The big interview: The man who burnt the toasties….

Like King Alfred, Dean Kennett, founder and managing director of Just Hospitality, now Fooditude, burnt the cakes – or rather, the toasties – yet also snatched victory from defeat, in his case with a new catering concept for changing times, he tells Jane Renton.

Hospitality is part of the DNA of the Kennett family – it’s in the blood. Dean Kennett’s, managing director of what was until recently Just Hospitality, grandmother ran a 24-bedroom hotel in Devon, while his parents managed nearby pubs. Having been press-ganged into helping out in the family businesses, he grew up determined to avoid it like the plague. But destiny is a cussed thing. As John Lennon sang, ‘There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be’.

After leaving his private school at 16, he spent two fruitless years planning to train as an engineer only to end up, dispiritingly, on a factory floor pondering the meaning of life. After visiting Africa where his uncle was an engineer, he decided to embark upon a career in architecture. Like many students before him, he took a job pot-washing in a local Devon gastropub to help pay for his studies. The chef there was a Frenchman, who would exert a profound influence on the young man’s future direction. He had worked at the Waldorf Hotel and was someone whom Kennett found truly inspirational. In fact, the chef’s skills became more compelling than architecture. “I started to get really interested in the food side of hospitality,” Kennett remembers. “I knew my jus from my gravy and wanted to up my game.”

When he decided to jack in his architectural studies in favour of training to become a chef, Kennett’s mother was incredulous, if not a little alarmed. “You can’t even heat a Findus toastie without burning it,” she told him.

Fast forward nearly 30 years to the present day and the contract catering company he founded in 2005 – Just Hospitality – has emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of near total disaster in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. It provides quality meals and snacks, both hot and cold, to an enviable list of global media companies in London that include clients such as Yahoo, Netflix and Twitter.

Many of these clients do not possess their own in-house kitchen facilities yet want to provide quality catering to their employees. These are delivered from Just Hospitality’s central production kitchen (CPU) in Islington, confounding any notion that CPUs are incapable of delivering superior fare. The company is shortly planning to relocate to larger premises – 22,000 sq. ft. of building space in Bermondsey. Kennett’s company may still be relatively small compared to many of its more traditional rivals, but he has created a delivered-in concept that produces, in his view, better value for clients, better margins for caterers and a more flexible, sustainable business. Turnover grew by 49% to £10m last year and the company currently employs around 120 staff.

If the experiences of the past 10 years have persuaded him of anything, it is that the traditional B&I catering model is changing. “A lot of employers think twice about investing in space because everything moves so quickly now, and they cannot always be sure they will be there in the same space in a year’s time,” says Kennett.

Kennett initially established his business in 2004 after qualifying as a chef and a professional catering manager. One of the clients of the previous catering company he worked for had not only asked him to tender for their contract, but also being a bank was more than happy to lend money to set him up in business on his own. It was a stroke of great good fortune, but also a near catastrophe in the making.

Before that, he had held down a number of chef positions in West Country hotels, including The Grand in Torquay. He had got married, worked in ski resorts in France and travelled with his new wife, before eventually returning to London where he joined Everson Hewett, the catering company founded by two ex-Sutcliffe managers.

Having joined Everson Hewett in 1996, he spent three years with the caterer before heading out to Australia for a year working in the burgeoning café and restaurant business. Those highly entrepreneurial businesses reignited a similar spirit in Kennett, who had got himself into trouble at his school by selling laser bars to classmates. He returned to London and resumed work for Everson Hewett just as the company was being acquired by Compass. “At that stage, Compass was buying up everything,” Kennett remembers. “A lot of the things I liked about working for Hewett’s disappeared overnight.”

He continued to work for the caterer but on a more arms-length basis. He helped turn around teams that had been Tupe-ed from various contracts, highlighting the areas in particular units where additional support and training was needed. He also started to cater for private dinner parties and events in the evenings, using either his own kitchen or borrowing them from friends, or even Everson Hewett’s.

Eventually he decided it was time to go it alone. He also informed one of the main clients he looked after, a stockbroker, Teather & Greenwood, that he was moving on. The firm had just been acquired by an Icelandic bank, Landsbanki, and wanted to know if Kennett was interested in pitching for the bank’s UK headquarters in St Paul’s, London.

He was flown out to Iceland to meet the bank’s chief executive, a journey that not only resulted in him getting the contract, but also the finance with which to set himself up as a sole trader. By the time he had been up and running for 18 months, the financial world went stratospherically-crazy. As Kennett says, it was a licence to print money. “I didn’t have to hunt for work, it just came to me,” he says. “I not only had the bank as my client but many of their clients too, including West Ham United.”

Then came the hubris of 2008. Kennett was at home dangling his one-year-old daughter on his knee when Landsbanki’s chief executive suddenly popped up on the television looking especially grave. The bank was in difficulty, something that confirmed Kennett’s own suspicions: “I had a feeling things were not right,” he says.

The bank had been on the verge of moving into purpose-built offices at Bow Bells House, in the City, where Kennett and his staff would run the bank’s hospitality suite, which was going to be amazing. But Kennett never got there. The bank pulled the plug and, in fact, was to shortly go into administration in the UK after having its assets frozen by the British government. “They owed us about £140,000, in effect my entire business,” Kennett recalls. “It was a desperate time – we were on the edge of a cliff.”

Kennett had employed a team of 25 people, most of whom he had to let go, but not without trying to give them the very best severance deal he could afford. He also negotiated with his suppliers so that he and his remaining team of three could stay afloat. “The smaller ones worked with me, which was great, but the bigger ones chased me, which was disappointing. At one point I thought I was going to lose the family home. It nearly killed me. By that stage I just wanted to get out of catering altogether.”

One of his City clients, however, sat him down and dissuaded him from throwing it all in. It was, as Kennett says, “make or break time”. He also realised he had to come up with a cheaper, more flexible offer that in the climate offered value to potential clients. Ironically, his work for Landsbanki also provided the genesis of his company’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes.

He had continued to supply a former tenant in the same building at Landsbanki in St Paul’s after it moved to new offices without a kitchen. The law firm in question had wanted, nevertheless, to offer fine dining to its clients, when occasion demanded. What if he continued to do this for more clients without kitchens in London?

Slowly Kennett’s luck began to change. He asked Landsbanki in London, which was in the process of closing down in the UK, but still operating from St Paul’s to oversee its remaining loans book, if he could continue to use the kitchen there. They said yes. He also eventually got back some of the money owed to him. It may have only been 40p in the pound, and he was taxed on top, but step by step he pulled back from the brink. “We began to offer a round of deliveries to clients,” Kennett says. “In the beginning we just used black cabs, or virtually wheeled stuff through the streets ourselves.”

Within a relatively short space of time, Kennett’s business was able to acquire its first second-hand delivery van. “Within the next three to six months we were able to fill up our kitchen and were now running out of space,” he recalls.

The company moved to premises in Bermondsey, an area which at that stage was far from salubrious, and had to immediately fix the leaking roof. The kitchen, which Landsbanki donated from St Paul’s, was installed over the weekend by Kennett and friends. “Landsbanki gave us their now redundant kitchen equipment. The thing about the people there was that they were incredibly kind and genuinely pleased for us that we had managed to recover from our troubles.”

Kennett’s big breakthrough, however, came in 2011 when the husband of one of his former colleagues from the Landsbanki days, who now worked for Yahoo, approached him, enquiring whether Just Hospitality might be interested in pitching for Yahoo’s catering contract. “I was out driving the van wondering how I was going to pay for everything when the call came through asking if I could mobilise a team to come in and see them next week.”

Yahoo wanted breakfast, lunch and snacks for 450 people. Kennett didn’t really believe they could win, but nevertheless listened carefully to the brief provided and got on with things. “We didn’t oversell ourselves. We let the food do the talking and to our amazement they came back to us and said, ‘When can you start?’”

That was undoubtedly the contract that put Kennett and his company back on the map. It was followed up by yet another new media contract. “We were invited by a company called Twitter to come and see them in their offices in Great Titchfield Street in central London. They were just getting going but seemed to be going places. In fact they were poised to take over the world.”

That contract really convinced Kennett that office space and the way companies would use it in the future was about to undergo profound change and that caterers would be wise to change too. “It was no longer about sitting behind a desk all day, but using expensive and limited space. Twitter was really sold on the idea of people coming in with their Macbooks, sitting down and working anywhere.”

Other media tech companies have enlisted Just Hospitality to provide their catering requirements, including a major cyber-security firm, which initially had only some 40 people working in their London office, but have since grown substantially. Netflix is also a client. “The thing about tech start-ups is that if you get in with them in the early days, they tend to remain very loyal to you,” says Kennett.

Despite current economic uncertainties, Kennett remains cautiously optimistic about the future. His company was ranked 13th last year in The Caterer’s Top 30 Best Places to Work in Hospitality, against stiff competition from larger and more establishes businesses. A happiness week and giving staff a day off to accompany their children starting school are some of the things on offer, but perhaps it is Kennett’s determination to provide employees with a sense of self-determination that has resulted in a waiting list for jobs at Just Hospitality.

This year ahead will bring further big change, as on 1st January Just Hospitality will trade under the new name of Fooditude, along with the tagline ‘Feed Yourself Happy’, a rebranding that has been carefully evaluated with clients and reflects the new emphasis on the importance of food for health, including mental and performance. His 18 chefs will have a brand-new kitchen from which to operate and excel, and there is the longer-term possibility of eventual expansion into Europe as its clients expand.

There are also plans to adapt the roof on the new industrial space to enable the capture of rainwater for dishwashing purposes. Kennett is exploring the eventual conversion of his current fleet of vans to an all electric fleet by 2022, something that will involve a capital outlay of some £200,000 plus.

Above all, it is about future-proofing the existing business model and, as Kennett says, “learning about what a traditional B&I site looks like, and then adapting it to provide an offering that fits the future”.

Kennett, happily, is still a dreamer, but a realistic one. The boy who used to burn the toasties clearly holds his destiny in his own hands.