Fifty editions is quite a milestone and so we thought it was the perfect opportunity to take a look back and reflect. To remind ourselves exactly how and why the magazine was started, and also to recount the wider journey NCASS has been on to get to where it is now.
To best paint the picture, we sat down with now retired NCASS founder Bob Fox and his son Alan, very much not retired and current CEO of NCASS.
The birth of NCASS as we know it today can be traced back to a seemingly very simply event; the borrowing of a burger van.
When Bob Fox found his prior shop fitting business forced into liquidation, he faced a financially challenging time but was fortunate enough to gain some much-needed help from a neighbour who offered to lend him his spare catering trailer to make a go of a mobile catering business. “We went from having a decent income to having nothing coming in overnight. We had no choice but to start claiming benefits and we really were at loose end as to what to do. After running my own business, I was really keen if possible to keep working for myself and fortunately we were offered an opportunity to help us get back on our feet and within a few weeks of having the chat with Keith (Bob’s neighbour) – we’d found and agreed the pitch with the council and we were setting up the trailer on that first frosty morning” Operating seven days a week, pitching on trading estates and at local shows, Bob learnt everything there was to know about the trade and experienced first-hand the highs and lows of running an independent catering business.
“We managed to get a pitch on an industrial estate and on our first day we took £20. I think at that point we questioned everything, but we stuck at it and things got better. We tried to offer a higher quality experience of food and service to any of the competition (two other catering trailers and a McDonalds within a half mile radius) and slowly but surely we built our reputation, gained a loyal and returning customer base and grew the business.” Bob also quickly established there wasn’t a great deal of support and there was an integral lack of infrastructure within the sector. “There was a real dog eat dog mentality back in the 90’s and certainly not much in terms of community. Misinformation and poor practice was widespread and there didn’t appear to be a reliable source of guidance or support or for caterers that I could find.”
Fortunately, Bob came across the Mobile and Outdoors Catering Association (MOCA) which at the time was a collective of about a hundred businesses made up of mobile caterers mainly across the Midlands. He found in MOCA the principles of a support system for caterers and was given the opportunity to begin working there part time (whilst also still flipping burgers on the industrial estate and at events) to share his experience and also help better equip those in the industry, offering guidance and support to help improve standards across the board.
Bob was eventually asked to become secretary of MOCA and it became a full time job which he grew to love. “When I was offered a proper salary to run MOCA, I was really keen to do it, Jean continued to run the catering business and then we all (kids included) did events throughout the summer at the weekends.”
Over the coming years, Bob and Jean built a little catering enterprise which included a sandwich bar, a buffet business and several catering trailers. In 2003, Bob was offered the chance to take over MOCA which he jumped at, he decided to rebrand it and change the name to the Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS). His idea was to keep all of the values, principles and the ethos of MOCA, but extend its reach to caterers throughout the UK.
Following this he went about creating the tools and resources that continue to be a great source of support and help for hospitality businesses today. “NCASS was one of the first providers of online training and also the first (as far as I know anyway) to offer an online risk assessment tool.” Bob working with industry stakeholders also went on to write many of the codes of practice that helped shape the foundations for gas safety and also standards for the design and manufacture of catering trailers and vehicles. But above all the greatest benefit NCASS could offer members and the wider industry was support, advice and guidance – that element of having someone to speak to if you’re unsure of something.
As Bob puts it: “helping caterers to avoid making the same mistakes that I made back in the day was something I relished and am truly thankful for.”
As we mentioned earlier, the catering business was a family affair and his even his kids were never too far away from the business. They could often be found working on the van and gaining their own experience in the field. They would travel to events and festivals with their mum and dad and so working in the business was ingrained in them from young – they are without doubt a catering family and it is therefore easy to see how catering is in the blood. “The kids did help out, whether it was cutting onions or taking the money. They enjoyed it, I think.”
“I can remember one time working a busy event at Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham and Dan the middle son who would have been about 14 or 15 at the time took 3 fake £20 notes from the same ‘customer’ in 30 minutes. It was a sharp learning curve for all of us but you learn from your mistakes and it never happened again!”
So after a decade spent flipping and frying in the fields, Bob found himself working full time in front of a desk laying the foundations for NCASS and learning how best to adapt his first-hand experiences to help others.
We asked Bob why he started the magazine and what was its purpose?
“The main purpose of the magazine was to showcase the independent sector, to shine a spotlight on the amazing businesses that make up our fantastic industry, as well as to cover the realities and the many challenges the industry has faced over the years. We wanted to strike a balance between providing a reliable source of information whilst also creating a medium to inspire through food, trends and traders. There is a lot of misinformation when it comes regulations and legislation etc so one of the key objectives was to dispel any mistruths, help people avoid pitfalls and also to update members as to what’s on the horizon for e.g. upcoming changes in rules and legislation, and how that may impact their business. The intention was also to showcase good practice, great traders and tasty food. That’s still its objective today so it hasn’t changed a whole lot”
Bob’s youngest son Alan joined NCASS in 2005 and has since continued to guide, support and advocate for independent food and drink businesses and all NCASS members, who have always been and will always be at the heart of what NCASS does:
“I joined dad when he was running NCASS on his own from his garage. I’d come from managing a subway in Birmingham at the age of 19 and was a bit stuck as to what to do next so I was really grateful for the chance. My job was to speak to members (NCASS had about 400 members at the time) and I do think that my days growing up on the catering trailer and also working in hospitality since leaving school helped me settle into the role. I just loved it from day one, I found it an absolute privilege to be able to talk to people about their business ideas and then to be able to help and advise them and hopefully help nurture their ideas, yeah I loved it. I still do. That’s still the very core of what we do, help businesses and support the sector. That will never change.”
The realities of a father and son working environment proved to be “interesting”, as Alan puts it: “It was at times quite challenging. I mean, on the whole it worked but Dad and I are quite similar so we had a tendency to drive each other absolutely crazy at times. When you work with your family, arguments can ensue and then professionalism can fly out the window pretty quickly.”
Luckily incidents were few and far between, and NCASS continued to grow. Alan’s friend Mark joined the business a couple of years later and Adam also arrived not long after. All three are still at NCASS, working in Directorial capacities, and Alan notes that “it’s great that we’re all still together (Bob excluded – now retired), I think that’s down to the passion and belief we still have in NCASS, what it stands for and the support we continue to strive to offer. Even after 15 years, its the members who keep it fresh and interesting and fun. creating the best possible opportunities and support for members is still what drives us. There’s definitely a feel good factor.
Independent hospitality offered Bob a new lease of life that grew into a viable career, and both he and Alan are well aware of the attractions the industry has to people. Between them they have seen and been part of so many progressive catering journeys and crossed paths with a huge range of people, that have found their own methods of succeeding within catering. Bob touts “being in control of your own destiny” as a huge attractor to people looking to start their own catering business, as this is exactly what catering provided him.
“It’s the freedom catering can give people. I think that’s pretty powerful”. Catering is a vehicle to explore a passion for a lot of people, and Alan recognises that “food makes people happy and it’s a really great feeling to put a smile on someone’s face through that”, adding that “it can be extremely satisfying and I think people discover it’s an amazing industry to be part of.”
Two words that are synonymous with the hospitality industry are hard work. Bob recalls how tough a challenge it could be to get up early in the morning and set up for a day’s trading in the winter, or to be trading every day of the week and just the general feeling of exhaustion at the end of each day: “Running your own hospitality business is very hard work, it can be brutal and requires a hell of a lot of resilience. Its physically and emotionally draining, often long unsociable hours, hard graft, but hospitality is also incredibly rewarding.”
There are many other challenges that businesses have to face in order to stay open and remain profitable. Elaborating on the other challenges that businesses continue to face, Alan said: “I think maintaining consistency as your business matures is a challenge for many. It’s so important that you ensure that the standards you set at the beginning are upheld or better yet improved or evolved as you grow, whether that’s in your food, your service, your values or your branding. However, without doubt some of the biggest obstacles or challenges for most independent food and drinks businesses right now are costs and outgoings. We have seen a massive increase in the cost of food, drink and energy over the last couple of years. Inflation remains high. Businesses are being asked to pay back Covid loans and all of this is in the midst of a really tough economic climate and cost of living crisis. It’s never been tougher than it is right now.”
So drawing on their experience, what can a business do to succeed – in fact what does success even look like for a business?
“Success was financially driven. To make enough money from the catering business for my family to be comfortable was very important after losing the previous business. However, happiness is key. So, its whatever happiness means to you or whatever make you happy. If you’re not happy with what you’re doing or how it’s going, how sustainable is it to you? Running your own business offers you the chance to choose your lifestyle in a way other jobs don’t. Also the nice part about our industry is that it’s so flexible. It effectively empowers people, and for any independent caterer to know that with your own business, you are in control of your own destiny.”
“Of course, the financial aspect is always there and you have to turn a profit to stay open so that is obviously critical. But everyone has their own definition of success, and with their own business they are able to strive for and hopefully achieve that. Success could be the first day they open to the public and serve up that first dish – the moment it becomes real. It could be, running a stable and sustainable business that maintains a healthy profit with a decent work life balance, it can be achieving 5 star reviews or even a Michelin star or it may be when business is successfully sold or passed on to the next generation.”
Achieving a level of success – whatever it may be, is a great driving factor behind so many catering ventures. Having seen so many businesses start up and seek advice from NCASS, they are both well-placed to dish out this advice to any potential wannabe caterers. So we asked them exactly that – what advice would they give to someone who is just setting up?
Bob believes that you need to “know your numbers and your target demographic. Don’t be too quick to grow, learn to walk before you run.” Which can be tough to do, but a bit of patience is a key ingredient in a sustained successful venture.
Alan states that it helps “if you’re passionate about your product. That will shine through in your story, your values and your branding. Never stop trying to learn and be sure to learn from others mistakes. If you’re thinking about starting your own catering business, go and work for an indie business first and make sure that you actually enjoy it. Get that first-hand experience.”
Branding has always had a big part to play in consumerism, least of all in the realm of catering. The most attractive sign has always been key to bringing customers in and is empirically linked to a business achieving success or not.
“Your brand is all encompassing: From the moment that someone enters your establishment or walks up to your van, they are subconsciously assessing your business based on how you present it and what you deliver. Your offering (food/drink) is a huge part of this, typically your branding stems from your offering and should represent it in some way. You’ve got to be consistent, across all aspects of your brand. Your standards, your quality, your service, your food, your presentation. You have to deliver a consistently memorable experience for each and every customer.”
So what or how has the industry changed since the inception of NCASS almost 20 years ago?
There is a genuine camaraderie within the sector these days and we see all the time the great relationships and even collaborations that blossom between caterers, owing to how the mindset and state of play for those running their own independent business has developed. Independent catering is a popular commodity, and there is plenty of room for everyone to have their slice.
Alan recognises how “street food massively changed the quality and variety on offer particularly in the world of mobile catering, and the impact of that was far reaching, the chains, the big brands and the supermarkets all looked to learn from the success and between us together, with the revolution in street food, the sector literally changed the face of food in the country over the last fifteen years.”
The last fifteen years has seen a lot of change for independent catering and has seen the industry grow a lot. But looking to the future, from where we are now, where does Alan think the industry is headed?
“It’s hard to look too far ahead as right now we face some major challenges and I think it’s more important than ever that we work together to overcome them. Independent hospitality businesses make up the very fabric of our high streets, they are the staple of an event experience, tie communities together, create shared spaces and offer something a chain simply cannot. We are an industry composed of tens of thousands of businesses that contribute billions to the economy. Right now we’re up against a cost of living crisis and a cost of operating crisis. We need to do all we can to safeguard and nurture the industry’s future.”
The Government needs to set up and support independent businesses more and we need to keep up the pressure on them to do so. We are currently running a campaign aimed at bringing to the Government’s attention the realities of working in independent hospitality at the moment and all the challenges that come with it and would really appreciate everyone’s support. You can find all the information at our dedicated webpage here.
Whilst there are undeniably major challenges and uncertainties ahead, the industry has proven time and time again that it can cope, overcome and adapt. This ability to find a way when things are tough is a constant source of inspiration. The tenacity, resilience and adaptability that buoys the sector has seen us get past challenges of all manners previously and should serve to provide confidence when it comes to future challenges. And while the challenges can be really tough to navigate, success in the sector never gets any less rewarding.
There is so much positivity to shout about within the sector and so many amazing things happening in independent hospitality, everyone here at NCASS is still just as excited to be a part of it and to help so many amazing catering journeys along their way.
Fifty editions wouldn’t have happened without you all. We are so lucky to work with so many amazing businesses, but more importantly the people that drive these businesses and ultimately our entire sector forward. It really means a lot each time someone decides to bring us onboard as part of their catering journey, or to keep us along for the ride at a renewal. It is a privilege to work with each one of our members, we cannot thank you enough for the continued support and look forward to seeing all the success that we’re sure the future holds!
Keep an eye out for more articles featured in Issue 50 of the NCASS Member’s Magazine here.