competition on the high street was driving up rents, so when Hurst looked at the business model and realised that average spend in the café worked out at about £4.50, compared to £200 for local office deliveries, it wasn’t hard to work out which was the more viable business model.

As Grazing’s corporate client base swelled, customers began to turn to it for other catering requirements, such as events and seasonal parties. Then something else happened that was to positively alter the course of the business: a customer approached it to be its in-house caterer. “We picked up our first contract entirely by accident because somebody asked us to do it and we just said, ‘yes, sure’. That was six years ago and it just grew from there. It is not really a part of our business that we have marketed up to now, we just gradually picked up contracts.”

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Grazing’s whole ethos is to leverage the strength of its central production kitchen in order that everything is done with a minimum amount of fuss on-site. One thing it has become especially good at is designing menus. It operates an eight-week rotating menu comprising hundreds of dishes to ensure maximum variety.

“We come up against other caterers trying to do similar things but they don’t quite have the experience we do. Over four years we have learnt that, by God, you cannot reheat a paella! It just does not work — there is no bit of kit out there that anyone has invented which can do that successfully! But wet dishes, stews, pizzas, fish and chips, bangers and mash, all the classics — we have managed to nail them. We do a lot of interesting dishes as well, and we have been able to establish what works and what doesn’t work within the limitations we face.”

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Such demand for its services inevitably led to the kitchen hitting full capacity, which is why, with the sound of a commuter train rumbling past overhead, FEJ finds itself at its new home. The site essentially comprises two connecting arches that house a giant production kitchen, with a mezzanine level for office and storage space above.

Finding the right location has taken two years. “The brief was that it needed to be close enough into town because we are transporting a lot of hot food and we didn’t want to spend extra time and money going back and forth. We knew we could have picked up light industrial space fairly easily in places such as Earlsfield, Deptford and Park Royal but we didn’t want to go that far because the logistics of it would have been a headache. This was ideal and Network Rail is quite comfortable with it. Bone Daddies has its central production unit and a pop-up café restaurant next door to us, so they understand what production kitchens involve.”

“We want to get at least five to seven years out of a piece of kit and for it not to cause us headaches along the way. The last thing we can afford is for a piece of kit to go down”

It is certainly a far cry from the basement kitchen it left behind. Deliveries were troublesome, parking was limited and when it rained it suffered damp issues. But the biggest problem was that at 1,000 square feet it was no longer large enough to support the business. In contrast, the two arches it has taken on span 5,000 square feet and have afforded it the chance to redesign the kitchen from scratch.

The location of the wash-up area was one of the starting points. In the old kitchen, the wash-up facilities were by the entrance, which caused congestion as dirty wares came back from sites at the same time as orders were going out. Such bottlenecks have now been eliminated. The two arches are broadly split into cold production and hot production. On the hot side, ductwork associated with the 10 metre long extraction canopy created some challenges, which were solved with some clever installation work to utilise space.

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The cookline forms the central hub of the kitchen and contains a 120-litre Blue Seal bratt pan combined with a series of gas cooking appliances from Falcon’s new F900 range. Grazing first saw the F900 series up close at a show and Hurst admits it was instantly impressed.

“We liked the added depth you got with it,” he says. “Falcon is a known brand to us, we’ve used bits of their kit before. We liked the fact we were buying British, it was well-priced and it ticked a lot of boxes. In the past we have used Imperial stuff, which is also well-priced and quite solid and basic. We didn’t want to go up to something that was really super heavy duty, so it was a nice middle-of-the-range ground — solid, expandable and relatively easy to service. It also just looked good, so that was part of the reason as well.”

The other fundamental pillar to Grazing’s cooking operation is a fleet of Rational combination ovens, including one 20 grid, two 10 grids and a six grid. Space has been left to accommodate more combis as the business expands. Outside of that, Foster refrigeration units and blast chillers are prominent, while an Electrolux induction plate and griddle has been purchased for an upstairs demo area that it has created.

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The whole move, including equipping the kitchens, has left it with a bill of £400,000. “It’s a sizeable investment and, to be honest, we could have blown twice that amount! But it is important that we invested because this place is our future. Okay, we have got some Polar counter fridges because they are cheap as chips and come with a two-year guarantee, but actually they are fine and we have used them before.

There are some areas where you can get away with a few less extravagant or less robust bits of kit, but for everything else we want it to last. We want to get at least five to seven years out of a piece of kit and for it not to cause us headaches along the way. The last thing we can afford is for a piece of kit to go down and then suddenly we’re not able to get on with the day’s work.”

Hurst estimates that the company is probably only utilising 50% of the kitchen capacity available to it right now. “We are working six days a week for about 12 hours a day at the moment, but that leaves another 12 hours every day and another whole day that we could be using,” he remarks. “This kitchen was built with future growth in mind, so while we can achieve a lot of growth with the set-up we have put in place, we have got quite a lot of expansion capacity as well.”

Power struggle

Any large-scale kitchen build is fraught with challenges, but Grazing encountered a particularly big problem as work on its new production facility unfolded: it emerged there was insufficient power to fuel the catering appliances it had specified. A new 400kW electricity cable had to be connected from a sub-station, which ended up triggering a whole sequence of other events that meant it had to liaise with neighbouring businesses to ensure there was adequate shared capacity. It also upgraded its gas supply at the same time. “It was not an easy process,” reflects owner Sam Hurst. “It was a pretty painful one, which we only discovered after we had got in and started getting things up and running.”

The executive chef’s view: What makes my kitchen tick

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Grazing’s executive chef, Robbie Lorraine, has 20 years’ experience working in large industrial kitchens and previously oversaw the F&B operation at London City Airport. He was instrumental in the design of the caterer’s new kitchen and here he explains the factors that shaped his equipment decisions.

“Our previous kitchen was very small, it was in a basement and we’d have deliveries coming in and going out at the same time, which created a bottleneck and restricted productivity. So the most important thing when we were putting the plans together for this kitchen was that we had a clear flow and stream of work, with everything coming into one arch and going out the other.

“If you asked me what the most important piece of kit in my kitchen was, I’d say the dishwasher because it takes such a pasting”

“It is a constant cycle in the sense that goods come in, they are stored, cooked, chilled and dispatched. It makes it easier for staff because everybody knows where their workstation is and what happens on that workstation. We’ve got a team of 10 chefs and we split them out in different shift patterns, with one shift starting at 5am and another at 8am.

“Being able to split out the hot and cold, and the raw and cooked, has been a massive plus for us. We limit any cross-contamination and our HACCP processes are a lot easier than they were before. We have got three distinct divisions in the business and we wanted to be able to separate those out. If you asked me what the most important piece of kit in my kitchen was, I’d say the Winterhalter conveyor dishwasher because it takes such a pasting. There is not a minute that it isn’t working, from 5am until probably 8pm or 9pm.

“Wash areas get overlooked in kitchens but they are so important to keeping the flow going and productivity high. We use it purely for trays and heavy wares, not cutlery or china, so if the guys haven’t got the trays to cook with it just slows everything down. The self extraction — being able to extract all the steam out of it — was the big draw for us. It gets very wet and slippery in those areas, it’s where a lot of accidents can happen, and with so much traffic going through there we wanted it to be as safe as possible for anybody working there.

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“In terms of cooking, we wanted heavy duty equipment, which is why the Falcon F900 screamed at us when we saw it. We wanted something that we knew was going to take some real punishment — not just give us durability but longevity as well. Looking ahead, we’d like to get some form of barbeque equipment, such a Big Green Egg or a Kamado Joe, which I think would add a different element of cooking to what we do at the minute, especially on the event side of the business.

“But in terms of the practicalities of having high volumes going through this kitchen, we will probably be looking at more combis. There are lots of techniques we can do in the combis — we use them to dehydrate and for sous vide, for example. The most important thing is choosing equipment that will stand the test of time. You have got to give the guys the kit they need to be able to deliver the product you want.”

Spec sheet: Key bits of kit

Ansul: Fire suppression system
Blue Seal: Bratt pans
Caterplan: Project management and fit-out
Falcon: Gas cooking appliances
Foster: Refrigeration cabinets and blast chillers
Polar: Counter refrigeration
Rational: Combi ovens
Winterhalter: Dishwasher

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