13 August 2019 | Martin Read
The contract catering market in London and the South East has a new entrant - Houston and Hawkes.
It is surprisingly unusual to see a fresh competitor enter the contract catering market, but this year sees Houston & Hawkes joining the London and South East fray with its "upbeat, creative and sustainable food and drink" designed to "help clients improve engagement, productivity and talent retention and attraction".
The company's titular directors are Simon Houston (a veteran of contract catering behemoths BaxterStorey and Bartlett Mitchell) and David Hawkes (a trained chef and former BaxterStorey regional MD). The two have known each other for 17 years, are both self-confessed 'foodies' - and are keen on creating a business of a size where "you can really nurture the business and respond to individual client need as opposed to just rolling the same model out in a machine-like way."
For this fledgling business, 2019 is about developing awareness. Their mission seems simple when written down. "We run coffee bars, cafés, staff restaurants, delis and salad bars, alongside hospitality and events. We're socially responsible, mad about Great British produce, dedicated to our talented team members and focused on serving up grub that's packed with flavour, nutrition and general loveliness."
Both men accept that the trick will be to sustain and nurture their people as they grow their business - no easy task, but one that's important to their vision for the business. Part of this demands continual director-level interface with clients, says Houston, which in turn will help the business react to client demand on a more personal basis.
"What often happens is that people start out with good intentions to do something different but are then quickly are consumed by the machine," says Houston.
Both directors think that managing their growth carefully will help to address fast-evolving client demands in a more immediate way than established competitors can.
"Things like veganism, labelling, provenance, how we address these issues for individual clients have been built into our start-up processes," says Houston. "We don't have to go back to a huge roster of existing contracts to make those changes."
The two business partners are seeking a 'Goldilocks' sweet spot where their business manages to reach a level where it can simultaneously hold the respect of both its clients and its own team members servicing those clients. As much as ensuring a personal touch is important to clients, it's equally important to staff - for whom a business without outside investors, and thus not tied to shareholder expectation, can, say Houston and Hawkes, be more attractive. ("We've not done any external investment," says Houston, "we are the investors here".
"Good people want to work for successful growing businesses," says Hawkes. "There are people willing to come along to work for the type of business that has a direct connection from ownership through to service delivery," says Hawkes.
And Houston agrees. "A lot of people value that owner-managed relationship," says Houston. "They like to know the bosses, the people who are vested in the business. They like having people who care about their development and nurturing them as people. There isn't a shortage of people for us."
"Our focus is on serving people, not creating an infrastructure," says Hawkes. "We need to be flexible, adapt quickly to market trends - and maybe also challenge the norm."