Search for exciting venues and eventsFind a Venue
If you need advice or help finding venues or event suppliers, use our free helpline service.
This year’s Canapé Cup winner Eden Catering combines sustainability with business success. Its co-directors Nick Mead and Hugh Walker explain their philosophy.
Under the railway arches, close to Waterloo station, are the headquarters of Eden Catering. From the outside, there’s not much to see. Look again and a few details begin to give you an idea of the company inside, which considers itself ‘the UK’s most sustainable caterer’. Most obviously, there’s a single beehive, which provides around 30kg of honey for the company every year. Then there are the low-emission diesel vans, which cut fuel use by a fifth in their first year. Step inside and you’ll notice that there are barely any lights on (a deliberate decision to save power) and there are half a dozen bins to maximise recycling.
Eden Catering, which has just turned 18, has three divisions. There’s Express, the sandwich and platter delivery business, Events, and Fine Dining. Express came first and is still the biggest part of the business. ‘We hit 6,000 covers a week fairly often,’ says Nick Mead, one of the company’s three directors. ‘We go as far east as E14 and as far west as W2 – and everything else in the middle.’ The Events division followed five years ago and was an instant success, covering 200 events in its second year and more than 300 the year after.
Eden Fine Dining is the baby of the family, having launched on 1 April this year at Confex. It came about because Mead met chef Adrian Collischon on Twitter. At the time, Collischon owned a business called Simply Fine Foods in Essex, but he was ready to move into London. He now acts as Eden Fine Dining’s executive chef, overseeing everything from weddings and private dinners to the VIP catering for the FA Cup Final at Wembley. His spring menus featured starters such as garlic-steamed wild clams and mussels with a fresh watercress soup, followed by lemon and thyme-roasted poussin, grain mustard mash and baby leeks. The autumn menu is now being finalised.
Across all three parts of the business, Eden’s commitment to sustainability and the environment goes beyond the lip-service many companies pay to green issues. Indeed, they very recently won the ‘Independent Sustainable Caterer of the Year’ award, at the Food Legacy Awards ceremony. When we meet Mead and his co-director, Hugh Walker, the pair are still getting over the disappointment of missing out on the contract to cater the entire Olympic torch relay (they had to make do with the party for its arrival in London). It would have been their crowning achievement, they say: the more so because these were supposed to be the ‘sustainable Olympics’.
So great is their commitment to the issue that they operate a zero-to-landfill policy and they helped write BSA901, the British Standard in sustainable event management. ‘There are not many other caterers working in as sustainable way as we do. We really go for it,’ says Mead. Eden doesn’t air-freight ingredients, and won’t serve tuna or other species which have been over-fished. ‘We don’t do a tuna sandwich,’ says Walker. ‘We made that decision last year and there was some trepidation as to how it would go down. But not a murmur.’ They now use mackerel instead.
Eden’s buyers also try to shop locally, using hens from Gloucester and beef from Essex, and they stick to a seasonal list of ingredients across the company. ‘Just yesterday, I was tasting a new mini-bowl which was blackberry with spinach and goats’ cheese,’ says Walker. ‘We’ll use that definitely in the new season, along with pear and blackberry crumble, using English pears.’ For the autumn, they’ll be offering sandwiches with butternut squash, mushrooms and sweet potato, alongside the classic ranges.
Both are committed to busting the myths that surround sustainable food, the biggest of which is that it’s more expensive. They are keenly aware of the tighter budgets brought on by the recession – Walker particularly so, having worked in the catering industry through one major downturn already. He ran the DIY chain Do-It-All’s 75 in-store cafés after graduating in catering systems from Sheffield University, but that business suffered in the late 1980s and was sold. He took on Mead as a kitchen manager a year after founding Eden, and the pair now look after the day-to-day running of the business (Walker’s wife, Angela, is the third director).
Mead and Walker are outdoorsy, sporty types: both keep bees, and Walker is a regular tennis player and triathlete, while Mead came to catering after years as a youth football coach (he worked for Spurs, despite being an Arsenal fan, he tells me regretfully). In the office, Mead greets me wearing shorts and an impressive tan; Walker arrives later in cycling gear. But their office informality sits alongside relentless professionalism. The pair tell me that with every invoice, they ask for feedback; the two women who look after the events side of the company also make sure each client gets a chance to give their opinion on the service they’ve received. ‘Every invoice that goes out, part of the message is “we hope you enjoyed the food, please let us know if you didn’t”,’ says Walker. ‘That triggers a lot of people to reply, and that trickle is a barometer.’ Mead chips in, ‘We haven’t had a complaint for a long, long time.’
There are now 27 full-time employees, as well as hundreds of temporary staff hired through Off to Work and other agencies. The Waterloo premises are stretched to capacity: there’s an industrial kitchen on site, with all the extras that requires; as well as an office space and an upstairs staff room, complete with pool table. The company tries to look after its employees, allowing them to take lunch from the ingredients on offer in the kitchen. ‘We like to promote healthy eating, and we should start with our staff,’ says Walker.
Just as I’m about to leave, Walker hands me – in a crisp brown paper bag – a sandwich from their stall at the Olympic live site in Potter’s Field. It is ham, from Gloucestershire pigs, on artisan sourdough bread and home-made honey mustard dressing. It was delicious.
As part of Boris’ Capital Growth programme, which plans to create 2,000 growing spaces by the end of 2012, Capital Bee is a programme intent on creating sponsored ‘meadows’, creating more wild flowers for bees to collect their pollen from. Eden has one such meadow, behind their offices, in Arch Bishop’s Park. We had a walk around to have a look and Walker explained. ‘It helps the park and it helps our bees. There’s not all that much pollen for them to collect around here and, of course, more flowers means more honey.’
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events, Autumn 2012.