Ian Thomas joined contract caterer Bartlett Mitchell as CEO in 2016 following a 20-year stint in facility management. The move to Bartlett Mitchell, which employs 800 people over 90 locations in London and the South East, has seen Thomas return to working with food, having begun his career in the hospitality industry where he held roles with the likes of Whitbread and Granada. As Bartlett Mitchell continues with its growth plan, Thomas talks to Hospitality & Catering News about his unique perspective, the importance of maintaining the company’s people-focused culture, his love of food and the power of communication.
I was a Bartlett Mitchell client for many years, initially working at Norland/CBRE and latterly at Shepherd FM. I admired Bartlett Mitchell and enjoyed working with them to develop food services within a facility management framework. Wendy (Bartlett) had joked about me running the business for a really long time, then one night, there were a few G&Ts, and the rest – as they say – is history.
To use a cliché, I’m a poacher, turned gamekeeper. I worked in the outsourced sector for more than 20 years and have had the pleasure of working closely with teams and clients on both sides of the fence. My experience, therefore, has helped me understand the key drivers that clients and teams have. It’s the little, but important details, which as a client, I knew Bartlett Mitchell would – and does – deliver. Though I must say, it’s so much easier to get excited and passionate about food when you’re working in catering.
No two days are the same for me. My role is to work with Wendy and Ian (Mitchell) to run our fabulous business and my day-to-day activities can include meeting teams and clients, strategic planning, or supporting one of our sustainability projects. The constants are our efforts to maintain both a family feel and our foodies values, which are both part of our culture and DNA.
I’m proud that we’ve kept our culture intact and have retained a small company-feel, even though we’ve grown. Other sources of pride are helping to develop our annual FOODIES Awards and creating an in-house Talent Team, which is a permanent team of personnel who fill planned front and back of house absences across our sites. It’s like having our very own agency.
Food has always punctuated my life. My mum had a bistro and then two small boutique hotels, when I was growing up. In fact, I worked as a pot-washer when I was 11. Unpaid, of course. I’m currently enjoying teaching my two daughters (Megan, 15 and Bethan, 13) how to cook. They had always baked with my wife, but now it’s getting more adventurous, particularly with Megan’s recent announcement that she’s a pescatarian.
The best thing about food is that it can be enjoyed at any occasion. I love street food trucks, I always support new independent eateries, and need no excuse to treat myself at a fancy restaurant, but what’s not to love about the simple, but delicious poached egg on toast?
My most recent memorable food-led experience was a visit to Daniel Clifford’s restaurant Midsummer House in Cambridge. It’s simply incredible.
Building a dream team has unquestionably been the biggest challenge in any job I’ve had. My focus is 100% about the people. With this comes the challenge of finding and keeping those special individuals from all walks of life who have the right fit and often unappreciated transferable skills. One example of a great hire took a young funeral director into a retail food service business.
We maintain good communication within our teams and this is a real USP for us. We ensure all staff have access to each other and can share ideas and good news, whether it’s through social media, or our internal, closed network mobile messaging app, Yapster. On Yapster, teams can share food images, tips and ideas or celebrations on the newsfeed; use it to message one-to-one and get messages to Wendy and myself. It even has a voting flash poll tool to get thoughts on company-wide initiatives. We used it to gather votes on options for an up-coming Bartlett Mitchell party. I do feel that people appreciate the personal touch we have.
Like any business we have had to plan meticulously for Brexit. We have a brilliant procurement team, led by Steve Fox and they have worked tirelessly to plan for any eventuality, despite the stop-start approach forced on them by our political friends. Not only have we had to look at where and what food we source, but our chefs have worked hard to develop menus which can be used in the short term and cause minimal impact, should some fresh produce not be available.
Contract caterers have a responsibility to educate people about healthier food, but they do need to strike the right balance too. It’s important to help people make the right choices and provide healthy options, but I’m also not crazy enough to be the guy who removes fish and chips from a Friday menu at some of our sites.
Our Test Kitchen Concept pushes the boundaries around global authentic cuisines. It has an emphasis on authenticity and experience, highlighting endless themes and allowing our chefs to bring in their own cultures, food experiences and fun. We describe it as identifying the food trends that haven’t broken yet. I loved trying the Zatar – a modern day twist on Jerusalem-inspired food; Wast-Ed – dishes inspired by the often overlooked, by-products of our food system and Andrew Dargue of Vanilla Black’s surprising vegetarian dishes designed to appeal to flexitarians.
Moving ahead, we aim to keep our exceptional food and our incredible people at the centre of all that we do. In doing so, this will enable our ongoing business growth and our Bartlett Mitchell team members to flourish in their careers. This is particularly important in the next 12 months as we launch some fabulous learning and development programmes led by Katarina Goodwin, our new people and development director. Operationally, our plan is to continue with our expansion to have a UK-wide presence.
H&C News would like to thank Ian for his time and insights to the BM Family, we would also like to thank Piers Zangana for helping with the interview.