In our last webinar: Tackling Tough Times & Winning, we caught up with chairman and founder of NCASS Bob Fox. Described by some as the ‘Godfather of the industry,’ Bob has over 30 years’ experience working in the catering sector; going from selling bacon butties on industrial trading estates to taking over the organisation known today as the Nationwide Caterers Association.
Good to have you with us, Bob. So tell us more about your humble beginnings because you weren’t a caterer or chef by trade were you?
I was a trained engineer at a local company; I did an apprenticeship but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do long term. I got married in the meantime, me and my wife went to Australia and it was there that I got into sales. After three years we came back, I carried on working in sales and by the time I was 30 I was a sales director at PLC, involved in the shop fitting industry. I got a bit frustrated with the management team there and decided I could do it myself even better, so we set up a company here in the Midlands and gained some really good blue chip clients, built up a £3m turnover and the day before my 40th birthday the business went bust; not because of anything we’d done wrong but because it was the start of the big recession and two of my clients went bust on me for £250k.
So that’s when you fell into starting up your own catering business?
When you’re in a desperate situation, you know – 3 kids, a mortgage, no car, what the hell do you do? A neighbour had got a mobile catering unit which he wasn’t using anymore and he said “if you’re really stuck and you can’t pay your mortgage, there’s an industrial estate down the road, here’s a catering van, go and use it.” My wife Jean had always been in catering and so that’s what we did. We got up one morning at 6am and towed this trailer down to this industrial estate and started doing bacon butties; I can remember the first day I think we turned over about £25 but within about three months we were doing on average £150-£250 and on a Friday probably £400 a day and it became a really good business.
I got to know another guy called Roy Norris who happened to be the chairman of NCASS’ predecessor MOCA (Mobile & Outdoors Catering Association) and he said he’d got a lot of events that he needed caterers for. They were in a bit of trouble at the time, they’d run up a big overdraft which they were all personally liable for and he asked me if I’d come and take a look at it. I worked for them for about 12 months and got them out of debt and then he asked me if I wanted to run it. So that’s how it all started 25 years ago now.
How did it feel making that career move because you had a massive disappointment that you had to pick yourself up from?
I felt a little embarrassed at first but within a couple of days it was brilliant. The pressure was off, the punters were lovely, it was nice to have cash in my hand and it was a really nice experience. The food was smelly and every time you went home all you could smell was bacon butties and burgers, but at the same time it was a really enlightening experience. When we got to do events on the weekend it was just amazing; I learnt very quickly that the big stuff never paid – every time I did a large scale event I lost money on it. We just loved doing events though, the people were so friendly and the kids were able to get involved.
Do you think once you get the catering bug it’s quite addictive and people tend to scale up too quickly?
Once you get into catering it seems to snowball. Someone will see you at an event and ask if you can cater at another, do a BBQ, do deliveries or whatever and once you get into it, it does seem to snowball somehow. The challenge is to keep control of it and not grow too big too fast. I did that with the coffee waffle shop we had in Euston and it didn’t end up particularly well in the end; the overheads can be insane and the pressure can be astronomical. There’s amazing opportunities at the moment but also some big pitfalls if you take on more than you can chew. During the last recession some of the things we found hardest was saying no to opportunities where we just couldn’t stretch our resources far enough. You don’t want to turn down job offers but sometimes you have to.
Talking about the snowball effect how important is it to develop and maintain new contacts and get your story known out there?
In all business it’s about keeping your contacts warm, whether it’s your customers, contacts in the industry or potential future employers because at the end of the day, that’s what makes your business grow. Don’t get down if you’re having a bad week, it’s a fact of life that sometimes things don’t go as planned but when times are tough and your back’s against the wall that’s when you should talk to your mates and contacts. There’s always opportunities out there and that’s the beauty of the mobile side especially; it might not make you a fortune but as long as it keeps the wolf away from the door and pays the bills then that’s all that matters in the beginning. I would say this wouldn’t I, but at NCASS I think we provide an invaluable service in advising people of what’s going on and what opportunities could be available.
People also want to do business with people. With start-ups especially you need a backstory because people will relate to that and it will lead to repeat custom. If you ask me why I buy my food from one trader over another at an event it will be because they came across as friendly, I like them, they’ve got a great story to tell. Providing the food’s equal quality that’s where you’ll go to make your purchase.
Your career was born out of adversity and the street food sector really thrived during the last big recession, do you think that sort of thing could happen again following the pandemic?
If we fell on hard times tomorrow, I would not think twice about starting up another catering operation. It wouldn’t be fixed site, it would be a trailer or mobile driven unit because it’s so flexible and the risk is so low. You do need to think before you spend £5k or £25k, you need to have some security into where at least you think you can start trading but this industry has been so good to me over the years. Even in the early days of NCASS I’d still be going off doing deliveries, selling bacon baguettes down local industrial estates. I loved it; it was hard work, it was dirty work but it’s proven time and time again that recessions bring about new opportunities.
You can start up your own business with a few thousand quid, doesn’t have to be massive – you can scale it down or up depending on how much you want to put at risk. It is very low risk and if it doesn’t work out in six months, I can pretty much guarantee you can sell your kit for no more than 20% loss and you’ll have given it a go. I’ve never seen a catering business that’s put their heart and soul into what they do and who’ve really thought out of the box go bust in all my years of experience in this business.
Catch up on the webinar here.