At the table with… Shirley Edwards

27/03/2015 - 16:12
Shirley Edwards, co-founder of Norfolk-based contract caterer Edwards & Blake, reckons she and business partner Alison Blake have found a formula that works – keeping it local. She lets David Foad in on some the secrets of their success.

David Foad: When you were at school, what was your dream job?
Shirley Edwards: A pop star or air hostess, something with a bit of glamour.

What did you end up doing first when you left?
My first job after college was working as a Ganymede [a leading UK labour supply agency] supervisor at a hospital in London. I was in charge of 20-plus ladies working evening shifts on a system serving thousands of meals. For an 18-year-old, this was definitely a big culture shock, particularly as this was my first job since leaving my hometown in sleepy Norfolk. But it served as a great experience and my first taste of the challenges of management.

What was it that started your interest in catering?
My mum was a great home cook, so that coupled with my favourite subject at school, which was domestic science.

How did you first meet your business partner Caroline Blake?
We first met when Caroline worked as a site manager for Compass and I was the area manager. We then met up again when we worked for Nelson Hind Catering [now part of Elior].

How did you come up with the idea of the contract catering company Edwards & Blake?
Caroline suggested the idea to me when we were at Nelson Hind. After a few discussions, we felt that we could offer the same service but on a more personal level by keeping ourselves regional.

What was your first contract?
Our first contract was Langham Glass on the north Norfolk coast, which is a beautiful complex of restored barns that included a small restaurant selling home-made soups, filled breads and delicious home-baked cakes. We knew nothing about commercial contracts or tourism, but decided that good food, local ingredients and hard work would make it successful – and it was.

Can you describe the challenges of the early days of the company?
Our biggest challenge was lack of staff resources. Our first two contracts were for seven days a week, so with just the two of us, Caroline and I had to take it in turns to work weekends to give the chefs a day off.

What would you say are the core principles the business is based on?
Great food, local suppliers, a regional working area, and a truly personalised approach to our clients and staff.

Why do you think you’ve been successful in what is a highly competitive market sector?
Delivering what we promise at the bid stage. Many of our clients have actually been surprised by that, having used other contractors in the past and felt let down by the sales promises.

Can you tell us about your passion for food and the impact this has on the food you serve?
Everyone we employ has to demonstrate a passion and interest in food, even at office level. This way, we have a real buzz about food across the company. This impacts on the menus, as we never allow them to get stale; we are always trying new concepts and have our in-house food development manager, who is constantly improving menus and introducing new products for us to use.

Can you tell us about the big changes you’ve seen in school catering?
School catering now has to mirror the high street, as students are more in tune with trends and many of them have choices as to where they spend their money. We have seen a significant change in what students buy: gone are the days of meat and two veg. The buying trend is towards quality grab-and-go and takeaway snack options.

What impact have you seen of initiatives like universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) on eating habits and meal take-up?
The average meal take-up of UIFSM within our primaries has been 80%. Inevitably, there has been a change in their eating habits by having full hot meals as opposed to eating packed lunches, which some of them did previously.

Obesity rates among schoolchildren are still quite high. Are you optimistic that healthy eating messages and campaigns are having an effect?
We have generally seen a trend towards eating more fruit – fresh and dried – and healthier granola-style bars since the school food standards were introduced, and this trend should continue with the introduction of the School Food Plan combined with the UIFSM initiative.

You make great efforts to use fresh, local produce in your meals. Why?
We seriously want to guarantee what goes into our food to ensure we are feeding our customers wholesome ingredients. Local produce is important as it allows us to put back into the local economy in exchange for getting great quality and service. We are a big fish in our suppliers’ sea, and they really value our business.

Do you believe caterers have a role to play in promoting healthy eating in the workplace?
Absolutely, but we also have to be careful that we maintain a balance and that people are allowed to make choices. Customers are best encouraged by subtle messages around healthier choices.

Can you tell us about some of the initiatives Edwards & Blake has introduced to support this?
Revised cooking methods in recipes, less condiment use and balanced menus, plus healthy eating initiative weeks and promotional periods.

Edwards & Blake also has a reputation for looking after its staff. Can you tell us about this side of the business?
We have created a ‘family feel’ culture where Caroline and I are hands-on and approachable. Staff at all levels can relate to us. We spend a lot of time in the business seeing the staff and getting feedback – we hold regular meetings with managers and send company newsletters to keep the communication effective. Each year, everyone gets a Christmas present, from the senior management to our kitchen porters, and we organise company parties, and invite all staff and their partners. We also have various incentive schemes, from performance bonuses to our ‘on-spot extra mile’ awards.

Why do you believe it is important?
We are a business that believes in integrity, and the way we treat our staff is all part of that. It is a win-win situation: if staff feel valued, we will get more commitment and those ‘extra mile’ occasions that every business needs from time to time.

What’s the business plan for Edwards & Blake over the next five years?
We hope to do much of the same, as this formula has worked and continues to work well for us. We are aiming for further growth but in a measured way, as it is very important to us that our culture stays intact.

What are you most proud of personally in your work?
Achieving significant growth but keeping our values the same as they were when we started. We should turnover £18 million this year, and I think the growth we’ve enjoyed has had no noticeable effect on the company’s culture.

Are you optimistic about the future?
We are very optimistic about the future because we have created a model that works and a pipeline that offers so many opportunities that we are yet to tap into.

What would you most like to see the next government do to help your business after May’s general election?
Remove VAT from catering sales.

On a personal level, what’s your dream three-course meal and what would you wash it down with?
A tasting plate of shellfish to start, a melt-in-the-mouth duck breast – which must have crispy skin – served with an oriental dressing and stir-fried noodles, then a sticky toffee pudding served with a home-made ice cream. Ginger and honey would work nicely. A chilled New Zealand sauvignon would be go well, but I would enjoy the dessert wine more. A florally muscat would be my favourite.

And if you hadn’t had your career, what would you have liked to do?
Become an interior designer.

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