With a string of top hotel and restaurant projects behind it, and a combi oven service deal that covers 850 KFC branches, Catering Equipment Solutions has a bird’s-eye view of how commercial kitchens are evolving. And if what its managing director tells FEJ turns out to be correct, multi-site operators will need to build greater levels of automation into their kitchens if they are to survive in future.
Catering Equipment Solutions (CES) landed its first £1m kitchen project last year, with the iconic Nobu Hotel in Shoreditch. For managing director Anna McNamara (second left of main image, collecting a ‘New Supplier of the Year’ award the company won from KFC), it’s the biggest endorsement yet of just how far the Peterborough-based company has come in the 16 years it has been trading.
Born out of a family affair — McNamara originally joined her brother Dominic [Ricciardi]’s second-hand catering equipment firm Caterquip but when the need arose to create a separate project-focused entity CES was incorporated — the last decade and a half has been a tale of incremental growth for the 16-strong outfit.
“When we started out, I think our biggest project was about £30,000. Since then we have always played around the £50,000 to £100,000 mark, although about six or seven years ago we won a job worth £250,000. Then we stepped up a couple of years ago to half a million and now a million,” she says.
The fact that CES has been able to land such significant projects is even more impressive given the personal challenges that she has had to overcome. Three years ago she underwent a kidney transplant and was out of the business for six months, but with the size of the projects growing she soon found herself approving kitchen drawings and working out finances from her hospital bed.
Fortunately at that time she had recruited Brian Jones who stepped in to take over those projects. He has recently been promoted to director after proving to be a committed and capable member of the management team, and now heads up the projects department along with looking at the company as a whole.
Asked if she was hungry to get back into work after such a life-changing operation, she laughs: “Absolutely not — I had no choice! Basically it just went bananas and we were so busy that I really had no other option. In fact, before my transplant when we were still growing, I probably had a much better work-life balance! But when you are running a business it is very difficult to turn things down.”
Over the years the company’s customer base has increased significantly. It clients have included hotel groups, fast food chains, local restaurants, schools and national care home operators. Growth remains at the very heart of the business today. CES is in the midst of a major software upgrade designed to transform its service department and is looking to expand the catering and refrigeration maintenance part of its business. Up to now it has offered that service to project clients but it is keen to win service contracts independent of those.
It certainly has the pedigree to show it can be relied on. For the last seven years CES has managed the servicing and preventative maintenance of Rational ovens installed across KFC’s 850-strong UK store estate. It sounds a demanding task but it’s one that CES appears to have got down to a fine art, even winning the fast food chain’s ‘New Supplier of the Year’ award in 2010.
“Their SLAs are pretty reasonable to be fair,” says Anna. “We had that conversation right at the beginning. They wanted a four-hour response, which we still do with the best efforts, and obviously if there’s an emergency we’ll try and get to it quicker. Our first-time fix rate is very high. They are a nice chain to work with and it has probably helped us in terms of credibility — it gives confidence to other clients that if we can deal with a chain of that size for so many years then we can handle their projects competently.”
The chains are a lot more automated but still not to the degree of where they are probably going to have to be in a few years’ time”
If the last 16 years have taught her anything, it’s that success comes down to detail. She places huge importance on achieving the right specification and is obsessed with ensuring the company knows exactly what’s available in the market place. And she is a firm believer that, as a kitchen designer, the company must always have one eye on what the kitchens of tomorrow might look like.
“We always need to be looking ahead at things, such as how clients are going to cope with the lack of labour in the industry,” she says. “We need to start thinking quite seriously about how operators are going to automate or change the processes in their kitchens. There is a shortage of staff now, let alone when we get out of the EU, and that is going to become even more of a challenge for those running kitchens.”
Anna fears a dramatic change in mindset will be needed if operators are to avoid being caught cold. She thinks many simply aren’t examining their processes closely enough.
“They are all still looking at traditional methods of how to prepare food. The chains are a lot more automated but still not to the degree of where they are probably going to have to be in a few years’ time. But certainly the ‘normal’ operators are not really looking at how to automate their businesses to deal with the lack of human resources in that area.”
Taking her theory to its natural conclusion, if operators don’t automate more they are going to have to hike menu prices to achieve the turnover they are used to.
“At the moment you are either high volume and reasonably priced, or you are higher priced with a lower volume. And if you are higher volume and you haven’t got that automation then how are you going to manage that process in future? I think the lower to medium end of the market will be more challenged than the upper end. It’s the chains that could suffer most.”
As an example, Anna cites one well-known chain that typically makes use of a wide range of manual equipment in its kitchens: “This chain currently uses deck ovens to make pizza but if they really want to automate that process they need a conveyor. Now that’s not a new technology but they need to start thinking about looking at equipment that is going to partially or fully automate their processes. And at the moment they cook everything from fresh on the grill.
It gives confidence to other clients that if we can deal with a chain the size of KFC for so many years then we can handle their projects competently”
“There is equipment out there that would cook all their product to the highest quality and could be finished on a chargrill and sent out, but they are not doing any of that at the minute. There is going to be less and less labour, and until they start looking at their concepts and how they can minimise the amount of labour they need to produce what they need to produce, there is always going to be an issue.”
When it comes to motivation, Anna admits the favourite part of her job is winning a new client and really getting them on board with CES’ ethos.
“I still enjoy the sales side and introducing clients to products and talking to them about what is available, especially when they are receptive to the different concepts rather than the traditional-style equipment.
“I am interested in their processes and how they are going to operate, and recommending ways to operate that will save them time and money. Labour is always going to be their most expensive cost, so if we can design a kitchen to make that more efficient then we will always set out to do that.”