Big Interview: Steve Clarke, Q Catering

After taking over as managing director at Fairway Foodservice member Q Catering last year, Steve Clarke explains how he plans to take the foodservice wholesaler on to another level

Welcome Steve. You spent 28 years working at Kent Frozen Foods (KFS) prior to taking on your new role at Q Catering. Why the change of scenery?

KFS had been sold to Sysco and as part of that process, the board of directors were kept on for two years. When that came to an end, I had to re-evaluate what I wanted to do next, although that just so happened to coincide with Covid. The world was in a state of flux, so I took the time to catch up on all the things I hadn’t been able to do. It gave me time to think about what I wanted to do in the future.

I soon realised I wasn’t ready for retirement. And since my passion has always been in foodservice and food in general, I was looking for an opportunity in that arena.

I was aware of Q Catering and while I didn’t know [former owner] Roger Snelling, I knew somebody who knew him and I made initial contact in 2020.

We had two or three meetings to discuss possible opportunities and we agreed to reconvene at a more appropriate time to discuss my involvement in the business.

In the meantime, I worked for a healthcare and pharmaceutical company called Church & Dwight to keep my brain active. And when Roger and I made contact again in 2021, we agreed we’d like to work together and for me to have the opportunity to buy into Q Catering. By the summer of 2021, we’d agreed a deal in principle and I joined in October of that year.

You rejoined foodservice wholesale during a tumultuous time for the sector…

In a nutshell, I still passionately believe there is a huge part for the independent wholesaler to play in this area.

Before KFS was bought by Sysco, it was an independent, family run business. There are a lot of businesses that want to deal with those sorts of businesses because they don’t want to be a number, they want to be a customer and a person; they want to pick up the phone and talk to somebody.

I was looking at the market and my thought was that there were a lot of independents exiting through acquisition, leaving a gap in that market for a strong independent to step into. That’s where I saw Q Catering’s potential.

How do you plan to get Q Catering to realise that potential?

It’s about going back to basics. We’re checking right from goods in to deliveries out and everything in-between to make sure we’re getting everything right. The core to this was getting the basics right first: making sure we’re not accepting damages, that we’re picking and loading accurately, doing product training, improving customer service, having good stock availability and improving online service. We’re looking at what sort of vehicles are required for the future and recruiting the right people in the key areas of the business.

Our facilities are another thing I knew early on that had a finite life. We had two existing units here but knew we needed to invest in another unit to build some growth in the business. I’ve seen it done the other way round where sales come first and then you have to play catch up to facilitate what the salespeople are bringing in, but this way round, we’ve got the space, we’re future-proofing the site and we now need the sales to come in to make the growth happen.

Your plans are impressive. What level of success do you predict you can achieve?

In the next eight years, we’re expecting to be hitting £20 million turnover. If you take this financial year – from April 2022 to April 2023 – we’re predicting to be close to the £10 million turnover. It’s a bold statement, but this calendar year was always a year of learning and understanding where we needed to invest to achieve that.

We’ve made financial investment in facilities, we’re building a new freezer, we have a new ambient warehouse and we’re investing in our salesforce as well to strengthen and increase numbers, as well as the vehicles. We know what we need to do and we’re making sure we do that this year, ready to really kick on next year.

Why are you the right man to take Q Catering on this journey?

The synergies of the journey we’re on now compared to what I’ve been on before are there. I guess the analogy is almost going back in time maybe 10 or 15 years to where I was before [at KFS] and reproducing what we did. I’ve been on this growth curve before and understand the pitfalls, and the pros and cons of doing what we’re doing. It’s about applying those learnings historically for what we’re trying to do here.

The landscape has changed [in that time], but the fundamentals never do: the customer service element of it, the listening to customers, the building relationships and understanding what they want from their wholesaler and then satisfying that.

For customers, it’s about good-quality food as competitively priced as they can have it and, more importantly, when they place an order, it needs to turn up. If we can get those basics right, I think it’s a very strong foundation to build from.

Big interview Foodservice Kent Frozen Foods Q Catering Steve Clarke