Chris Mitchell is the man behind the transformation of Yes Dining into multimillion-pound catering enterprise the Genuine Dining Co, and he hasn’t stopped there, securing multiple high-profile contracts as well as a high-street sushi operation, all with a very bright future. He talks to Janie Manzoori-Stamford
“Everything we’ve done in the past seven years definitely hasn’t been the easy option,” says Chris Mitchell, managing director of the Genuine Dining Co. “The challenging nature of what I do is what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
The company’s history is testament to that. Rather than leave the troubled Bright Futures Group and join BaxterStorey when the latter bought Bright Futures Group’s Jill Bartlett and Restaurants at Work out of administration, Mitchell stayed behind at sister company Yes Dining. “I saw the opportunity to do my own thing,” he says.
He did this by taking his vision for the business to serial entrepreneur Luke Johnson and securing investment for a management buyout. Soon after, Yes Dining was rebranded as the Genuine Dining Co. It was a huge leap of faith for all involved – at this point, Mitchell had yet to sell his first catering contract – but one that has clearly paid off.
A commitment to innovation and quality saw annual turnover reach £13.5m for the 12 months to 28 September 2017, and in that same year Mitchell oversaw the company’s biggest expansion to date.
With the creation of two new brands, Signature Dining and Honest Dining, and the acquisition of Japanese casual-dining and delivery chain Feng Sushi, annual turnover at Genuine Dining Co is projected to be £28m when the current financial period ends this month, marking a year-on-year increase of 107%.
But could this stellar growth tempt Mitchell’s eye off the proverbial ball? How will he ensure the business remains focused on the qualities that have laid the groundwork for the company’s success to date? And what sparked the flurry of activity in 2017 that saw the launch of two new catering entities and the acquisition of a high-street brand?
“It was probably stupidity,” is Mitchell’s dry response. “Trying to do those things at the same time was bold. But it was circumstantial.”
It began with Signature Dining. Paul Robottom and David Penlington worked together as managing director and sales director respectively at care catering company Caterplus, which they helped to take from £6m to £26m in annual turnover in seven years. When parent company Waterfall Catering Group was bought by Elior in 2016, the pair decided to take their knowledge of this specialist market and start from scratch.
“It was the offer of a free lunch that made me see them,” says Mitchell, after Robottom and Penlington made the approach. “I went along with the preconceived idea that it wasn’t going to interest me. I left thinking that they were going to do something that I wanted to be a part of.”
Signature Dining launched as a new business within Genuine Dining Co in February 2017. Today it operates at 14 private care home sites and has an annual turnover of £3m. And while Robottom and Penlington, who each own 20% of the company, “do their own thing”, Mitchell says the business benefits from shared back of house capabilities such as purchasing.
“Where Signature Dining has excelled is its values, which are the same as Genuine Dining’s,” says Mitchell. “Paul and David love their sector. They’re really passionate about it and they’ve worked so hard in setting up the business. By that, I mean they’ve been back to the floor. When a kitchen porter doesn’t turn up, they’re in there.”
Just two months after Signature Dining launched came Feng Sushi’s acquisition. The timing was “lousy”, but the opportunity to deliver a branded and specialist offer in a contract catering operation was too interesting for Mitchell to resist. It proved to be a good move.
Sushi is now sold at almost every one of Genuine Dining’s sites and is served at events, launch parties and pop-ups. But the changing face of the delivery market has meant the high-street operation has proved to be the biggest management challenge.
“The costs are high and the biggest issue is that it was a delivery business,” Mitchell says. “Half our sales were derived from us putting a box of sushi on a driver’s bike and sending it to someone’s house. The introduction of Deliveroo and UberEats, and companies like them taking quite large commissions, has made our business incredibly difficult. We’ve still got drivers and it costs us much less than the 20% to deliver through a third party, but our drivers are not delivering as much as they were.”
The eight-strong chain has since been streamlined to four restaurants with a stronger focus on more profitable sites that have smaller seating areas, but there are no plans to take the brand off the high street completely.
“We’d lose the value of the brand,” says Mitchell. “If people can buy Feng Sushi and get it delivered to their house and we can deliver that food for 20% to 30% cheaper within someone’s workplace, you get that perception of value. That’s why it’s so successful.”
June 2017 saw the launch of Honest Dining, which was the product of a long working relationship with NIC Services, a contract cleaning company whose clients included Tesco. When the grocery giant wanted a total facilities management solution in its buildings, NIC didn’t have the skills to deliver the catering on its own and a new partnership was formed with Genuine Dining Co operations director Mark Wetherall in charge.
“Mark had nurtured the relationship with NIC for years. He came to me and said he’d like to run the business and I said fine. I’ve worked with Mark for more than a decade and it was a really good opportunity for him to do his own thing,” explains Mitchell ”As the managing director of Honest Dining, he rolled out 133 stores in just 12 weeks. It was amazing – he did a really good job.”
Not many new operating entities start at that kind of scale, but the company has already been successful at picking up new business. Where it differs from the London-focused sister B&I brand Genuine Dining is its focus on regional workplace clients, including offices, distribution centres and factories.
“We’ve been incredibly lucky with the consolidation of the market; our timing was good. To be one of the few small operators [in the sector] is an exciting time for us,” says Mitchell. “What’s nice is Genuine Dining has probably grown slower than other contract catering businesses. The addition of Signature, Honest and Feng has driven that sharp increase.”
But even if you take the new brands out of the equation, Genuine Dining Co, which at £17m makes up the bulk of the collective business, is still on course for a 26.9% increase in annual turnover. A number that is certainly not to be sniffed at.
“Yes, but it is still only three new contracts a year,” Mitchell counters. “I feel very comfortable with that level of growth for Genuine Dining because we’re limited by our people. If we don’t have the right people to grow the business, we’ll lose everything we’ve built.”
At the same time, he adds, controlled expansion supports succession planning. There needs to be enough growth to create opportunities for Genuine talent to go for. That’s why the company’s recruitment strategy is all about sourcing talent and enthusiasm for grassroots roles, such as foodservice assistants, commis chefs, kitchen porters and baristas. By training them for promotion, the company creates a loyal and engaged workforce that is skilled according to its own best practices.
Success from within
“A lot of our operations team is home-grown. Ben [Wilson] and Bee [Armstrong] were developed and promoted from within [from operations manager to operations director and general manager to operations manager respectively], and Candy [Van Antwerp], who was operations director at Feng Sushi, completed a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development course and is now head of people,” says Mitchell. “Our sales activity is enough that our growth is really lovely and sustainable.”
Mitchell is proud that each Genuine Dining Co brand operates as its own smaller company, enabling each management team to stay on top of its own client relationships.
“It also retains the entrepreneurial spirit that runs through our whole business,” he adds. “And people are excited about the fact that, for example, Signature Dining is growing really quickly, and that there are opportunities for Genuine Dining people to go there and grow with them.”
Of course, being boutique is not without its challenges. Genuine Dining Co is debt free – the new ventures were financed through cashflow – and Mitchell says he would like it to remain that way, but growth is expensive.
“When we launch a new contract our project managers are busy for three months or so and we need to replace them. We’re constantly investing in people,” he explains.
Fortunately, building teams that work well together is one of Mitchell’s biggest strengths, which he puts down in part to being dyslexic.
“I did well at school, got 11 GCSEs and went on to college, but it was tough,” he says. “I learned very quickly – because of my dyslexia, I’m sure – where my weaknesses are and how to find people to do those things better than me.”
And by surrounding himself with a team of players that excel in their own particular fields at Genuine Dining Co, Mitchell has created a diverse and innovative business that is primed for future growth.
About the group
Genuine Dining Co (including Genuine Events and Genuine Hotels)
Sector B&I, events (weddings/events at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios), hotels
Launched January 2011
Number of sites 40
Flagship contracts L’Oréal, Rackspace, RAC
Annual turnover £17m
Sector Private care catering with a specialism in kosher for the Jewish care sector
Launched February 2017
Number of sites 14
Flagship contract Royal Star & Garter
Annual turnover £3m
Sector Japanese casual dining chain and delivery service
Acquired April 2017
Number of restaurants Four, plus a production kitchen in Billingsgate
Flagship sites Fulham, West Hampstead and Notting Hill
Annual turnover £3.5m
Launched June 2017
Number of sites 135
Flagship contract Tesco
Annual turnover £4.5m
Tech tools just the job for all the team
Technology has long been used by Group Genuine to drive footfall, increase spend per head and gain a better understanding of its customers.
The company’s “nest” concept, which makes staff restaurants the on-site destination for dining, breakout time and meetings, features iPad tills, digital displays, contactless loyalty cards and even a music station. It also netted Genuine Dining the 2014 Foodservice Catey Innovation Award.
Mitchell, a self-confessed geek, has overseen the development of a new app called the Genuine Audit. Replacing the pen and paper process, the app aims to ensure consistency and high standards across the business with instant sharing functionality.
“It’s basically an auditing tool,” he says. “It will have a leaderboard that shows us who is performing well and who isn’t, a visitation schedule that shows us how often everyone in the business – including me – has visited certain clients, and pictures can be uploaded to show how a site looks as soon as an audit is completed. It’s a really good tool.
“I like technology because it gives us really good data, which means we run our business better. Most contract caterers think about their customers, which is really important, but when I look at our business I look at innovation and technology as a way to make us better at doing our jobs.”