The Brakes Group’s innovation centre at its Reading base is one of the latest jewels in the crown of its foodservice offering, and the 1,000metre2 facility is due in no small part to its catering equipment division.
The turnkey project was headed up by Brakes Catering Equipment’s general sales manager – projects north, Simon Mahony. He explained that the idea resulted from a capacity shortage at the firm’s Covent Garden test kitchen. “Covent Garden was the first Brakes site we outfitted, about 15 years ago. A lot of our group customers want to bring their chefs to the facility for training and product but it has become booked up to 9 months in advance, so we had to open something else.”
While the Reading depot has been open for 3 years, the last part of the plan there was to put in the innovation centre. Therefore at the beginning of 2017, discussions began about how this could be achieved. The existing area comprised office space, so to turn it into a facility with a market-style presentation area, breakout coffee shop, demonstration kitchen and training kitchen required some detailed planning and execution to install £750,000-worth of catering equipment.
“The brief was to create an industry-leading facility to link customers with Brakes’ catering equipment and food products,” revealed Mahony. “During a lot of project meetings we came up with a wishlist of what we needed to incorporate into the facility: a hospitality area to reflect café culture and for visitors to have a coffee break before formal training or presentations; and to showcase Brakes product across a number of different brands.”
During discussions it became apparent that two different types of showcase kitchen would be required. “One was a theatre-style kitchen for people to watch food products being cooked and tasting them, and the other key requirement was to bring customers in and get them cooking,” said Mahony. “Brakes wants to be an integral part of operators’ businesses, from menu writing to training staff how to cook the food, so the teaching kitchen is key to that.”
The training kitchen features six chef stations which can accommodate 12 students. This was a number that Brakes felt would allow its demonstration chefs to cook and teach effectively.
In terms of equipment provision, in both the theatre and training kitchens, Brakes wanted to showcase the latest technology. Lincat’s Opus 800 cooking equipment, including ovens, griddles, fryers and chargrills, feature heavily in the specification, as well as its FilterFlow dual water boiler and chiller. Adventys induction hobs from Grande Cuisine are installed in the chef stations along with Unox’s bake-off ovens, while the demonstration area and the theatre kitchen both feature Unox combi ovens. The Merrychef eikon E3 accelerated cooker and Pentland Wholesale’s Blizzard microwaves rounded out the cooking equipment, while the Blizzard brand featured again for the cabinet refrigeration. Storers supplied the bulk refrigeration, Bridge Ventilation manufactured the canopies, and Maidaid supplied the warewashing equipment. All fabrications were produced by Rotherham-based Southcroft Engineering from CAD designs created in Brakes Catering Equipment’s Leeds headquarters.
Mahony detailed: “It was all about highlighting innovative products. As an equipment division within Brakes we talk more and more about induction. People are trying to move away from gas and some of the headaches that gas-fired appliances come with. We focused on leading brands.”
A lot of the appliances in the two kitchen areas are on quick disconnect kits so that equipment can be swapped in and out to suit visitors’ needs. Kevin Finlay, channel head of Brakes Catering Equipment, said: “We wanted to make sure we provided as close as possible what chefs have got in their own kitchens. If we cook on their own kit, albeit probably a slightly newer model, it makes it much easier for us to get a better result for the customer.”
The facility soft launched last October, with the first customers booked in during November. However, the centre is already proving so popular that it has built up a 12-week lead time. Therefore there are plans for even more demonstration facilities at other Brakes depots. According to Mahony: “We already have a facility at Tamworth but that is quite old so we are going to refresh it, and we will mirror some of the features at the Reading centre there.”
Finlay reported that the equipment’s lifecycle is likely to be around 3 years. “The aim for Brakes customers is that they shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours’ drive away from a great development kitchen,” he said. Therefore other bases due for a kitchen installation are Portbury, Somerset; Warrington, Cheshire; and Newhouse, Lanarkshire. Brakes hopes to complete one or two of the projects per year, so in around 3-4 years that stage of the initiative will be completed, by which point it will be time to start refreshing the initial facilities’ equipment provision again.
Mahony feels that all of these facilities showcase Brakes Catering Equipment’s capabilities. “A lot of customers don’t realise they can buy all this equipment in-house from Brakes. Our customer base is so varied. Wherever Brakes sells food, we are doing projects. I can be talking to a hotel chain one day and then next day looking at a kitchen in a prison.”
Being under the umbrella of such a large group is a big benefit, according to Mahony. “We have been owned by American companies for the last 15 years, most recently Sysco. Being part of the Brakes Group enables us to have the scale to bulk purchase to give our customers the best value money and we can be a one stop shop for them, from food to cleaning products.”
Finlay underlined that the catering equipment division welcomes both Brakes and non-Brakes food clients. “We are striving to be 10% of the Brakes total foodservice turnover in regard to the equipment share, and we’ve got some way to go,” he detailed. The whole Brakes Group in the UK turns over £3.5bn.
To reach the target, the catering equipment division will be aiming to raise its profile. Finlay explained: “We have started to work with some new manufacturers, and for our customers we are more open now to carrying out quote procurement, to engaging with larger groups than in the past, and just giving our customers a really good service.”
Finlay further commented: “Some of our competitors pitch themselves as truly specialist catering equipment suppliers. But our catering equipment division staff are specialist – people like Simon have 25 years’ experience and have nothing to do with our food business.
“We do not disassociate ourselves with Brakes because it has a massive amount of customers and opportunities that we can push our business forward through. However, we do trade with non-Brakes customers.”
The distributor’s most established working segment is the public sector, encompassing healthcare, hospitals and schools. “We have moved the business on,” said Finlay. “Since I started in 2016 we grew by 43% in year one and this year we are over 20%. We are also just about to announce three major wins that we have across the catalogue, which will probably put another 25% onto our growth.”
There are around 50 employees in Brakes Catering Equipment, working from its standalone Leeds depot. “Our goods are inbound by our own staff, we own our own warehousing and we do our own picking,” said Finlay. “We have partnered with FedEx for delivery for about 2 years and our on time in full is 99.8% so the service is very good to our end customer. We don’t outsource anything that you wouldn’t expect.”
In terms of equipment manufacturers the firm works with, Mahony added: “Brakes as a brand is synonymous with quality and service on the food side, so we make sure that is replicated within the products we supply. We work with brands that can keep up and offer back-up service. It’s important that the likes of Lincat, Unox and Rational have got a good after-sales service. We shy away from brands at the lower end of the market because the last thing we want is a customer to have a bad experience.”
He emphasised that the firm can carry out a variety of project sizes, from a café to a stadium refit. One of the latest projects was for an international chain making its first foray into the UK market.
Finlay added: “Lifecycle cost is creeping up all over our buyers’ agendas. We still believe that a 3-5 year lifecycle cost should be the determining factor when customers are choosing kit. So we have chosen to partner with main brands still and we believe that is a better long-term win for our clients.”
Looking forward, he concluded: “We have great people and service; we have got four offers – light and tabletop equipment, capital equipment and one-off replacements. We are on a good trajectory, it’s now just about market exposure and access to that end customer. Our UK customers are becoming global customers. I think ultimately within 5 years we’ll be Sysco UK, and that will allow us to work with all international customers. That opens up a huge amount of opportunity and we can feel that already.
“We have a mergers and acquisitions department which is constantly looking at opportunities. The way that the marketplace is going, you don’t have to have depots in lots of areas. The beauty of our current operation is that we are next day anywhere in the UK with fantastic service levels. So I think we would be looking to probably purchase some buying power and a customer list as opposed to a list of depots.”