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Passionate foodies Simon and David Wolanski couldn’t be more different, but their shared business has brought them closer than ever. Karen Doyle meets the brothers behind award-winning caterers the-recipe and Office Diner
For brothers Simon and David Wolanski, 2008 looks poised to be a pretty good year. Still flying high after winning ‘Catering Firm of the Year’ at the Eventia Awards, the dynamic duo are now looking to cement their place in London’s event scene.
Only two-and-a-half years apart and with the same cheeky grins, it’s easy to imagine that the brothers have always been the best of friends. Both men pause, however, when I ask them whether they were close when growing up. ‘Um…’ They look at each other, and then burst out laughing. ‘Not exactly,’ says Simon (pictured left). ‘We’ve grown together,’ David adds hastily. ‘I guess that’s the best way to put it.’
The two have always had different interests. Simon takes after their father, who as an actuary is calm, methodical and financially savvy. David, on the other hand, is far more like their mum, an outgoing people’s person who loves food and entertaining.
But the brothers have found common ground in business. As children they would set up shop in front of their home in north London, selling sweets at a profit along with homemade lemonade. David, of course, was in charge of customer service, while Simon ensured that all earnings were equally divided.
Twenty years on, it’s still a partnership that works extremely well.
‘Our personalities are completely different,’ says David. ‘But they complement each other so well. We both look at what the other one does and think “I could never do that!”’
Simon nods in agreement. ‘It’s rare for an older brother to really respect his younger brother. We both have a huge admiration for what the other does.’
David’s career path took him from All Bar One’s hospitality management programme to working front-of-house at Marco Pierre White’s L’Escargot. Soon bored with the snobbiness of fine dining, he left to set up a sandwich bar, Café Soho, in 2001. The store, which made everything by hand with fresh ingredients, did fantastically well with London’s trendy media crowd, even scooping ‘Innovative Sandwich of the Year’ at the British Sandwich Industry Awards in 2003.
Simon, meanwhile, became passionate about events while working as an accountant for IMG, a large sports management company. He later moved to Coopers & Lybrand before setting up his own car importing business, but jumped at the chance to work with his brother.
The opportunity for Office Diner arose, inadvertently, because of the increasing requests Café Soho received for office deliveries and canapé platters.
‘We realised there was a gap in the market for quality office food delivery,’ says Simon. ‘Until Office Diner, every other delivery service was just a side element of another business – be it Prêt or M&S or a retail sandwich bar. When we started, we were just this small company and we were competing with huge, multinational companies. We were a “cool” brand.’
The brothers launched Office Diner at Square Meal’s first Venues & Events show in 2005, a move which both consider to have been key to their success. ‘Launching at the Square Meal show meant that we were talking to all the PAs and event organisers who order food in the City before we even did our first delivery,’ says David. ‘Additionally, the people who book caterers are the same ones who book platters for lunch, but no-one else was doing what we were doing. People saw us as a breath of fresh air – and they were booking us on the spot.’
Nowadays, the company’s distinctive logo and green serving trays have become an instantly recognisable brand across London offices, and its miniature versions of sandwiches, wraps, salads and desserts are ideal for meetings.
‘People don’t want to have a big cake on the table,’ says David. ‘They want to be able to try a couple of different items. Our platters fill people up while giving them four different tastes, all made with fresh, seasonal ingredients.’
The company’s can-do attitude and energetic approach paid off. At the 2007 Venues & Events show, Office Diner didn’t just have a stand – it had its own café taking up the lower ground floor at Old Billingsgate, where 10,000 mini-sandwiches, 9,600 pieces of finger food, 3,200 pastries and 3,000 mini-cakes were served free of charge over the course of two days. The food went down a storm with visitors to the show. ‘We were really impressed with Office Diner,’ said Emma Metcalfe of Candover Partners. ‘Their cakes in particular are absolutely heavenly.’
A few months after Office Diner’s launch, the brothers started the-recipe, a catering company that follows the same feel-good formula of quality food and meticulous service.
The brothers consider the fact that they are new to the industry to be a big plus-point. ‘The good thing is we’re not stuck in our ways,’ says David. ‘If we try something and it works – brilliant; if not we’ll change it.’
‘Our approach at the-recipe is simple: we do what we say we will,’ continues David. ‘There’s nothing worse than over-promising and under-delivering. We try to do it the other way around.’ It seems to be working, too. Besides the recent Eventia award, the-recipe has been quoted as Observer Food Monthly’s favourite caterer, and is a regular at its events.
‘We do this because we love food,’ says David. ‘We don’t just churn out deep-fried rubbish. Our bowl food, for example, is like a mini-gourmet meal – we’ll do something like slow-roasted shoulder of lamb and creamy mashed potato with balsamic shallots and jus.’
Already boasting clients such as Universal Studios, Yahoo! and Mini Cooper, one of the-recipe’s most memorable events took place in the historic St Pancras Chambers for the launch The Guardian’s new format. Sarah Ellison, the newspaper’s event manager, says: ‘We had a very successful launch at the iconic St Pancras Chambers building. We were really pleased with how it all went and have had great feedback on the food.’
This year, David is planning to get the-recipe out there in the same way that Office Diner is. ‘We don’t want just one-off business,’ says David. ‘The most important thing for us is to build relationships with people and have them come back to us time and time again. We want to change people’s perception of events.’
As for the future, both brothers agree that they’re in this for the long haul. ‘We’re not here for the short term,’ says Simon. ‘This is our life; this is what we’re going to be doing for the rest of our careers.’
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Spring 2008.