Meet Sue, business woman extraordinaire and co-founder of Kastner & Ovens, “K&O” from here on in, aka “my lunch place.”
This is where K&O sits in my food chain:
Favorite items on the daily changing menu include: leek, potato and stilton bake (casserole); any curry with a side of spicy cabbage and coconut salad; anything with mashed potato; broadbean and chorizo salad; and last but not least, my beloved carrot-banana-walnut cake with cream cheese icing (it comes close to beating my mum’s carrot cake, and that’s saying something!).
Having been a regular customer for years, I finally drummed up the courage to ask Sue if I could interrupt her busy daily routine to ask her how on earth she does it all. And so, over cups of steaming hot milky tea, we started a journey through London’s catering history.
How it all started
To fully appreciate the trust Sue has built up with her suppliers, as well as her resilience in the face of strikes, bad weather and other obstacles, it’s important to understand the sheer labor and dedication it took just to open K&O’s doors (literally, to even find a place to lease), as well as the work it takes to serve the daily flow of customers.
Sue, a born and bred Londoner, made her way in the catering world working at Justin De Blank’s business for over 10 years in the 1980s, which is where she first met Anne-Marie Kastner. As her name suggests, Anne-Marie is the other founder of Kastner and Ovens.
In 1995 Sue and Anne-Marie had an idea to start up a catering business, but had no money, no site and a lot of “this is not going to work” thoughts, especially after a third co-founder decided to part ways with them (meaning 1/3 of any potential funds left with her). They had a network of contacts in the catering industry. Sue explains that the London catering industry is a small world: “We all know one another here”. After much patience, perseverance and support, they finally opened their shop in July 1999.
Two years after the original offer on the leasehold for the site they wanted, they finally signed the lease, after over a year of negotiations and lawyers’ fees.
Of K&O’s suppliers, some, such as their bread supplier, have been with K&O since the beginning. Just as important as the quality of their food is the trust they have established with their suppliers. Sue prefers to deal with smaller businesses and some of these suppliers even have keys to their store they can make early morning deliveries.
Sue’s 20 to 25 suppliers have become like family. She believes that they are giving her the best price and quality.
Most suppliers are paid by invoice once per month with some still being paid “cash in hand”, emphasizing the need for trust. With the large suppliers, such as Bidvest 3663 (a nationwide wholesale distributor and subsidiary of an international investment holding company), prices and product quality depends on who you deal with on the day.
“We don’t know them, and they don’t know us”, Sue says with a hint of frustration. Sue points out that the London catering world is a small world and at the same time a large, extended family. Informal communication goes on between customer and supplier over the phone, which creates the bonds in this part of the food system.
All of her meat and fish is from the UK, and delivered directly by fishmongers and butchers. I love the fact that Sue sources her dairy products from Andy, the milkman. But fruit and vegetables might come from further afield. For example, the bananas in my favorite cake come from Brazil, and surprisingly, garlic comes all the way from China. For fruit and veg, Sue receives a monthly report on what is in season and the corresponding prices. She says they can’t stick too closely to the UK seasons, as their customers would be eating root vegetables all winter and customers do demand variety.
The work at K&O, as with most catering establishments or bakeries, is difficult. Sue gets into K&O at 6:30 a.m. each morning, with four of the team arriving at 7 a.m. to start peeling, chopping, roasting, cooking, baking away in the downstairs kitchen. Oh, and of course the washing up needs to be done as well, and the 5th team member arrives at 9 a.m. to do odd jobs. They cook up a storm of up to two large baking dishes of 12 different new salads every day, two hot mains, and a collection of pastries, and soups. They also bake cakes, pies and cookies. They lunch at 11:30 a.m. when everything needs to be ready for the lunchtime rush starting at noon; they finish around 2 p.m. Finally, after the daily cleaning routine, Sue closes up shop at 4 p.m.
Time is really of the essence. In a place where consistency is important, adaptability is required. Below are just a few of the obstacles K&O faces:
Recessions – The 2008 recession didn’t affect K&O until about a year after the economic crisis. Sue thinks this is because customers started adjusting their lunch expenditure downwards once they realized that their money wouldn’t stretch as far as it used to. Until this day, customers who used to come in four days per week only come in twice.
Bad weather – You might expect this to be a challenge for a food grower rather than an eatery. But, a rain forecast quite simply means that they prepare less food.
Bank holidays and royalty (well, this is Britain after all!) – Bank holidays were legally institutionalized by the Bank Holiday Act (in) 1871, and there are currently three bank holidays in the UK per year (excluding Christmas, New Year’s and Easter), with two in May and one in August. In 2012 we had an additional bank holiday day due to the Queen’s diamond jubilee (60 years on the throne) and 2011 saw an additional bank holiday announced in honor of the royal wedding (need I name the wedding couple?). K&O is closed at the weekends, so while these holidays mean that Sue and her team also get to have an extra day off, the overall impact on revenue is noticeable, particularly as many people take leave around these dates, resulting in fewer customers. How seriously bank holidays can impact on business, particularly in times of recession, can be read about in this article: “Double bank holiday to cost nation £30bn.”
Tube strikes – Everyone in London moans and groans when London Underground workers kick up a fuss about their wages, working conditions and planned staffing cuts. Even the nation’s prime minister complains . For K&O it means a notable 40% downturn in sales, particularly on the first day of a strike, as fewer people literally go the extra mile(s) to get to work that day. So far in 2014, London has seen one two day strike at the end of April, with a further threatened but then (thankfully) cancelled three day strike in early May. With two days in one week being equivalent to almost 50% of K&O’s weekly revenue, it is easy to see why this would make Sue nervous.
The result of all of the above factors for K&O is fluctuating and sometimes unpredictable demand. One day they may have made too much food, but on the next day they may run out by 1 p.m. Thus, the main challenge for Sue and her team is to try to predict demand accurately and to minimize waste. As demand is very difficult to predict accurately, the focus is on preparing food that can be easily served two days in a row. Some dishes lend themselves less well than others to this practice while others taste even better on the second day. Therefore it is about finding the right mix of both types of food.
As one would expect, rising costs are also an issue. Sue is not one to sacrifice quality when the belt is tighter. She insists on not substituting quality ingredients with cheap ingredients, e.g. cream with milk in quiches. However, coupled with significant increases in food prices over the past two years in particular, this has meant a cut in real income for the shop. In addition, there is a constant threat of a rise in rent. The latest contract renewal is currently being negotiated, but started off with the landlord requesting a 40% increase. Then there is also the significant fixed cost of replacing broken equipment. Luckily for Sue, this does not happen frequently, but still has significant implications on cash flow that need to be carefully managed.
Despite all the challenges, Anne-Marie has been the manager of a new shop opened up in another part of town (Spitalfields), for three-and-a-half years now and this is doing well. Thus, K&O have weathered more than just rainstorms over the past 15 years and continue to do so with success.
So much of this business isn’t really about food, though food of course holds everything together. People are clearly the focus of K&O. Sue says: “we always wanted to be on the same side as the public, not behind a counter; and we never changed our minds”. And it is very clearly people and the close-knit family that the London catering industry is, who helped set up K&O and have kept customers coming through their support, trust, and hard work and determination. London suddenly shrinks to the size of a village, when I realize what a tight-knit network of food sellers and caterers operates within its boundaries. Though small and predominantly British, it is hardy and resilient, and has a global reach. The biggest surprise is how challenging responding to the fluctuations in customer demand can be. It can fluctuate for all sorts of reasons, and from one day to the next, one month to the next and one year to the next. People like Sue posses the entrepreneurial spirit, resilience and profound ability to adapt that seems so crucial in the highly perishable and demand-driven world of food.