The Big Cheese

Chris John, Sodexo - IMG_828211.jpgFor Chris John, this is going to be a long summer. When we meet, the MD of Sodexo Prestige has just put the finishing touches to a gala night at the Chelsea Flower Show, hosting 5,000 guests for canapés and 2,000 for dinner. From there, it’s a  whirlwind of events until autumn, with the biggie – the Olympics – fast approaching.   As Prestige Ticketing (a joint venture with the Mike Burton Group), Sodexo will be the Games’ official hospitality provider, entertaining 80,000 people across six venues. The flagship is a £9.5m three-storey pavilion in the Olympic Park, with 3,000 covers spread over six restaurants. There will also be a double-decker marquee right on the finish line of the rowing at Eton Dorney, while the view of the equestrian competition will be even better: space at Greenwich Park is so tight that, during the eventing, the horses will go under the marquee.   The challenges involved are complex and unique – not least in terms of security. There’ll be a lockdown of Olympic sites in June, so all the equipment must be installed before then. ‘The sheer scale of it – it’s never been done before,’ says John. ‘On the busiest day, they’re expecting 600,000 people in the Olympic Park. Imagine that: Wembley holds 90,000!’   Luckily, John’s team is used to big challenges. Sodexo Prestige holds the catering contract for a number of busy event venues, including Bateaux London, HMS Belfast and, the biggest,  Ascot Racecourse. ‘During Royal Ascot, we cater for a third of a million people over five days, from the Queen and aristocracy in the Royal Enclosure, through to the stretch limos coming down from Essex,’ says John, smiling.    Despite the huge numbers involved, there is no skimping on quality, as John explains: ‘We have Cornish crab, locally sourced beef – and the chefs are responsible for creating individual menus for all the restaurants and boxes. It’s sophisticated and complicated, but such fun.’    Chefs are encouraged to build relationships with suppliers, such as the cheesemongers Paxton & Whitfield, where our photo shoot took place. ‘Some of them work so closely with the chefs, they’re really an extension of the kitchen,’ says John, who himself is quite the cheese connoisseur: he speaks enthusiastically about the Lancashire cheese – Wensleydale, Garston Blue – that will be served by Sodexo at the Open Championships.    John’s background makes him the perfect man to mastermind corporate hospitality. His professional interests are, as he puts it, ‘food and booze and sport’. A graduate trainee at sweet firm Trebor Bassett, his career has also included stints at Diageo, a US sports equipment business and the British Horseracing Board. The last of these gave him a chance to indulge his passion for equestrian sports: he owns a showjumper mare, who gave birth to a foal called Wanda the week before. (He whips his phone to show me a picture. ‘She was standing after ten minutes,’ he says, as proudly as any parent.) His children love sport, too – although they’re Chelsea fans, while he supports West Brom.   John has been at Sodexo for four and a half years, and now spends two and a half days a week at its Southampton Row office and the rest of his time visiting venues. A key word in his professional vocabulary is ‘differentiation’.    In a homogenous market, with relatively low entry barriers and slender margins, the competition is fierce and standing out is vital. ‘It we’re not differentiated, we go in with a compliant low-cost bid, we’re encouraging a downward spiral of costs and providing stuff that’s barely satisfactory,’ says John. ‘I don’t want to be barely satisfactory, I want to provide great food from artisan suppliers that excites people.’    He is keenly aware that every client counts. ‘My background is in manufacturing – if one person doesn’t like your tube of sweets, that’s one thing. But if a couple of big clients go elsewhere, it’s a scary time. You have to re-evaluate the overheads, and that means potentially saying goodbye to colleagues. It’s a tough business.’   The one thing that doesn’t worry John too much, however, is the economic climate. ‘We’ve been in a recession pretty much since I joined the organisation and I believe that from necessity comes amazing inventiveness,’ he says. ‘You can’t keep the spirit down.’ But tighter budgets has meant that clients have become more demanding. ‘There’s more and more diversity in what we’re asked for, more locally sourced, more seasonal food. On the seafood side, MSC accreditation has become really important.’   Before I leave, John tells me about his planned visit to Sodexo Prestige’s flagship Olympic Park marquee the next day. True to his mission of ‘differentation’, this facility will be serving English wine, and will have giant video screens explaining how the food – included foraged nettles – was sourced.   His own tastes, he reveals, are slightly more simple. ‘My wife calls me Mr Surf and Turf,’ he says. ‘Because my interests are horseracing, seafood and a nice fillet steak.’   Sodexo Prestige, tel: 020 8831 3900    

This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events, summer 2012

Chris John, managing director of Sodexo Prestige, gets passionate about the local produce and artisan suppliers being showcased at events this summer