I joined the business 18 months ago having spent the vast part of my career involved in hotels, restaurants, bakeries and one of the largest and best-known contract catering companies.

What appealed to me about this role was the idea of really creating something, genuinely all about food – from scratch. Pauline Cox, Apleona Director of Foodservices, has essentially been given a blank canvas by the UK board to create a unique, standalone foodservice offer within the Apleona group. The challenge for us was how to take this standalone business – what we have now launched as Food Space – and make it stand apart from the crowd in what is a very congested market, while also creating a real point of difference that would appeal to likeminded clients and customers.

My philosophy around food is pretty simple – you should only, as far as possible, cook what Mother Nature makes available in season. When this approach is combined with our belief in working with and supporting great local businesses, then you have the very foundations of how Food Space operates each and every day.

At Food Space we do use major wholesalers for dry goods, confectionary and soft drinks, but in terms of fresh produce, meat, fish and dairy, we source a network of great quality local producers and build the business that way. As an example, when we open a new location, as a matter of course I contact the chefs that I know in the area and check out social media to find out who is baking the best bread, growing top quality veg and producing the very best beef or pork . Once I have this local information I look to make contact and set up face-to-face meetings. Our clients and customers really appreciate and understand that approach, and we can be happy that we are using the very best produce available from the same producers as the top local restaurants and cafes. In fact, even Michelin starred restaurants use our suppliers!

People might think this is automatically a much more expensive way to buy, as the trend is towards central logistics hubs with large trucks making a twice weekly delivery of everything. Effectively, a one-stop-shop. But to be honest, I’d say there are ‘swings & roundabouts’. It is cheaper to buy seasonally, for sure, that just makes sense. However we’ve also introduced creative ways to manage our costs, really simple initiatives such as ordering whole chickens rather than just using fillets, which not only makes a difference to the cost but it’s also a lot tastier!

We want each location to look and feel individual, from the food we offer to the style of presentation in the restaurants. There really is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. We feature the regional food and flavours that the customers are familiar with, which we balance with really cool contemporary cuisine. We do that by building the supply chain around the individual location, so we are able to ensure top quality fresh produce arrives at the backdoor every day.

In Co Tipperary, Ireland for example, I went to meet a local butcher and she told me that the pork for the sausages came from her dad’s farm. So I arranged to meet with him and test his product and he User-added image now supplies the lamb and beef for us locally, too. He subsequently introduced me to another relative who makes crisps and then another who has a bakery nearby, so from just one conversation I put together a whole supply chain. That is what our locally sourced policy is all about.

There have been occasions when clients have said that they want strawberries in February and I’ve told them that we won’t do that. And, once I’ve explained why, they respect that. I think we have a responsibility to bring people with us along the journey. This applies to our teams too, we encourage the chefs to go and meet the suppliers on their farms or in their shops and bakeries, and we engage the team by hosting supplier days on site so that they all build a relationship. ​

My bi-weekly conference call with all the chefs keeps them all engaged and talking to each other. I tell them what’s going to be in season over the next couple of weeks, suggest ingredients they should be sourcing and dishes they could be serving. They then send me their menus every week and I personally check them and make sure that they’re good for local content and low on imports.

If you asked me if we’ll compromise by just going back to one big supplier for our business, I’d say absolutely not. This is our model and while we will undoubtedly have growing pains with a lot of work along the way, but we proudly believe that it’s the right thing to do and that our clients love it. You could say we make life hard for ourselves, and sometimes it can be a challenge but there are so many benefits that we wouldn’t do it any other way.

This is about thinking beyond the kitchen. If you have a budget to buy food then it’s your responsibility to do it properly, because the effect you can have goes way beyond the plate and out into communities.

 

Food Space is part of the Apleona Group of companies.

"If you asked me if we’ll compromise by just going back to one big supplier for our business, I’d say absolutely not. This is our model and while we will undoubtedly have growing pains with a lot of work along the way, but we proudly believe that it’s the right thing to do and that our clients love it."

- Conor Spacey