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From John’s Desk: The Chaos of Catering! Is There a Solution?

If you think food is difficult, talk to famous global restaurateurs Gordon Ramsay, Rick Stein and Heston Blumenthal, who, according to journalist Stephen Drill, are at risk of joining Jamie Oliver whose Italian restaurant chain officially folded in June this year.

Managing food is the bane of most club manager’s career, it has been a persistent issue for all the years I have been involved in the club industry. It rarely makes any money (except for surf clubs) and more often than not, it loses money.

It takes up far too much of a manager’s time, represents the lion’s share of customer complaints, and despite the theories, generates nothing to our core business of gaming. Still, we insist on building bigger and bigger bistros and restaurants to avoid the queues on Friday night, and then give food away on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday just to get some bums on seats.  I remember going to a CMA catering conference in San Diego where the presenters said you cannot make money in a restaurant without queues for a lengthy period, they maximise efficiency.

We are always looking for a new and better chef, menus are more extensive than a competitor, and we struggle to get a competent level of service. This is further complicated by a soft downturn in catering operations since reopening. The food business has always been difficult. I remember some years ago when I was involved with the Restaurant and Caterer’s Association, the catch cry was that 50% of restaurants were going broke at any given time, and I think that was conservative.  How many restaurants do you know that have been around for some period of time, I can only think of a handful.

Why is this so? There are many elements as to why food is a challenge in the club environment and many others for that matter.  In the case of clubs there are very few managers who have come through the food and beverage management stream; the majority come through the bar and gaming, duty manager, and then on to senior management with little exposure to the management of catering operations.  These managers are then left at the mercy of chefs.  Whilst there are many chefs who are good cooks, there are a only a few chefs who are good cost and people managers; so the mold is already set for a challenging environment in club catering.

What’s the answer? There is no simple answer, but there are solutions and they won’t make everybody happy.

There are Six Key Questions we need to be able to answer to manage a successful catering operation in a club:

  1. Do you really understand what you are trying to achieve with your catering operation?
    Most clubs provide catering because that’s what they have always done and, in some cases, they have become a community soup kitchen. If that’s why you’re running catering, just make sure you’re applying the losses as community contributions in your accounts.

  2. Are you catering to the right market?
    Have you researched the demographics in a 5 to 10km radius of your club? Do you understand the style of catering the majority of your demographic appreciates, or are you just assuming they want the cheapest? Anyone can fill a restaurant selling food cheaper than cost.
  3. Have you defined the nature of catering you want to deliver?
    If you understand your demographics and survey the most successful restaurants in your 5 to 10km radius, then you will have a clearer picture of what catering space and style you should provide.
  1. Do you have extensive budgeting and cost control systems?
    Most club catering operations are unprofitable because of poor budgeting and cost control systems.  Have you investigated budgeting and control systems? This may help you manage your catering operation more successfully.
  1. Have you made a single manager (not the chef) responsible for your catering expectations?
    You can have all the best systems in the world but if you don’t make a single person responsible for the implementation and management of those systems, then they won’t work and you are wasting your time with them.
  1. Do you have a clear concept of how to market catering for profit?
    We all know it’s an information jungle in the community today.  If you have identified your market, you’ve got the right concept and have systems to control your costs, then you should know who and how to market your catering.
  1. Do you really understand catering enough to manage it yourself?
    I mentioned earlier on in this article that lack of catering experience by management is one of our biggest issues.  I do not mean that in a critical sense, it’s just the way it’s unfolded, yet we are expecting the most complex part of our business to be managed by people who have had limited experience of the catering business.  You need to find people with the right catering experience and employ them, or consider other options.
  1. Do you really know how contract catering works, and have we given it sufficient research?
    Clubs will reject the concept of contract catering based on hearsay and poor contract arrangements which lead clubs to believe they can’t conduct their promotions as normal, don’t know what the sales are, can’t manage the pricing or service and many other hearsay issues which in a professional approach can easily be overcome.

Why not get a team of your key decision-makers together for a couple of hours in a workshop and go through these questions and apply answers and actions, it’s a good way to get started.

If there is any information that you think I may be able to assist you with, just shoot me an email john@dws.net.au I’d love to hear your questions or any feedback.
Until the next issue, regards John Dickson

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