THE BIG INTERVIEW: Caterer H+J shares recipe for a winning kitchen strategy

Nathan Jones, director & co-founder, H+J

UK foodservice operator Harbour & Jones has rebranded its business to H+J as part of a move to bring uniformity to its burgeoning collection of operations and support its future growth plans. FEJ caught up with director and co-founder, Nathan Jones, to discuss the caterer’s strategy for managing equipment and dealing with kitchen design.  

What is Harbour & Jones’ operational model when it comes to food preparation and delivery? Do you use central production kitchens or is food prepared at site kitchens?

Our original business model focused on sites which had their own kitchen and the majority of food prepared by our chefs in-house. However, we are now seeing a movement towards smaller kitchen spaces, or those where there is to be no primary cooking due to landlord restrictions. As a result of our successful and award-winning events business, Tonic, we already have a fully kitted out central production kitchen, called The Events Kitchen, and a fleet of temperature-controlled vans serving a growing number of sites.

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As the business has grown, how have you scaled this aspect of your business? Presumably you must own, or at least operate, a huge estate of kitchen equipment across multiple sites?

Yes, we do operate a large amount of foodservice/kitchen equipment, but in the majority, aside from The Events Kitchen, it tends to be owned and maintained by our individual clients.

What is your model for ensuring that your services and venues can deliver the menus expected of them? Do you have a team that manages the equipment estate or is this left to individual chefs and managers on site?

Again this depends on our clients’ experience as many are very experienced facilities managers who know both the kit and restrictions on the building. We tend to know what we are going into when we start a new contract in terms of kit, but we may well recommend adding a few additional pieces of equipment to enhance service, both in terms of speed and capability. Certainly in recent years we have added a number of high-speed contact griddles and self-extracting combination ovens. We are seeing the improvements in self-inducting/extracting equipment as being a real bonus to clients who previously thought they could have no primary cooking on site. The manufacturers who have embraced this trend will be the winners.

Lamb, gnocchi, baby gem
H+J wants to show customers that it can offer a level of flexibility for its clients that is not available from the larger brands.

Failure of equipment, or the wrong specification of equipment, can create a major headache for catering providers. What is your policy for ensuring that you have the right equipment? Do you work closely with any particular manufacturers or equipment companies?

We carry out an annual condition report of all our kitchens and make recommendations for upgrade. Before we buy equipment for ourselves or on behalf of our clients we check that the specification is sufficient for the work that it is required for — light, medium or heavy duty. We work with a number of manufacturers including Electrolux Professional, Rational, Winterhalter, Bonnet and Foster, and a number of equipment companies.

How are your kitchen equipment needs changing as the business grows and scales?

Not necessarily to do with growth and scale and more to do with changing environmental requirements, there is a move from gas and electric to induction, and to harness better efficiencies in the use of water and power.

We are seeing the improvements in self-inducting/extracting equipment as being a real bonus to clients who previously thought they could have no primary cooking on site”

What are the main challenges you face from a kitchen design and equipment point of view across the business?

The days of the traditional big kitchen are dwindling and with space at a premium, catering facilities are being squeezed into smaller spaces, particularly in new-builds. Ventilation requirements and changing regulations to electric and gas mean that you can’t just change the kit when it breaks down; the systems to support need to be reviewed, for example installing a gas interlock system or fire suppression system, which are often required by insurance companies.

How has the impact of the EU referendum vote and the subsequent devaluation of the pound affected your business and what provisions are you making to try and offset any negative impact on performance?

One of the results of the weakened pound is the increased demand for UK products outside of the UK. UK products are now more affordable and farmers/manufacturers have seen an increase in the value of their exports. As UK imported products become more expensive to the UK and UK exported products more affordable to the international market, there is double pressure on the availability of products being farmed/manufactured in the UK.

However, there are many commodity prices that we don’t foresee changing and in some cases, where crops have been good, we may see a decrease in price. This will offset some of the above average increases we will experience. Our procurement director forecasts that food and beverage price increases in the foodservice market will be between 2% and 4% for 2017. Significant movement of the value of the pound will impact this forecast. Our chefs are working hard to mitigate these by careful menu planning and our suppliers are working hard with us.

Patrick & Nathan FOR THIRD PAGE
Co-founders Patrick Harbour and Nathan Jones.

You have created distinctive identities for all five of your brands, including changing the group name from Harbour & Jones to H+J. To what extent is brand recognition and brand identity important in the catering market today?

During our rebrand, it was highlighted to us that foodservice market identities have, on the whole, morphed into a bland, overcrowded and indistinct arena. Spy Studio, the agency we worked with, challenged us to look at our businesses from a completely different perspective and together we have created an identity that demonstrates our standout personality within this market place.

What were your main considerations during the rebranding process, especially in terms of creating a brand targeted at the catering sector?

It was important for us to show that as an independent catering brand, in an increasingly niche position, we can create offers and a level of flexibility for our clients that is not available from the larger brands. Independence is even more important to us now within this ever consolidating marketplace. We also made a conscious decision to move away from some of the imagery that is so often associated with our industry. We wanted people to be able to recognise our brands immediately through a strong logotype and wanted flexibility on the colour palates to allow us to apply these to the varying businesses that we work with.

Ventilation requirements and changing regulations to electric and gas mean that you can’t just change the kit when it breaks down”

What commercial benefits does Harbour & Jones expect from the rebrand?

Many smaller companies are being acquired by the larger ones and in order to maintain and protect our independence, which is of great importance to our customers and staff, we acquired a business ourselves last year to allow us to compete with the ‘big boys’ in terms of procurement and systems. We remain fiercely independent, our rebrand reinforces that message. Having repositioned the brands, we are now focusing heavily on their growth, with some exciting new individuals at the helm of each business driving this.

Your two recent acquisitions were factors behind the rebrand — are you looking to make further acquisitions and, if so, does the rebranding allow you to accommodate new businesses within the new brand?

We continue to look at ways to grow our business and the new brand architecture allows us flexibility for whatever the future may bring. The last year has been spent very much integrating the businesses, and we have already seen clear benefits to being a larger company, with the acquisition bringing talented teams and superb sites. Certainly there are businesses in the market place that have caught our eye!

H+J expects price increases in the foodservice market of 2% to 4% in 2017.

What does the next chapter of your food journey hold for the business? What are your core strategic objectives over the next 12 months?

While we forecast strong organic growth in all our businesses, catering in schools really excites us. Principals has already taught us much about how sophisticated the catering market within education is, with a lesson or two that could filter into other parts of our businesses. With 57 new schools already added this year, and some fantastic feedback, we are confident of great growth in this area, supported by our new schools of excellence. Naturally, as we grow, remaining true to our core values is also important. We will continue to be bespoke and personal in our dealings with our clients while remaining competitive.

H+J: ‘An antidote to uninspiring food’

– The founders of Harbour & Jones launched the business as what they call an “antidote to a catering world of uninspiring food and lacklustre service”.

– The business is now in its 12th year of trading and has seen 50% growth this year following two acquisitions it made in December 2015.

– H&J became the new name for the group in October 2016 after it unveiled new and distinctive identities for all five of its brands.

– H+J serves as the brand identity for the longest standing element of the business, which provides service to business and industry, conference and banqueting venues, public cafes and restaurants within blue chip companies, as well as some of London’s top destinations and visitor attractions.

– The bespoke parties and private events arm of the business, Harbour & Jones Events, has been reimagined as a top-end experiential catering company called Tonic, designed to create some of the most innovative and daring events in the industry.

– At the end of last year, H+J acquired Fare of London, which specialises in providing catering at heritage venues throughout the capital, and Principals, a leading education caterer for the south east of England.

– The only non-catering element of the Harbour & Jones business, Upfront, which provides reception and front-of-house services, has also been given a complete brand transformation to reflect the exacting standards and phenomenal growth the unit has experienced in the last 12 months.

Tags : contract caterersContract cateringH+JHarbour & Joneskitchens
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