David Foad: Can you briefly describe the core mission of The Pantry Catering?
Luke Consiglio: It all started with a small sandwich shop called The Pantry in Hayes High Street in West London. I had no money, but food was my absolute passion – I wanted to feed people and I always wanted to own my own business. I had the ambition to move on.
I wanted The Pantry to become a contract caterer that could provide a quality offer that outstripped any corporate offer but still provided the personal touch of a family business.
Within two years we were doing buffets and event catering for local and national businesses, such as DHL, Amazon, Hertz, and we still have many as customers.
Our first real ‘contracted’ job, though, was at Hillingdon’s Civic Centre, where they asked us if we could operate a daily coffee shop and hot food service for more than 1,000 staff.
It was the showcase for our potential and it was followed just a few months later by the opportunity to expand into school lunches when we were asked by Botwell House Catholic School to become its packed lunch provider – all hand-made.
As soon as we got involved in schools I saw there was room for massive improvement. Among other providers there just seemed to be too many who were owned by bigger companies.
We were able to build on this first step and built up a client list of 40 schools over the next ten years, taking our annual turnover to £2m. We were also the first contractor within Hillingdon to be awarded the Soil Associations Food For Life Gold award.
DF: Can you give us a few figures that give a snapshot of the company?
LC: We feed 35,000 pupils a day with a split of about 80% primary schools and 20% secondaries. It was the primary schools that got us through Covid. We average more than 75% take-up in all schools, though some are in the 90% range. And we’ve currently got 600 staff, 140 schools, and we’ve grown by 800% in revenue terms. We’ve now got offices in Uxbridge, though we still have the sandwich shop that we started from.
DF: Can you describe how is the company structured and run?
LC: My team is it. They are as much a part of the company as I am. The head of ops, the business development manager … they are all operationally driven and they are the perfect team. A lot of people want to work with us, so we get our pick of the bunch. No one gets hired in a senior role without me making sure they are on board with the vision, which is ‘better food for the children’.
DF: Can you describe the catering operation?
LC: Covid changed a lot for us. We suddenly needed to operate different sittings and sometimes had children eating in classrooms to prevent too much mixing. It meant we became very flexible. That flexibility is very much needed now with the Mayor of London’s pledge to fund free meals for all primary age children for the next year. The extra numbers mean we’re again faced with some split sittings, children eating in different spaces, and hot and cold meals served separately, but we’ve already made this sort of thing work.
We have deliveries of fruit and veg most days, and while we try as far as possible to go for local sourcing, it can be difficult as we need increasing volumes.
And we get all our teams to share photos from every single school, the food at the counter and on the plate. Children’s expectations are so different now, so we make every effort to display the food for them to see, it’s in proper bowls, there are tongs, we use proper trolleys.
There is minimal frozen items on our menu. The big push for us right now is how we make the food as visual as possible. It means we have now we’ve got parents logging on and selecting their children’s meals. In turn, we now have the parents’ email addresses, so we can contact them, send them photos of salad bowls and what’s on the menu.
That’s proved very popular, other schools have noticed, and we’ve currently got a waiting list of schools that want us to get involved with them. How do we service our customers – schools and parents? We have a team of people who often answer up to 800 emails a day and take 600-700 calls a day.
On the first week back this term that was up to 1,400 calls. These are mostly parents who have a query. Elsewhere they would have to get through to the school, but we take that burden off the schools and they love it. It allows us, though, to better market actively to the parents.
DF: Tell us about your approach to staff training and development?
LC: We offer everything from basic training up to leadership training. We have someone whose full-time job is running this to make sure people are properly trained. Every member of staff on the system will get notified if any of their training needs a refresher.
We put a lot of work into this and as we’ve grown it has become obvious when there have been issues. We’ve got our own software developer and we now look to build our own purpose-built systems to take care of training, menu checking, procurement and things like that.
DF: How has the service developed over the last five or so years?
LC: I think that schools have changed their mindset, they are starting to look at the value of the meal on the plate rather than the cost. And once the effects of the pandemic eased, The Pantry kicked into overdrive and we’ve gone all-in.
We’ve got a highly motivated workforce and we all worked hard and we were able to acquire more than 60 new contracts over the course of the next 18 months. This initially took annual sales to more than £10m for the first time, and we’ve since taken this towards £16m at the most recent financial year-end.
We’ve also been able to expand our client base from being mainly London-based into having outposts from Sussex to Staffordshire, and Surrey to Suffolk. The Covid benefit is that we have the right ethos, not buzzwords, it’s a family business and we look after our staff.
We’re a food company, but we’re ‘people-centric’ with a focus on our staff, our clients, the pupils, and the parents. We have a programme of engagement activities led by a full-time team who take these into schools -cheffing sessions, nutrition sessions, leading assemblies – and it provides added value.
To be honest, I think it’s a relief to schools to get these activities. We made no one redundant during Covid, instead we got them to do this sort of work. We also offer career forums after I was asked if I could do presentations at career days, and we’re starting to offer out jobs to older secondary school pupils, and beyond this we’re looking at apprenticeships over the next couple of years.
And let’s not forget The Pantry Van - a Citroen van with tea and coffee facilities on board that we take into a playground to offer free tea and coffee to parents and a chance to meet the caterer. It’s just one of our tools, but it’s very effective because by the end of the afternoon you’ve had a chance to speak to every parent there.
DF: Has there been a strategic plan you’ve worked to?
LC: We’ve been both reactional and tried to have a plan. Reactional because constantly we want to be at the forefront of developments, such as with the Mayor of London’s school meals expansion initiative, for example. But we also have a plan. We have lots of schools – we’ve added 80 in the last year – but when the tenders come out, we only follow up if we’ve got the staff in the areas that we can use. There are no holes in the business.
Take kitchen assistants, for example, if we put out an ad we get hundreds of applications, for chef positions and higher we’ve got people on our books. We don’t have a recruitment issue at all. We had five vacancies last Friday and they will be filled by the end of this week.
DF: Can you tell us about the food you serve?
LC: Our approach is to provide the best quality food we can afford to give. With the primary schools on our system we look at what’s the most and least popular menu option at that particular school. We start out with a base menu at the beginning of the term and then change it at each site based on what the pupils are actually choosing.
With all our recipes, the school food development team is going out each day to see that we’re delivering, and our latest focus is on making sure it is visually appealing. Children have raised expectations, they use social media, so we recently relaunched our salad bars and desserts menu.
DF: Food price inflation has been a significant challenge for caterers over the last year. How have you handled it?
LC: We’ve dealt with it by taking any food price rises and supplier changes through our purchasing team – but it’s now all done on a daily basis. It used to be monthly, but we’ve been doing this exercise daily since prices started rising fast.
We look at what we’re paying and ask if we can get a better deal at the same or better quality elsewhere. When the price of carrots went up sharply, for instance, we swapped them out for a few weeks and then brought them back in when the price eased.
DF: You’ve got a lot of schools in London, how have you handled the sudden expansion of free school meals to all primaries?
LC: It’s fantastic, of course, but we’ve only been given it for one year, which makes planning very difficult. When you increase meals you need to increase labour, but what happens after a year? Schools don’t want to face that that kind of disruption. I just wish it was not being done for political gain, but for the benefit of the children.
The size of school dining facilities and oven space are obviously significant issues too. And the price we get paid for a meal under UIFSM has been raised recently, and that’s great too. But that is not enough. It looks great in a headline that it’s now £2.53, but the public don’t see the money that goes to the school and the cost of the staff, which means you often have a £1 or less to actually spend on the food. It’s the meals we serve – that’s what’s important.
The whole thing in London could have been planned better, with more thought and more information for the public. Instead we’ve got stressed schools. We had a plan for the roll-out this term and it’s helped us cope with limited kitchen capacity and not enough staff. We couldn’t invest too much in either as we might not need it in 12 months time. So, over the summer, we baked, for example 86,000 cakes, portioned in advance, so that made one less thing to go through the oven once school started.
For seven weeks we had a team cooking in advance. We’ve got our own transport team, so moving the stuff around was no problem and we’ve got big walk-in freezers to help with storage. To cope, though, we even rented storage capacity in schools. I think we were pretty much through the cakes by mid-September, but it was one less thing for the school catering teams to worry about and took a bit of pressure off.
DF: The Pantry has won a number of awards. Why do you think you’ve been successful and how does entering for awards help the team?
LC: Why? I think we do a fabulous job as a team considering some of the constraints we have to work within. We’ve never changed our message over the last 17 years, but what schools are looking for now has started to change post-Covid and the two views are becoming more aligned now. Awards are just the recognition the team needs.
We don’t want them to leave and it’s awards that can help people stay in the industry. They can probably earn more elsewhere so celebrating the great job they do through awards – external and internal – can help them feel proud of their work and what they have achieved. If I didn’t own the Pantry I’d want to work there.
DF: Looking to the future, can you tell us about plans and aspirations for The Pantry Catering?
LC: My plan is to feed more children than anyone else, but not by compromising our beliefs, our ethos, the quality of the food, or how we look after clients and colleagues. If the right people aren’t there when a contract comes up we won’t just expand for the sake of it. We will simply wait until they become available.