One of the most inspiring facets of the hospitality industry, is the flexibility in which people can achieve success with a business of their own. There is no one-size-fits-all method for success, and often creative, forward-thinking approaches to running an independent food and drink business are rewarded.
Different models work for different businesses, and it is just the same with customers – everyone has different tastes, and caterers find excellent ways to satisfy those tastes and deliver amazing food experiences.
This is exactly what barbecuing enthusiasts weBBQ4U are all about: Delivering amazing food experiences, to the specification of their customers. They may have only been trading since 2022, but this is a business that’s been years in the making – we spoke with business owner Mark Lawton about the journey and unique business model:
So how did weBBQ4U come into existence?
The origins of the business stem back to 2006, when my wife and I moved to Australia. I’d always had an interest in real good quality food, but where we were in Sydney we had a luxury of amazing, global food. All kinds of cuisines, but they were all super quality no matter where we went to eat – I guess that’s why we spent nine years in Sydney! And it was during this escapade that my passion for finding really good quality food developed. Barbecues are very popular in Australia and heavily linked to socialising, and we got engrossed in both.
We went to a lot of barbecues but also hosted many ourselves. I began spending time beforehand preparing everything for the barbecue and learnt how big a difference it makes to the final product. Admittedly it had become a really big hobby, I was really enjoying it. Then we moved back to England in 2014, to a new area, a new community and it was much the same – we got into the barbecuing, and the socialising came to revolve around it.
We’d have people over and I’d cook things on the barbecue, applying all I’d learnt previously in Sydney, and the reaction was always positive. People began asking me to prepare the food for events they were having! So we started doing that, then they start asking why don’t we make it into a business? We began searching for a commercial unit, came across Trailblazer and it was around February 2022 when the unit arrived and we began to have some fun with it at events.
What considerations do you have regarding making the shift from a paying hobby, into a fully-fledged business?
Well of course we’ve got to be realistic about things. I have responsibilities – I have two children, a mortgage to pay. As I am in between jobs, we’ve just reached this juncture where I’ve got an opportunity to really push this business now, look at all of the business development and take it to market effectively. I’d love to be able to take the barbecue out all the time to be honest, but we’d have to make that viable for our lives. We are just happy to be taking the unit out, sharing good quality food with people.
What have you enjoyed the most about the business?
Every time we take the unit out, people love it and we have a really good time. One event we catered was a firework display where we fed 250 people and it was mental. It was the biggest event we’d done and we had a huge queue of people, all these cub scouts and their parents, families enjoying themselves and fireworks going off everywhere. We fed 250 people in just under two hours – and everyone’s given us a thumbs up – it was amazing, a significant moment in the history of the business. It was very validating. At the same time, it was a huge challenge – getting the prep right, having enough time to get everything ready, bringing the correct amount of stock – it is a very different proposition for 250 people than it is for 20! The day before the event I probably spent 13/14 hours just in preparation.
The clue is in the name really – weBBQ4U – but can you explain to us the services you offer?
What we do is completely bespoke – so if you’ve got a wedding breakfast and you want us to come and feed all the hungry guests in the field – great. You know, we can come to someone’s house, we can visit a business. There’s just so much scope and the versatility the Trailblazer offers is incredible.
With what we offer, it’s not just all burgers. We prefer to work with the customer, to provide what they want – so we will communicate with them and jointly come up with the menu. This way, they know exactly what they’re going to get, it is a bespoke offering each time, we minimise food waste and just have to focus on the cooking. We want to involve the customer, and build a menu with them that they want to eat! We literally do offer something different every single time – depending on the customer’s specifications, and it feels like you’re just cooking for friends rather than being a stringent business operation.
Having become quite accustomed with your Trailblazer unit by now, what is your opinion on it?
The freedom you get with the Trailblazer, to just hook it up to the car and tow it anywhere is great. It always looks fantastic when it’s fired up and full of product cooking, a real spectacle that attracts people at every event we’re at. The barbecue enthusiasts are always drawn in by it!
In my experience, there’s nothing like it – nothing looks as cool as a Trailblazer. When it’s smoking and you’ve got the smells of the onion and everything else wafting over, it certainly makes your mouth water! We’re definitely having fun with it. The versatility of it really helps too, as you can effectively use it all year round – we actually did a couple of events around Christmas, taking it inside different business premises.
You put emphasis on the quality of food and service offered – how important is it to source the best ingredients and prepare them properly?
We’ve made some good connections with butchers that we’re working with. We always want to source the best quality ingredients – our local butcher is a fifth generation butcher you know, they’ve been producing beef for hundreds of years, why wouldn’t you use that? If you can work with people that match your passion, you source ingredients from people that care just as much about the sausage for example as you do, it’s only going to work well. The cooking side of things is so simple: If it’s marinated properly, you can’t go far wrong. Paying due care and attention during preparation makes such a big difference, and you give yourself the confidence in the end product.
One thing that maybe surprised us was how many vegan and vegetarian customers we’ve had. It wasn’t something we expected to be honest and has posed an interesting challenge to us. There was a local music festival we catered and I was just staggered at the amount of people who chose the vegan option – we sold out completely! We have primarily opted for the Moving Mountains range to cater for these needs and they’ve certainly proven popular, particularly with younger people. At the moment, we keep a section of the grill purely for vegan food but in the future think we will look to get a separate, smaller unit for that.
What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced so far?
One thing that we’ve learnt so far, is not everyone will have just one item, which we had presumed and operated on to begin with. Some corporate events that we’ve done for example, people come back up and ask for another item, a second burger or something. So, we need to factor this in to our costing and quotations.
It has surprised me, seeing how much some traders will charge for what they are providing. Of course it is a business, the way we look at it is that yes it’s important to provide quality service, yes you have to make money for it to be viable, but it has to be fair and reasonable. At the beginning, we had people come round, to cook for them for free, but then to ask them what they would realistically pay for the food. The range was somewhere from about £4 per burger up to £11, so that gave us an interesting insight really. The difficult thing with pricing at the moment is the context of the cost of living meaning prices are fluctuating a lot, meaning that it’s then hard to establish a regular margin for your trading. Costs go up for the business, so we then see people pricing themselves higher to protect themselves.
We wouldn’t want to lose business because we’re considered too expensive, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to devalue what we’re here to do, and the point is that people need to see it as a complete service being offered, not just an item of food on the plate to go. There’s a lot of cost that goes into putting that sausage on the plate.
What is the plan for weBBQ4U moving forward?
We’ve got repeat business from all the events we did last year, everyone we’ve worked with has come back and asked if they can book us again which is amazing. We’d rather grow the business carefully and slowly, with repeat business and referrals. That’s a lot more attractive to us than dragging the BBQ around everywhere and trying to compete constantly. We think we’ve got the right formula with how things are going and what we’re doing now, we’ve got the process nailed and for a lot of the events, a lot of the corporate events we’ve done, it’s just the two of us serving.
Ideally moving forward, I’d like to get something lined up for Sundays. If we could get something sorted for every Sunday, where we could shift somewhere around 200 units, that would be great. We’ve really enjoyed ourselves with this venture so far. We’ve built up a bunch of things we can repeat business wise and we’ve reached this stage now, where we realise there is a big potential to this if we do really want to push it. Considering that we’ve not even promoted it yet, not done any marketing at all, we just have a website and have thrived on word of mouth. Whenever I get talking about this business, I get really excited.
What drew you towards starting a catering business with a Trailblazer as opposed to a traditional catering trailer?
Stumbled across the company and the units online when I was browsing, I was instantly interested with all the features and the versatility, I just felt like I’d come across exactly what we’d been searching for here. I thought the customer testimonials were all solid, and I remember talking to my brother about it who gave me the push needed – he kept saying ‘what are you waiting for? Just go over there and check it out!’ So I followed that advice, flew over to Belfast and visited Lex and Lester.
Lovely guys. They took all the time to explain everything to me, to talk over what our requirements were with a unit, they let me just have a tinker with the unit and see for myself as well. They even recommended NCASS to me! There was no hard sell, they just made the customer journey for me quick and easy, they’re very knowledgeable about the units and their passion comes across well. They made recommendations to me based on what I’d told them, and before you know it a 600S was being shipped over!
How have you found commercial cooking for the first time on the Trailblazer?
So straight forward to be honest. Using it is easy, there was a bit of patience on our end when learning about how much charcoal we need to use, when we need to light it for example. You’ve got the ability to adjust the height of the grill which is important, there’s three different bays on mine, you can put in as much or as little charcoal as you want. In terms of capacity, we can get about 60 different items on there cooking at once, which is just incredible and allows you to do a lot. The way the unit is set up, it is designed to be easy to use and take all the hassle away.
What would you say to someone who was thinking of purchasing a Trailblazer BBQ?
I would say it’s a no brainer. Just go for it. I would highly recommend it to anybody who’s thinking about getting one. It’s real people you’re dealing with, you can pop over and chat about all aspects of the unit, any concerns you may have and they’ll be honest with you. Plus the versatility – there’s different options available, depending on your budget, I like the fact it’s manufactured in Belfast you know it’s assembled in the UK and as a company they are great to deal with. All we said to ourselves when we first got the unit, was to make it pay for itself by the end of the first year, so there’s no pressure, we can just go and have fun and enjoy using it.