Landing prestigious contracts most catering companies could only dream about is par for the course at Create Consultants. Its founder Anthony Whitehouse shares his business secrets. By Rachel Smith.
Imagine it: you attend an event at Sydney’s Fleet Steps in the Royal Botanic Garden. The panoramic views are incredible. And as you arrive, you’re met with a request to take your shoes off, put on some thongs (branded with your company name, of course) and walk through a sandpit. But more surprises are to come with the Tastes of Australia experience awaiting you. There are tipples poured by sommeliers from different Aussie wine regions. Catering that runs the gamut from Indigenous bush tucker and oyster baths to amazing cheese platters and native meats you’ve never eaten before. And at the end, you head home happy with a full belly and an Aussie memento (those branded flip-flops) on your feet.
That’s not your average event, and the American bankers who attended were blown away by the food, drink and attention to detail, says Anthony Whitehouse of Create Consultants. But for a catering and events company that prides itself on ‘delivering the unimaginable’ and believes that ‘boxes are for jumping out of’, Tastes of Australia was all in a day’s work.
“I think many events companies tend to go for the same old stuff. Like, ‘Let’s put up a canopy, put some sandwiches on and a few pork pies’. No. We want people to talk more about the food than about the conference [they happen to be at],” says Whitehouse.
It’s a strategy that’s paying off for a firm that launched in 2013 and has since garnered nominations and wins at R&CA’s national Savour Australia Hostplus Awards for Excellence. Create has catered for the G20 Summit, and Anzac Day in 2015. They’ve run events for the Australian Prime Minister, the French President, the Indian Prime Minister, and Sir David Attenborough during a recent visit to Sydney.
The company has also landed contracts with the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and manages and runs the cafes and restaurants at the Powerhouse Museum and Australian Museum in Sydney. That said, Whitehouse is quick to point out the company does small events too, such as engagement parties.
Has Create been swept up in the same-sex weddings boom? “Not yet! I thought it would’ve been busier,” he says. “There’s an Art Deco theatre called the King’s Theatre in the Powerhouse Museum and it’s such a pretty, stylish venue for any wedding. I’m already planning ahead—I can’t help myself,” he says, laughing.
Sixteen companies pitched for the Australian Museum contract but Create landed it; not bad for a young and ‘relatively unknown’ business. What’s Whitehouse’s secret? “These companies are looking for someone who’s going to listen to what they want,” he explains, “and you have to deliver what you promise. A lot of people can tell a good story and get the keys to the car, but then they can’t [drive it].”
Key to success
After a career spanning both sides of the globe, Whitehouse clearly has an instinct for keeping clients happy. Originally a Londoner who trained as a chef, he soon realised he far preferred being front of house—working for The Ivy, Le Caprice and other high-profile establishments.
“My personality is more suited to being around customers,” he explains. “And while I was originally a restaurateur, launching my own restaurant at 24, I then had clients who wanted me to do events for them.” Functions for Moët Hennessey and 20th Century Fox followed, as did La Dolce Vita Ball with Gordon Ramsay, and catering contracts for five football stadiums.
But by 2011, things were really changing. Married to an Aussie who wanted to return home with their children, Whitehouse tried commuting between London and Sydney. He sold his UK business and made the move down under. Quickly securing a contract as general manager for the Compass Group, Whitehouse was responsible for all the catering and retail outlets at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. But in 2013, after he achieved his aim of renewing the contract for Compass, he left and launched Create Consultants.
As Create’s ‘conductor’, Whitehouse describes his role as an intersection between retail, restaurants and events—and says he’s happily hands-on. “I’ve got no problem washing dishes. In many ways, you find out more if you jump on the till or work on the floor. You get firsthand information on a product and whether it’s good or not. And that informs how we operate; if we find out that something’s not working, we can turn around and change it the very next day, unlike larger companies that move at a slower pace.”
As ‘the world’s biggest delegator’, Whitehouse clearly values his staff enormously—and relies heavily on Create’s ‘doer’ and general manager, Keith Jones. “He’s super talented and he’s worked in two-star Michelin restaurants; he’s [also] been executive chef at the Hilton.”
“These companies are looking for someone who’s going to listen to what they want, and you have to deliver what you promise.”Anthony Whitehouse, director, Create Consultants
Jones was executive chef at Create for two years before becoming GM and says it was a pretty straightforward transition. “Being executive chef did give me valuable insight into catering for events,” he says. “I miss working in the kitchen, but you’ll be sure to find me within one of our kitchens each day as I still enjoy the buzz of that environment. But [these days], my role is more about empowering our team and pushing creative boundaries. It’s a great role—I get to manage all sorts of personalities as well as executing high-end events.”
Whitehouse and Jones met by chance. “If you ever have the pleasure of sitting in a room with Anthony,” says Jones, “you will know he can sell you the dream!”
Whitehouse says that’s true, even if it means a nightmare for his staff. “I might say to a client, ‘Of course we can build you a chocolate plane!’ then I’ll go to the kitchen and tell the guys, ‘We’re building a chocolate plane’. When they ask me how we do that, I’ll say, ‘We’ll work it out. We have three months. Go and google ‘how to build a chocolate plane’,” he laughs.
For the record, the chocolate plane came to fruition at the United Airlines event they did recently. “The windows were macaroons and everything on it was edible—it was great,” recalls Whitehouse. “My staff might get cross with me, but I think they enjoy the challenges. Otherwise, they’d go and work in banks!”
Going with the flow
Organisation when executing large events—such as 2015’s Anzac Day celebrations—is critical. It’s also about staying calm and crying when you get home, Whitehouse jokingly adds. “On a logistics level, you have to put it into blocks and break it down so it’s not that big. You have to learn to take the pressure off different areas so you don’t get bottlenecks in others.”
When scaling up an event, he prefers to draw from a pool of trained staff rather than using agencies. “Our staff are trained to work across both the cafes and restaurants and the events we do, so we have a big pool of people during the crazy season. For us, that starts mid-September, and we’ve already got our teams on stand-by.”
He’s also big on hiring apprentices and tapping into graduates from universities that offer hospitality or hotel degrees. “Those are the people who want to do this for a living; they are as passionate about it as you are.”
Food glorious food
Tweaking menus for the cafes and restaurants is a team effort, says Whitehouse. “We try to make sure our menus are seasonal, so we change them every three to four months. Something I love about being in Australia is the fusion with Asia, and the quality of produce you get. It’s way beyond what you get in Europe. You eat a strawberry, it tastes like a strawberry because here we eat what’s in season.”
Designing bespoke food experiences for events is also par for the course, adds Jones, who will never forget one menu which called for an Indigenous Australian influence. “That exposed me to the amazing variety of ingredients available from native Australia. It also involved copious amounts of research—and trial and error!”
Both say they rely on preferred suppliers for both the retail/restaurant side of things and the events; Whitehouse says he’s a big fan of local suppliers. “We use a couple of the big guys, but I prefer to use the smaller people,” he adds. “For coffee we use a local company, The Little Marionette, and Juice and Co. for our juices. It’s nice to help the guys who are the same as me; sometimes with bigger companies you just feel like a number.”
Keeping on top of costs is everything when working on a large-scale event, and Whitehouse swears by web-based event management software Priava. “It’s the new Event Perfect, and it works out the food and drinks, and gives you room to manoeuvre. We also like Key Pay, which enables us to forecast in advance what labour is going to cost.”
After growing faster than he planned in the first three years, Whitehouse is keen to stay Sydney-based and expand locally. He also wants to focus on the Create Events arm of the business. “Create Consultants operates within venues,” he explains, “but Create Events is like taking a blank piece of paper and talking to a client who says, ‘I have 600 people—put something together for us’ and we go and design something completely bespoke. So we’ll do the catering, the theme, the styling—basically becoming the one-stop shop for events.”
One thing’s for certain: whether it comes to a chocolate plane or purpose-built sandpit, Whitehouse isn’t about to run out of ideas anytime soon. “It’s a fun career. I feel like I’m a kid at heart that has to be a grown-up at times. I’m very grateful for how things have gone with the business, and I just hope it keeps going the right way.”