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EXCLUSIVE! Q&A with... Bill Toner, CEO of CH&CO

A warm welcome to Bill Toner, the CEO of Royal Warrant-holding CH&CO, one of UK’s leading catering companies, - catering for some of the UK’s leading brands and organisations across the business & industry, charity, leisure, education and healthcare sectors.

A chef by trade, Bill has been instrumental in the growth and development of prominent catering businesses throughout his career, including Gardner Merchant, Aramark and HCM (Host Catermasters) Group.

Foodservice News Editor, Becky Martin asks Bill the major business questions of the moment, and then gets a little more personal.

THE BIG QUESTIONS

1. As an industry stalwart, what are the greatest changes you’ve seen over the years?

This is always an interesting question. It makes you stop and think about how far things have come, both personally and as an industry. Given that I’ve been in this field for over 40 years, there’s not much I’ve not seen but as we don’t have all day, I’ll focus on just a couple.

Technology is obviously up there when it comes to large scale rapid change. Its impacted how we operate across the board. From the way we order, cook and serve food to how we communicate with each other and our customers and how they interact with us. Payments for example are now predominately by card / contactless with cash being the exception rather than the norm.

Change comes from demand so customers wants and needs are a massive driver. Many of the changes in hospitality reflect the changes in society. For example, we’ve seen menus change as people have travelled more freely, become food savvy, more environmentally aware and wanting more choices. How, where and when people want to eat also reflects the changing lifestyles and the desire for food experiences over mere sustenance.

2. How are the rising fuel and food costs affecting your company and what actions are being taken to mitigate them?
Our teams across the business continue to work hard to mitigate these challenges and ensure we can deliver our great services. For example, Procurement teams strive to lock in prices and agree price holds, while reviewing core commodities and rationalising pack sizes.

We are focusing ever more on sourcing British seasonal produce and forward buying stock, identifying possible substitute lines for key products at risk and working to minimise cost impacts of deliveries. Our chefs are also pulling on their skills and knowledge to effectively adapt menus in the face of rising food prices and changing availability.

3. What trends are you seeing emerge from your client’s food and beverage requests this year?

Once again technology has to be right up there. The pandemic fast-tracked the use of technology in the food experience. Some colleagues say that we’ve jumped 5 years in just 2 as we faced the need to find immediate solutions.

The environment quite rightly has a huge impact on food trends and the demand for alternative protein sources, locally and seasonal produce etc to help reduce carbon footprints continues. In the current cost of living crisis, clients are also looking to us to be creative and innovate to produce delicious food using ingredients and cooking methods that are more cost effective without compromising on quality.

4. What makes you most proud of CH&CO at the moment? Awards, overcoming challenges, securing new clients and retaining clients etc?
Given what we’ve all been through these past couple of years, I couldn’t be prouder of my team. I’m especially proud of our people’s resilience and that’s right across the industry too. Determination, innovation and everyone’s commitment to rebuilding better is heart-warming to say the least.

It’s through our people’s dedication and passion for hospitality that we’re getting back to what we all love to do. Seeing the huge amount of fantastic hospitality our people are delivering and the buzz in workplaces, events, destinations, schools etc is so brilliant to see and a most welcome reminder of why we love this industry so much.

I’m also very proud that our apprenticeship programme is the biggest it has ever been and I love everything we are doing to support our people to achieve their goals.

Our sustainable logistics model that is reducing the number of deliveries to our sites was launched in 2020. Pandemic aside, I’m very proud that we have reduced average deliveries by 50% from 24 to 12 and are on track to achieve our aim of a 30% reduction in mileage by 2025.

5. What plans are there in place for CH&CO in the coming year and beyond?
We continue to focus on rebuilding CH&CO and I’m pleased to say we have a great summer ahead. We’ve so much to look forward to and maximise on as, let’s face it, we’ve not had a summer season for a few years now.

We’ve already got off to a tremendous start with the launch of our exciting new dining experience on the River Thames called The Glass Rooms to welcoming thousands of people at Royal Ascot. And once the successful summer is under our belt, dare I say it, bring on Christmas!

People will always be fundamental to what we do and its our job as leaders to ensure we continually support our people, nurture their talent and provide opportunities to develop and progress.

6. What are your hopes for the industry by the end of this year and in the next 5 years?
It’s probably a tall ask but it would be nice if we had a period of calm so that we can really enjoy what we do rather than bounce from one challenge to the next! Having said that we’re a versatile bunch which we’ve proved time and time again and I’m a firm believer that opportunity comes from adversity.

As for the next five years, as we’ve learnt, anything could happen… what I hope to see is a meaningful shift in perceptions around hospitality careers. The opportunities in this industry are immense. Where else could you work your way up from General Assistant to CEO? I am proof of this and I’ve seen it elsewhere. We need to tell the good stories about our industry and ensure that careers in hospitality become aspirations for the younger generation.


THE GET-TO-KNOW-YOU QUESTIONS

1. What is your favourite on-the-go snack, lunch, and beverage in the week?

I love a bag of dry roasted peanuts or a sugar-free bar. My beverage of choice has to be a lovely G&T.

2. Beyond your laptop and phone, what items are you never without during the week?
Pen and Paper. I’m old fashioned. I must write everything down, that way I know it will get done!

3. What do you do to wind down after a busy work day?
I’m one of those people who likes to keep busy but I do love my Peloton bike – it’s a good stress buster. When I’m in town I plan to walk everywhere. It’s not only good for you it’s also a great opportunity to catch up on calls.

4. What’s your most loved restaurant or café and pub or bar?
When I’m in town I love a visit The Ritz. John Williams is a food genius and a good friend. I’ve been impressed by The Ivy roll out, Mark Askew is also very clever with his menus. More local to home, Jose Pizarro at The Swan is a must!

5. What book or/and TV/Netflix etc programme currently has you gripped?
I’m not really a fan of TV. My wife has fun things on in the background, she’s currently rewatching The Big Bang Theory which has lots of laugh out loud moments. I really enjoyed reading Barack Obama’s book. I felt I got to know so much more about him, his journey and achievements…. a great read.

6. What have you learnt most about yourself and what do you see as your greatest achievements in the last 12 months?
The last couple of years have been really tough for the industry as a whole. I just kept as many plates spinning as I could. The team’s determination and resilience just made me so very proud and equally determined to keep going. Joining hands with our competitors to have a much bigger voice to lobby government will always be a proud memorable occasion too.


Thank you, Bill, it's been a real pleasure to hear from such a mover and shaker with over 40 years in the industry!