It was not so long ago that Geoff Riches was plying his trade at Cookco the first time around, with the MD spending over 9 years at the helm of the East Midlands dealer.
But after heading to Catering Projects in 2013, 5 years later he was tempted back again to re-launch the company, as he explained: “While I was out of the business, Anna McNamara from CES bought the company in 2015. We have known each other for years and stayed in touch. It became apparent last year that for both myself and the team that had followed me from the original Cookco, it was going to be beneficial for all of us to come back and be given the freedom to re-set it up how we wanted to.”
During Riches’ first stint there, he established the business as a specialist in commercial kitchen design and build, taking on full projects, and so it was with an aim to recreate this that he set about his task last April.
First up was finding suitable premises, which Riches managed to complete by June. After working from home for 2 months, the team moved into an office in the middle of Nottingham city centre, which Riches believes is a positive boon. “It’s a very convenient location which means I can do double the amount of work,” he detailed.
“Local clients can quickly visit us or I can go to them for a meeting in the morning and then be back in the office to carry on with other things.”
Cookco does specialise in clients across the Midlands and North, and the orderbook is brimming with jobs, as: “We have brought clients with us from Catering Projects and we are also back in the frame with those who continued with Cookco under Anna. So we’ve actually got two businesses in one,” Riches revealed.
In the interim with Catering Projects, he started up his own business within the group called Catering Projects Nottingham, which brought in a lot of independent local operators. But after management changes at the firm, the strategy was much more focused on chain and templated project roll-outs, which didn’t suit Riches and prompted him to return to revitalise the Cookco name.
There is a clear demarcation between Cookco’s and CES’s remits, with the latter, headquartered in Peterborough, covering the southern market and Cookco picking up schemes from the East Midlands to northern England. According to Riches: “I can visit any of my clients in one day and still be back in the office. It is an easy way to work when you are covering a small area.”
Riches’ close-knit team comprises two permanent employees and a network of proven sub-contractors. Rachel Roe is the office manager, and has worked alongside Riches since 2010 at Cookco, following him to Catering Projects and back. While the other office-based staff member, Mark Camm, previously worked with Riches at Cookco and stayed on at the dealer. Currently Camm is an estimator, but is being trained up in site management.
“Between the three of us we have got enough knowledge and expertise to do every kind of operation,” said Riches. Add to this the company’s group of experienced sub-contracted interior designers, CAD designers and service engineers, and the distributor can provide a full turnkey offering.
Riches detailed: “It’s all about building a team in a locality whereby our clients get to know not just me but my installer team or my interior designer etc. By having a strong network of subcontractors they continuously bombard you with leads themselves.”
Regarding Cookco’s scope as a whole, he asserted: “We offer a lot more than most other people do. A lot of people in our industry at the moment just do CAD designs. They get drawings given to them by architects and contractors and even if these are badly designed they are not questioned. Whereas we have the strength of character to pick up the phone to the architect and say that things need changing. I will never do a design where I would not be able to operate it and make it profitable myself.”
His experience in catering design and operation is key to knowing what kitchen layouts work, drawing on his knowledge from time spent at Bass Leisure, as a freelance hotel refurbishment consultant, at Lockhart Catering Equipment and with Garners Food Service Equipment.
However, he acknowledged the challenges of the catering equipment sector, commenting: “Our trade is very difficult, as we can cover an enormous amount of products from a wide-ranging list of manufacturers. And then on top of that you have got to have the creativity to design in your head, to be able to walk into a place and design it correctly for the money which the client has in its pocket.”
Riches detailed that he can sit down with end users to create a full work-up of their budgets, the equipment needed, considering hygiene and health and safety. “When I go and see somebody about a job, I never have to ask for the order. I just discuss the whole business with them and what they are looking for, and very quickly they can see I know what I am talking about.”
In terms of partnerships with manufacturers, Cookco tends to rely on a regular band of collaborators, including Blue Seal, Rational, Lincat, Foster Refrigerator and Parry. “If a customer asks me for a certain piece of kit, then I will always sell that to them. But if they leave it to me then I try and put my business through the people who have been loyal to me,” said Riches.
But he had strong opinions on the current state of the dealer industry’s relationship with manufacturers in general, saying: “In the ‘good old days’ there was a great divide between the distributors on the front line dealing with the customers, and the manufacturers, whose job was to back us up.
“Unfortunately now that line has blurred and a lot of manufacturers are going direct, therefore that trust isn’t there any more. Plus the fact they are selling to anybody.”
And he was equally forthright on his views regarding internet traders. “The biggest danger in our industry are one man bands with an internet sales tool selling so cheap it’s belittling the manufacturers’ equipment. They are not bothered if the equipment works when it’s there. It’s all about making money selling boxes.
“They will continue to be a danger until somebody somewhere sees the light and cuts these people out, letting the designers around the country deal with the customers.”
Nevertheless, he recognised that the end users Cookco serves, do want help and advice and are willing to pay a bit more for these services. Therefore he ruled out any online sales for the distributor: “Internet sales is like painting the Forth Bridge because you are dealing with so many items. By the time you have got to your final page you have got to start all over again, because so many things change. And to do it well you have to hold lots of stock.”
Cookco itself avoids holding stock, preferring to work with manufacturers who have a stockholding themselves. But to offer a wide range of products, the distributor partners with Uropa Distribution, the wholesale arm of the Nisbets group. “I can use the Uropa catalogue with Cookco’s name on it,” said Riches. “If you use the firm properly, it can help you immensely on pricing and getting stock there on time.”
Market sectors which are proving particularly fertile ground for the distributor include care homes, with one project a month scheduled until the third quarter of this year, as well as independent restaurants, universities, coffee shops and staff dining.
Riches analysed: “There are about 13 different parts of the catering trade and I’ve always made sure I can deal with any one of those parts. It makes what you do fun and enjoyable because you are not doing the same thing day in, day out.
“When there was a spike in school fitouts around the time of the Universal Infant Free School Meals programme, I did 93 schools in one year. But the trouble with that was it kicked me out of all other parts of the catering trade, so since that year, I decided not to put all my eggs in one basket ever again.”
However, he does believe that there could be another wave of school projects in the offing, as many schools are pulling out of government control and becoming academies, which means they will return to running kitchens themselves rather than relying on the local authority catering officers. Plus he predicted: “I think private restaurants in town centres will boom again. People are fed up of chains, so I can see a lot of city centre sites being taken over by local entrepreneurs.”
And looking at possible Brexit impacts going forward, he forecast: “There may be a bit of a hiccup in the trade, especially on borders and how to import equipment, but eventually everyone will wake up and smell the coffee and it will just be fine.
“There are far bigger markets than Europe, such as China, India, USA, Australia and New Zealand. The catering equipment and range of kit from other parts of the world outweigh what’s coming out of Germany, Italy and France.”
Cookco’s aims will continue to be keeping the business running on a profitable basis and maintaining as many clients as possible. Riches concluded: “We don’t have to do marketing – we are so busy being reactive that we don’t have to be proactive. Instead of looking for new customers, it is better to look after the customers you have got.
“As we progress, we may recruit more people, but we won’t get too big. If you get too big too quickly it’s a vicious circle: you have to get 10 times more business in, which can lead to you doing it badly. I’d rather do 10 jobs really well with 10 happy clients than do 30 jobs really badly because I’m too busy.”