Eye for design

Richard Branson, Heston Blumenthal, Corbin & King. It is a set of names that any company would be proud to call clients, let alone one that has only been operating for around three years.

But dealing with high profile figures and esteemed organisations has become something of the norm for food service design consultancy SeftonHornWinch over the last 36 months and as the market slowly begins to drag itself out of recession that looks poised to continue.

If it wasn’t already clear from the company’s moniker, SHW is a collaboration between FCSI consultants Gareth Sefton, Derek Horn and Ken Winch.

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Sefton, who previously worked as head of design at Tricon Foodservice Consultants, approached industry stalwarts Horn and Winch at the tail end of 2007 after deciding to act upon a long-held desire to run his own company.

The three of them initially began working together as independent consultants to test if they shared the same ethos — and it soon became clear they did. Within a year they had formally launched SeftonHornWinch.

Given that the trio have an enormous amount of experience between them and are well-known in the industry, the formation of SHW has arguably been the most high-profile foodservice design consultancy launch in the market in recent years.

A lot of the work they have picked up has come from several key sectors, including business and industry, hotels and resorts, and restaurants, with the latter really helping to keep the company buoyant given the reduced appetite for expenditure among B&I customers since the downturn. That said, SHW has still managed to secure various catering projects with the likes of Deloitte, Barclays Capital and Royal Bank of Scotland in that period.

With around 14 members of staff now working for the business, and an office in Dubai servicing the international scene, SHW has become a considerable market force in a relatively short space of time.

Sefton is happy with the level of progress given the economic backdrop. “Our turnover is reasonable — it is not where it needs to be or where we would like it to be, but the market is dictating that,” he explains. “To be where we are in this climate is incredible and we have been growing the business from a starting point in a recession. Once we come out of recession it puts us on a very good platform to then go beyond that.”

The project pipelines of food service design consultants often provide a useful guide to how much work is heading the equipment industry’s way, and Sefton certainly makes some encouraging noises on that front.

“We have seen a definite uplift in enquiries for larger scale projects,” he says. “Over the past 12 to 18 months it has been very small scale projects — people dipping their toe in the water and doing feasibility studies. Other areas of the world are also opening up. We have just picked up a couple of projects in Mauritius and we are bidding for [projects in] Nigeria and Marrakech.”

SHW has even picked up the contract from Virgin to redevelop the food and beverage facilities on Richard Branson’s Necker Island after a fire there last year, while closer to home it has just gained a fifth straight contract with restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King for their new Cafe Colbert venture in London.

As a business that was effectively formed in the midst of the recession, it is impossible to ignore the impact that adverse economic conditions have had on the consultancy market, most notably in terms of pricing. With less available work on the table, companies have inevitably lowered their prices in order to attract and secure business.

It is a situation that Sefton describes as “unfortunate”. He says: “I think it has reduced the value — certainly of consultants and what that’s worth — because there are dealers offering free design but which build the cost of their free design into the equipment they sell. I think what it has done is opened up cost competition between consultants, but also it has brought dealers into the consultant market, not necessarily because dealers want to place themselves there, although I’m sure some do. From a client’s perspective they are much more free to say, ‘right, we will have a couple of consultants and a couple of dealers, what we are going to get offered from all of these, what are the pros and cons of having a fee against a non-fee, and where does the quality lie.’ Because of that it is a client’s market and they are getting huge value from it; they are getting very good services off people at very reasonable rates.”

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SHW is presently involved in around 30 projects at various stages from inception to completion, including the work carried out from its office in Dubai.

One of the big turning points for the firm was its involvement with Mandarin Oriental in Hyde Park, which saw it design the Bar Boulud restaurant for internationally-acclaimed French chef Daniel Boulud. 18 months after that it played a part in the opening of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the same site.

“I think we are quite lucky in the profile of the clients that we have,” reflects Sefton. “We are very much a relationship-based practice. Our intent is not to tender for our work, our intent is that people choose us to because of who we are, they know what they are going to get and they know it is going to be good value in terms of the quality of the service provided. The profile of the projects that we have been on has been very interesting and curious to the public, to other chefs and to other operators, which makes it very easy for us to market ourselves.”

On a personal level, Sefton singles out his involvement in designing the kitchen for Dinner by Heston Blumenthal as the project which had the most profound effect on him.

“That really changed me on a number of different levels. I had never experienced working with chefs at a three-star level before, so looking at what they do and how they do it was an incredible learning experience, but what was amazing mostly about that was how humble they are. We looked to these chefs to say ‘you tell us what we want to eat because that is what you do’ and they looked to me to say ‘how shall I plan the kitchen, that is what you do.’

He continues: "They think they know what equipment they need until you say, ‘well have you tried this’, and then they are just amazed. I think a lot of chefs, particularly these guys, are so cocooned in their kitchen they don’t get to see what is going on in the outside world. They only know what they know. So with Dinner we brought in the use of induction as a prime cooking source which made the kitchen cooler and we worked very closely with Heston to develop a cook suite arrangement that we hadn’t done before, but which turned out to be the most efficient arrangement we had ever done.”

That particular project saw the cook suite lay-out separated, rather than being situated back-to-back as it might traditionally be, allowing the chefs on each station to remain in one position and not get in each other’s way. Runners simply pick up the food from the side, while two chefs can work facing each other on the same section to improve efficiency at busy times if needed.

“In terms of an image of what a kitchen should look like, that is probably my proudest kitchen,” admits Sefton. “Then, on a different scale, you have got somewhere like The Delaunay, where we had to design a kitchen that has an all-day menu, opens at 7am, closes at midnight and the target is to get over 1,000 covers through the door on a Saturday. The Wolseley [which SHW was also involved in] is doing 1,300 a day and [Corbin & King’s] new kitchen, the Zedel, which is just being installed at the moment, is targeting 2,000 on lunch and dinner, no breakfast.”

As SeftonHornWinch prepares to embark on its fourth year of operation, the Kent-based outfit is very much focused on ensuring it positions the business correctly. Although it remains satisfied with the size and scale of the company, its over-riding goal is to become “a consultant of choice”.

“There is a phrase that I have sort of coined, which is, ‘we want clients to come to us for a SeftonHornWinch kitchen, not a kitchen designed by SeftonHornWinch’,” says Sefton. “And the subtle difference is we want people to entrust us completely to come up with the most efficient design scheme for their kitchen. What we don’t want to be is a drawing service for a client to say, ‘I want this there and I want that there’.”

There is certainly a growing list of A-grade customers that can vouch for that, and as the foodservice market shows signs of picking up again you get the feeling that Sefton and his partners are going to be kept extremely busy.

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The ‘car salesman’ mistake

When it comes to specifying equipment for a project a consultant will draw upon all of his or her knowledge and experience to make selections based on functionality, quality and price. That doesn’t stop manufacturers attempting to exert their influence, however, or at the very least trying to ensure consultants are aware of what they have to offer.

But exactly how much notice do consultants take of such approaches? “To be honest it depends how we are approached,” says SHW managing director Gareth Sefton. “We don’t need to be sold to and I think manufacturers and distributors sometimes take the wrong approach in that they treat us like an end-user client and feel that we need to be sold to. We do the selling — when we specify the equipment to our clients we are, in fact, selling that equipment. The one thing we don’t sell on is price. It would be wrong for me to say clients don’t have budgets, because they do, but first and foremost our interest is making sure that the piece of kit fits a brief.”

Sefton insists that while his ears are always open to manufacturers, the ‘hard sell’ is unlikely to get them very far.

“We also expect the people representing the companies to know about the products they are selling and how the product works within the environment which we are wanting to specify,” he says. “I think there are occasions where salesmen sell out of a catalogue. I have had salesmen come into the office and they want to run through their range. They get out a binder that is this thick, they sit it on the desk and they turn a page and say, ‘we do ranges, we do fryers, we do griddles’. They don’t know anything about what they are selling — they are just selling a list of products in the hope that I am going to choose some.”

So what should brands be doing in order to get their pitch heard?

“In the way that we expect people to choose us because we present ourselves as a knowledgeable consultant in the business in which we operate, we expect dealers and manufacturers to have the same ability,” he reveals. “So if they are selling a cooking range they should tell us what it does, why it is better than their peer market — does it cook quicker, does it impart more flavour, is it cheaper to run, is it a smaller footprint, is it easy to maintain, is it easy to replace in the event that it breaks? These are things which are important to us — we don’t want the car salesman [approach].”

While there has been some tremendous innovation in the market over the last few years, Sefton believes there is still scope for the bar to be raised. “The innovation I think we need to push for from manufacturers is definitely on water usage — re-harvesting if possible or even water-free appliances — power consumption and ventilation,” he says. “If we can make some serious inroads towards making ventilation even more efficient and cleaner at a reasonable price and maintenance cost then the better it will be.”

Crossing paths with dealers

Although both share a common loyalty to the end-user client, the relationship between consultancy and kitchen house can often be a fragile one.

SeftonHornWinch’s Gareth Sefton says the commercial nature of the consultancy market naturally commands a professional approach to working with installers, although he acknowledges that relationships are inevitably stronger with some dealers than others.

“Our responsibility is to our client, not to the dealer, and their responsibility is to the client, not us, so we have to keep it very professional. And sometimes we have to ask for things a dealer isn’t going to do or we have to condemn something they have done,” he says.

Sefton believes that some dealers have successfully positioned themselves in sync with the consultancy market and cites the likes of Hallmark Kitchens, Berkeley Projects, C&C, Court and Shine as companies which fit into that category.

“I think the two forerunners in that are Hallmark and Berkeley Projects,” he says. “I think they have got the best project management teams in the industry and the business, and I think they have set themselves up purposely to deal and cope with the consultancy market. There are a lot of dealers out there which sell equipment and install it which think that’s good enough to be contracting the consultancy market, but I think they are a bit misguided sometimes.”

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