THE BIG INTERVIEW: BaxterStorey’s chef director Matt Hay talks food trends, retail competition and kitchen spaces

Matt Hay, chef director

With a diverse list of clients that ranges from banks and law firms to fashion houses and Premier League football clubs, BaxterStorey offers a catering proposition to suit any workplace scenario. FEJ met the man responsible for executing its culinary vision, chef director Matt Hay, to find out why innovative, space-saving kitchen equipment holds the key to keeping up with the high street.

Matt Hay is coming up for his 15th year at BaxterStorey and it’s fair to say he has seen the contract catering market change immeasurably during his time with the business.

The archetypal canteen-style offerings and unimaginative menus that the large-scale catering sector was once known for are undoubtedly becoming a thing of the past thanks to an influx of independent trailblazers that have spurred new levels of innovation and a need for incumbents to deliver offerings in line with what customers can expect from the high street.

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BaxterStorey has been at the forefront of this transformation, forging ahead with a strategy firmly planted in providing personalised catering services that focus on fresh food. Hay’s tenure at the company initially began at a Barclays site in Canary Wharf, where he was involved in setting up all the hospitality and events. After six years, and with the business encountering rapid growth, he was handed a regional post covering London and, as that role grew to encompass a national element, he gained a real interest in the retail side of the business.

“Most chefs that come from a hospitality background stay in hospitality,” he says. “And hospitality, I think, is very simple in principle. The retail is the real challenge that we have because some days you might have 500 people come to lunch and the next day you might have 150. So it is just trying to gauge things like waste and cost processes. It is a constant battle.”

As chef director, a function that reports directly into the CEO’s office, Hay’s day-to-day duties include everything from sales and strategy to menu development and new concept design. He is also responsible for its European business too, which presently encompasses markets such as Norway, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Hay describes the way that he works as “strategic” and says he likes to ensure he touches all parts of the business throughout the week. He’ll generally spend three days at client locations, followed by a ‘think tank’ day in the company’s London or Reading offices, and a day with senior team members and chefs.

BaxterStorey has led the way with initiatives that promote healthy eating in the workplace.

He places immense value on ensuring constant attention is paid to the needs of its clients, admitting it can be all too easy to “hear but not listen”. “I think it is very important to get under the very fabric of what we do,” he explains.

His role today is understandably more consultative and less about being in the kitchen, but he still likes to demonstrate a “hands in the flour” approach whenever possible. This week he’s taken 12 young kitchen porters and commis chefs to Westminster Kingsway College for a session on how to fillet and prepare fish dishes, culminating in a live cook-off.

“It was great fun — carnage, some of it, if I’m honest! But the guys got really passionate about things and they were absolutely buzzing at the end, they didn’t want to go home. That is really important because as a senior chef you are seen to have the knowledge and the skillset. I don’t cook every day, it’s true, but I have people who cook better than me, if you know what I mean. If you’re driving an F1 car, for example, you are good at one job, you’re good at changing wheels, but for me it is more about directing business, leading it, and letting the guys grow. I am a big believer in organic growth.”

With just shy of 8,500 staff in the business and the best part of 400 client locations in the UK alone, the scale of the business today is huge. BaxterStorey describes itself as the largest independent caterer in the UK, while parent company Westbury Street Holdings (WSH) turns over in excess of £828m. Only Compass Group and Sodexo currently generate more revenue per year.

Retail is the real challenge that we have because some days you might have 500 people come to lunch and the next day you might have 150”

One of the biggest changes that Hay has seen over the years is the declining footprint of the catering facilities that its teams manage. Quite simply, they have shrunk as customers have reclaimed space for front-of-house purposes. That provides numerous logistical challenges for it to overcome, he says.

“We still need to deliver the same service that we did before, but in a smaller kitchen. The sales team will go in and sell our business and then it is up to the chefs to go in there and make it work, which all ties into the equipment. My expectation for the next five years is that this trend of clients taking away space is going to continue, so what we need to do is focus on equipment that has the power to deliver the commercial output we need in a smaller environment. It is all about being clever with space and people — and looking at efficiencies — while giving great fresh, seasonal food.”

The company recently worked with a client that wanted a Leon-style takeaway for their business because they had consolidated their catering footprint to a third of what it was but still needed to achieve the same numbers. “We had to think very carefully about that and look at it differently, so we had a look at what’s going on in Europe, how the high street is dealing with it and how things like concessions work. However, we are different in the sense that the high street menu stays the same every day, whereas in contract catering it changes every day.”

BaxterStorey’s vision has always been for chefs to have access to fresh, seasonal and local produce.

Often clients have already started building kitchen spaces by the time catering contracts are awarded, which presents another challenge.

“The kitchen will have been designed around a certain thought process from the designers, but actually they should really speak to the chefs before they do that because the menu might not be a good representation of what the need is. So if you are going to have one induction stove and one small six burner, and you are going to do 300 covers out of it, and that’s both hospitality and vending, then it’s going to be a challenge. Everything has to be respected individually and that is a big challenge for us because specification is very different.”

Flexibility of equipment is important in this context and Hay continues to spend a lot of time assessing how the latest generation of equipment might be able to help the business. He cites Adande’s switchable drawer units as one example of hardware that has grabbed its attention lately. “You can have them as refrigeration or they become a freezer or blast chiller, which gives you flexibility,” he says.

The same applies to cooking equipment, where the ability to modify a counter or concept to stimulate customer interest is clearly an advantage. “One day it is a grill, the next day it is teppanyaki, the day after it is induction. We’ve got to be constantly thinking about how we can develop the offer.”

I think kitchen designers need to be more efficient in the way that they are thinking and not just put in a piece of equipment they can get a deal on”

Hay also receives feedback from the company’s chefs on the latest innovations and says it’s vital that BaxterStorey has an informed view of the latest developments and techniques. “Years ago it was water baths and they went from having a solid water bath now to just heated circulators, which is interesting. People are always looking at different styles of food. Food is getting simpler and so instead of having five or six ingredients, they’ll have three ingredients and the focus will purely be on those three things.”

Sustainability is also a key pillar of the company’s strategy and that is increasingly extending to equipment and kitchen practices. It has clear guidelines on food waste and recycling, while it has started to gravitate towards things like salamander grills that automatically turn on when a plate is detected underneath. Hay would like to
see kitchen designers seize the initiative, too.

“I think they need to be more efficient in the way that they are thinking and not just put in a piece of equipment they can get a deal on. They have got to think about what the client wants from it long term, the longevity of the product and what it is going to do for the environment.”

Matt Hay says that a long-term focus on chef training has left the company well-placed to overcome recruitment challenges facing the catering industry.

BaxterStorey is a firm believer that menu development should come from location and that chefs should have the freedom to innovate and try new ideas. This grass roots approach is augmented by a development team that is out in the market all the time exploring new trends and concepts. Hay acknowledges that they are in a constant battle with the high street but admits the volatility of that market means it is almost impossible to come up with the next big thing before it goes mainstream. Ultimately, he says, it comes down to price point.

“What we have had to do is look closer at, and actually be more focused on, who our customer is. So if you take London, for example, the average lunch is 12 minutes and so a lot of people are looking for something that is fresh, quick, tasty and easy to grab and go, and there is a massive grazing culture. But it is not just lunch, we are talking from early morning all the way through. So that normal thing of breakfast, close after breakfast, then get ready for lunch stopped a number of years ago because you’ve got vendors on the high street that are open for 12 hours a day. We picked up on that because people were walking in with food they’d already bought outside and we have had to keep up with it.”

BaxterStorey continues to set the standard in many areas of food, particularly healthy eating. The company’s Healthy Me initiative has won awards for encouraging food businesses to provide more nutritious dining options to customers.

“Healthy Me is all about being more aware of what’s in your diet, so reducing salts, sugar and fats, but part of that also is that we are heading towards lots of recipes that are calorie-counted and all the nutrition is worked out. We now have about 50 recipes that go into our business and that is updated twice a year,” reveals Hay.

From a menu development and supply chain point of view, BaxterStorey remains highly decentralised. It has 1,400 suppliers on its books, providing its chefs and buyers with a unique opportunity to source locally and independently. If you take London, for example, it procures cheese that is made in Bermondsey, milk from Kent and vegetables that come from farms within a 50-mile radius.

With food prices going up, chefs are encouraged to buy seasonally. “You will never see a strawberry on the menu in December, unless a client wants that,” says Hay. “At the moment you have got beautiful arrowleaf spinach, asparagus and Jersey Royals coming through, so there’s a lot going on in terms of the UK and they can buy that at a leaner price as opposed to out of season.”

Innovation, whether through ingredients selection, equipment choice or new concepts, will be key to giving the high street a run for its money and enhancing its reputation as a caterer that genuinely cares.

BaxterStorey in the UK

8,500 employees
1,400 suppliers
400 clients
£363m turnover (UK business)
127,000 meals on average served daily

Dedicated barista academy training centre

In a bid to create more bespoke training opportunities for its baristas, BaxterStorey has launched a dedicated training centre in Chancery Lane, London. The space includes eight functioning stations for teaching, a range of hand-built espresso machines, brewing equipment and a reverse osmosis water-filtration system. 

Its barista training team are all Speciality Coffee Association-qualified trainers who deliver fully certificated training to teams.

Noel Mahony, co-chief executive of BaxterStorey, says: “BaxterStorey’s passion for coffee and training has not only spearheaded great quality coffee offers to clients, but has also placed our baristas in the highest tier of coffee specialists within the UK. We will continue to evolve our training to encompass the best of quality and delivery of hot beverages throughout our business, one cup at a time.”

The company also runs a Chef Academy, where practical, hands-on training is supported by a pastoral approach incorporating personal development pathways for confidence building at all levels. The facility has trained 500 chefs since its launch 12 years ago, with chef retention sitting at 72% for those who have attended it in the past five years.

Tags : BaxterStoreyContract catering
Andrew Seymour

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