EXCLUSIVE: Chiller Box reaches 15th anniversary thanks to “personal service, lean operations and maintaining margins”

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Chiller Box completed this unusual kitchen for homeless charity Caritas Anchor House in Canning Town at the beginning of the year.

Tottenham-based distributor Chiller Box has reached a major milestone, with October marking 15th anniversary of its first order.

Marios Poumpouris and cousin Michael Michael founded the company in June 2004, with that first contract coming just a few months later.

Poumpouris told Catering Insight: “15 years later we are still here to tell the tale. There’s been quite a few ups and downs since then in the market, such as the recession in 2008-2010 and now Brexit since 2016.

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“Brexit has certainly made the trading environment tougher. The fall in Sterling pushed up equipment and food prices for operators at the same time as business rates rose, so there were many pressures, and we’ve seen the casual dining market decline.”

While this has had a ripple effect on the marketplace, Chiller Box has ensured it is well-placed to sail through these troubled waters. Originally cutting its teeth with independent operator and high street projects, Poumpouris detailed: “If we were reliant on that sector solely now we would be in trouble. The high street generally has taken a hit and there are fewer newcomers in the marketplace than there was – we’ve noticed it a lot this year. But because of our 15 years of experience we have broadened our horizons.”

This has happened organically, with the distributor picking up orders from the education and contract catering sectors, the latter of which are often multi-site operators which provide a regular stream of work.

The distributor outfitted St Thomas’ Church kitchen in Oakwood over a tight timeline this summer.

Other significant projects the firm has recently taken on involve community organisations. For example, the distributor was tasked with refurbishing St Thomas’ Church in Oakwood this summer. The kitchen had to serve both the onsite nursery school and church and external events. According to Poumpouris: “The brief was very exacting in its requirements from the very friendly couple who are part of the church committee. We worked closely with them and the contractor to complete the project over the tight few weeks’ closedown over the summer period. The client was very happy.”

Previously, at the beginning of the year, the dealer finished an unusual project at homeless charity Caritas Anchor House in Canning Town, east London. This turnkey scheme involved taking a completely bare shell and turning it into a residents’ kitchen for the homeless people to use as a halfway house before gaining permanent accommodation. Not only did this involve a central cooking range and warewashing facilities but also encompassed individual cooking stations for the residents, complete with microwaves, refrigerators and domestic-style cookers for them to use.

While Chiller Box hasn’t officially celebrated its 15-year anniversary, Poumpouris believes: “We need take a step back and give ourselves a pat on the back, not only for us as directors but for the team we’ve currently got on board and the projects that we’ve done, and celebrate the fact that we are still here, which not everyone is able to say.”

He feels that the company has avoided the pitfalls that have afflicted other fledgling dealers through. “Especially in the last 3 years of Brexit uncertainty, we have kept ourselves very lean. We have not necessarily been pushing for growth. Michael and I have stayed very much hands on – we look after our clients ourselves and we have enough support staff to give our clients the service.”

This core team equates to three full time and one part time staff member along with the two directors, who collectively design and support the catering projects. Functions such as installation, equipment delivery, IT and marketing are outsourced to a trusted network of partners who have all been embedded in the Chiller Box culture long term. “We’re in control of our projects from beginning to end and our clients like that they’ve got a single point of contact who in most cases is an owner of the company,” said Poumpouris.

Turnover throughout the years has remained relatively static, though Poumpouris elaborated: “From the beginning we have always said that in order for us to survive during difficult periods we need to maintain our quality of service. And to do that we need to maintain the margin that we work on. Therefore we have always tried not to give our service away at a price that under-values what we offer.

“So we have always been successful in maintaining our margin, even if we don’t always maintain our turnover levels. Our model means we are working harder for fewer clients and getting the margin rather than making ourselves busy fools, doing more work for less and then not having the resource to be able to deliver the service.”

Looking ahead, he believes that once the Brexit issue is resolved, the market will settle and Chiller Box will be in a position to push to the next level. “We would start looking at recruitment again, potentially getting more salespeople and project managers on board, growing and investing in that way.

“Hiring newcomers to the industry would interest me, as we could train them up in the Chiller Box way and we would have the benefit of someone who is perhaps hungrier and has a fresh outlook.”

Poumpouris concluded: “We’ve come from very humble beginnings, starting 15 years ago from my second bedroom at home. So we need to thank everyone that’s been part of the journey, from suppliers to sub-contractors, industry associations, our staff and ultimately to our clients who pay our wages and keep the wheels turning.”

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Clare Nicholls

The author Clare Nicholls


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