As a workplace caterer, Compass Group-owned Eurest has encountered its fair share of turbulence during the Covid-19 crisis. But brighter days are most definitely ahead thanks to a strategy that has been carefully tweaked to recognise the changing landscape while staying true to the core food ethos of the business. Andrew Seymour caught up with culinary director Ryan Holmes to learn more.
It’s 11.30am and Ryan Holmes is discussing the launch of Eurest’s employee workplace initiative Kitchen Club over a Zoom call.
He would prefer to be speaking in person from behind a cookline somewhere, but such is the way of the world that chatting through a computer screen has become part of the daily routine for the company’s UK culinary director during the last 12 months.
“When you’re doing presentations for new business, I always think that people buy into you and what you’re about first and foremost. Now we’re having to do presentations online and it’s a very different mantra — you’ve got to get our food across with your personality and talk about our philosophies from a screen and that’s difficult,” he says.
“We’ve had to adjust and I think we’ve got better and better at doing that and approaching it in different ways as we’ve done more of these presentations. But we’re itching to get back to seeing people face-to-face, and we’ll do that when it’s safe,” he says.
The past year has easily been the most eventful of the six that Holmes has experienced at Compass Group, the £20 billion catering services giant that owns Eurest. And that’s saying something given that after initially joining the business as group exec chef for the aviation sector, he went on to spend three years commuting back and forth from Ireland every week as culinary director there.
He is now back in England spearheading Eurest’s B&I strategy, which involves making sure that its food philosophy is delivered at site level and clients are happy.
“In this contract catering game, you cannot rest on your laurels. You might think you’re relevant now, but tomorrow you won’t be. So my role is to make sure we’re always ahead in everything that we do — we’re always looking at trends. We’re in such a great position because we’re so forward thinking and we never stop.”
Eurest employs a large team of chefs and Holmes works closely with Jason Trotman, who looks after the operational side of the B&I business, ensuring that everything is executed at unit level the way it should be. With ample support from Eurest’s regional culinary leads, the company has a presence throughout the UK.
B&I has been fairly polarised over the past year, as Eurest will vouch for. The office-bound white collar side of the business has been hit by people working from home, but on the manufacturing front things have been much more consistent and sites have been operating at full tilt.
During that time, Holmes has seen the challenges facing the business change dramatically. At the start, there were issues with getting food around the country and the company had to flex its menus accordingly while still maintaining its ethos and food philosophy.
There was the constant risk of entire teams dropping overnight should somebody have caught Covid and the need to find a new team to replace them. Chefs accustomed to busy daily routines and structure have been on furlough for long spells.
Holmes acknowledges it would be wrong to expect those who have been away to just slot back in from where they left off because so much has altered in the past year. Such has been the pace of menu change that it plans to create a plant-based academy to train chefs in this area, for example.
But although it’s been a bumpy period, Holmes insists the business has learned a lot about itself and become much more efficient in the way it does things.
“Whilst it’s been tough, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he insists. “There are lots of good conversations with clients, things are starting to open back up and I think we’re approaching about 70% of pre-Covid levels and rising, so we are in a good position.”
Prior to the pandemic, Holmes spent most of his time in the kitchen exploring new concepts and ideas, and carrying out menu development work. It is a facet of the role he clearly relishes.
“During my time in Ireland, I could tell you what the cows ate, where every vegetable came from… I’m really passionate about that — that we use the right ingredients. Back in the UK it’s no different. It’s a much bigger territory but my time is spent in the kitchen, with suppliers and with clients as well. I always want to meet and talk to clients and build relationships because it’s the key to long term success. So splitting my time is important and it’s the same for my team. They need to be in the kitchen, with clients, looking at what’s coming down the line as well.”
Eurest uses Compass’ central development kitchen in Chertsey, Surrey, and it is here that some of the most creative concepts often spring to life.
The team takes its inspiration from all sorts of areas and keeps a watchful eye on the high street to consider how trends can be evolved to suit foodservice environments. That’s reflective in the diversity of its offer.
Some clients employ it to provide coffee shop, deli and food-to-go offers, others want multiple counters packed with live cooking stations.
“We can flex between the very small to the very large, but the key thing is that we are consistent in what we do all the way through,” says Holmes.
In September, Eurest remodelled its business, which saw a shift in food philosophy. Although its strategy is still based on the three longstanding pillars of providing flavourful, mindful and planet-positive food, it has had to tweak its food offer to reflect the new catering landscape. “There are things that we might not be able to do for a long time.
Take an open-air salad bar where somebody’s coming up and handling the equipment — that isn’t going to happen for a while. So we’ve just taken that off the counter and we do it in more of an Ottolenghi style, or where we can’t do that we put it into really nice box salads that are eye-catching, high quality and feature great ingredients. We have an app called Time to Eat that allows you to order your food wherever you are in the building and go to a pick-up point.
You don’t have to go into the restaurant if you don’t want to. It’s still our food, just done in more of a takeaway-delivery kind of way, but it has lots of other things on there.”
One of the most striking differences between contract catering and high street retail is the kitchen model. Caterers generally have to make use of kitchens that are owned or managed by the clients, and therefore one site will vary from the next.
“It’s always a challenge when you inherit equipment,” acknowledges Holmes. “We would all love to be able to design our own kitchens and put our own equipment in, but reality is a very different thing. We have to be adaptable and we have to have an honest relationship with a client. If a piece of equipment isn’t fit for purpose or what we’ve agreed to in terms of our contract can’t be delivered with the equipment in there, honesty is the best policy.
“We’ll have a conversation and see what equipment we can get in. We work with some very good equipment providers and I feel that I’m always in touch with what’s new on the market and what’s different, which is really important. But, yes, we have to adapt our offer accordingly to what we have in the kitchen.”
As an industry that is constantly evolving, Holmes is only too aware of the need to keep up with equipment trends as much as menu trends.
“Who’d have thought that a Thermomix or sous vide would be a thing back when I was at college. It’s really good to see different equipment, especially if it’s going to make us more efficient in the kitchen, to be able to produce more, provide better quality or even make us walk around the kitchen less, which improves efficiency in what we produce. There are so many exciting different things out there.”
Holmes admits there is a delicate path to tread. Conversations that focus on capital cost will invariably need to be switched to how much an item of equipment can save labour, improve efficiency or reduce energy.
“These things need to be balanced up because rather than just looking at the cost we need to look at what it does for us. Sometimes as chefs we need to understand that and when we talk to our clients we need to have all that information to hand so that we can put it into layman’s terms from a technical culinary point of view and break down what the equipment can do for them, their organisation and us.”
With lockdown restrictions starting to lift in the coming weeks, more Eurest units will be opening up as workplaces begin welcoming staff again. Holmes and his team are chomping at the bit to get back out there, promote health and wellbeing, and deliver nutritious menus. Seasonality and local supply — 80% of Eurest’s produce is sourced from Britain — will continue to be a key theme, as will sustainability and the drive towards carbon net-zero.
“We feel that what our clients give to their employees in terms of food is incredibly important and has become even more important over the past 12 months, so that’s going to continue to grow,” insists Holmes.
After a turbulent 12 months, there is plenty for Eurest to be optimistic about. And for chefs like Holmes, who have had to carry out more of their work from behind a screen than they would like, a permanent return to the kitchen can’t come quick enough.
Kitchen Club serves up chef-led virtual cooking lessons to clients
One of the big highlights for Eurest during a challenging year for the industry has been the launch of ‘Kitchen Club’ — an idea that had been put in motion prior to Covid-19. The initiative gives employees at several major UK firms access to virtual cooking lessons from professional chefs and will take place physically once conditions allow.
According to a survey of nearly 14,000 European workers, commissioned by Eurest, having a workplace restaurant is considered the third most important workplace benefit, while having an employee assistance or wellness programme is the fifth most important.
The addition of Kitchen Club to the Eurest portfolio is a unique way to support these findings, even for those not able to currently attend their workplace and workplace restaurant. Kitchen Club teaches everything from knife skills to nutrition, with Eurest’s culinary director Ryan Holmes along with other company chefs and nutritionists leading employees through recipes virtually.
The events can be held either live or as a pre-recorded session and act as an excellent morale booster.Holmes says: “Connecting people through food is incredibly fulfilling and exciting, especially with the UK’s ongoing Covid-19 restrictions making it harder for people to see each other and find entertaining ways to connect, engage and learn new skills.
“Employees genuinely enjoy learning about nutrition and improving their culinary skills. This also leads to healthier workplaces where people are more aware of the nutritional content of what they’re eating. For employers it’s another way of showing employees they’ve considered their needs and want to support their wellbeing.”
Employees booked onto a Kitchen Club session receive a recipe card and preparation sheet, along with either a shopping list or hamper of ingredients. They are also provided with a list of any equipment needed and tips for setting up.
When the cook-a-long is live and interactive, there is also the opportunity to ask questions directly to the chefs.
The sessions are ideal for those working from home and key workers looking for something relaxing to do outside of work.
Holmes says that Eurest’s food philosophy is key to what it is trying to achieve in the B&I sector and Kitchen Club isn’t simply a device created for lockdown.
“It’s definitely here to stay,” he says. “It’s not going anywhere, it’s going to be its own brand and it’s got its own look and feel. The tone of voice is really important. We want to sit up there with some of the really good cookery schools in the UK. The likes of Waitrose and Jamie Oliver do a really good job in that space and we want this to continue and grow. I’m confident about it and proud of where the idea came from and where it’s got to.”