Creative catering

Photo: Richard Mortimer

A company that ‘popped up’ out of nowhere and now has three thriving brands in the Sydney events and catering scene is a case study in getting it right. By Rachel Smith

For every great start-up success story, there are supposedly nine that crash and burn. Yet you get the feeling that the One Hundred Hospitality (OHH) group, a dynamic, fast-growing, Sydney-based catering and events company, will be sticking around for the long haul.

The company was started by general manager, Chris Dair, and creative director, Zae Greenwood, in 2013, who fondly recall its humble beginnings. “We launched our first brand Pop Up Picnic at home, out of my bedroom … well, my office/bedroom,” laughs Dair.

“My desk was a chest of drawers. I couldn’t put my legs underneath it!” remembers Greenwood with a grin.

The pair—who met on another project—wanted to start an events company that would combine Dair’s business background with Greenwood’s creativity and hospitality experience. “We have a business partner who operates as a non-executive director,” says Dair. “We raised our required capital through our partner, who acted as our angel investor—enabling us to combine our ideas and experience with the business nous of a seasoned entrepreneur.”

Pop Up Picnic was launched in 2013, followed by the buy-out and rebranding of Chiltern’s Catering & Events in 2014. In that same year, Dair and Greenwood formed OHH. Their meal delivery service, Moving Meals, was then launched in early 2015. The last three years have been a particularly busy period of growth for the company, which has doubled its turnover every 12 months. “Our team has also tripled in size from four staff to 40,” says Dair.

In the beginning

Arguably the group’s most unique brand, Pop Up Picnic—which runs picnic parties for 20 to 2,000 people and sells hampers to the consumer market—was a rapid success for Dair and Greenwood, who created it partly to capitalise on Sydney’s many beautiful outdoor areas.

“It’s pretty unique in a city to have places like Centennial Parklands and the Royal Botanic Garden right on the doorstep,” says Dair, “and we felt people wanted to do outdoor events but didn’t want to do the work. So, we wanted to offer a unique, full-service concept where we looked after all the food, styling, equipment—everything on the day.”

“I think we’ve brought a restaurant feel into the catering space and an accessible luxury, but the prices are not necessarily reflective of that, which has led to repeat business.”—Zae Greenwood, director of operations, OHH

Within six to eight weeks of launching, they were getting bookings for 700 people at a time. “That showed us where the market is—corporates wanting more casual, integrated events at which everyone from the CEO right down to the interns can mingle, chat and network. As a brand, it’s also brought us some really interesting clients we’ve been able to introduce to other aspects of the business.”

From one brand to three

Dair and Greenwood were working alongside Chiltern’s Catering, the wholesale food supplier for Pop Up Picnic. When the company came onto the market, they jumped at the opportunity to buy it. Restructured and rebranded, the catering arm of their business now services clients year-round with fresh, diverse menus and events ranging from morning teas to lunch spreads and cocktail parties.

“When we entered the space with Chiltern’s, [the industry] had had a few key players for many years and there wasn’t a big sense of innovation happening,” recalls Greenwood. “With our rebrand, new packaging and menus, we reinvented the experience of deliverable catering. I think we’ve brought a restaurant feel into the catering space and an accessible luxury, but the prices are not necessarily reflective of that, which has led to repeat business.”

Their third brand, Moving Meals, is a nod to the Google-type model of offering perks to keep employees happy, fed… and at their desks. “Google were the first big player to do it,” says Dair, “and they’ve really shaped that landscape. We saw an opportunity with a lot of growing tech businesses in Sydney who wanted to offer a staff incentive around food and beverage—it’s a big part of their culture. So we created a range of individual, beautifully packaged meals that are delivered fresh into offices daily.”

The menus are designed around specific themes such as Superfood Mondays, Tuck Tuck Tuesdays (Asian street food), Around the World Wednesdays and so on. Greenwood explains: “It’s about keeping staff engaged in the eating program, you’re not just giving them lunch but you’re giving them something they can talk about.”

Keeping clients happy

For the group’s executive chef, Mark Adler, the challenge is to take clients’ ideas and devise menus that work. “You have to look at what’s seasonally available, how it might work in a packaged container—there are a lot of parameters to consider across the brands,” he says, adding that menu creation is his favourite part of his job.

The company’s healthy focus is reflected in their menus, with lots of ancient grains and organic and locally-sourced produce. There are three menu changes per year and sales rankings are evaluated annually. “It’s then we look at what’s popular,” says Greenwood. “Things that aren’t selling we move on and replace and test with a new dish.”

Creating an entire vegan menu or something a bit left of field is all in a day’s work. “I remember we had to create a picnic dental hamper that was sent out to press for tooth-whitening toothpaste,” Greenwood laughs. “Every element of the menu was about tooth care and what the active ingredients in the menu did for your teeth!”

The group also loves to provide an element of surprise in what they do, typified by the ‘pop up’ principle in Pop Up Picnic. “We have more planned for 2017, with pop-up menus for example,” says Greenwood. “But other ways we keep clients happy—we have a Lunch Not Leftovers amenities program which gives organisers a beautiful lunchbox of the food they’re ordering for their team or management—but they don’t often get to taste. We also have Instant Afternoon Teas which is a little pack with an Earl Grey biscuit and T2 teabag which you can pop in your bag for a cuppa later, after a boardroom lunch. And we sent clients personalised mints and Nuts About You, chilli-roasted nuts in a little box. At Christmas, it was Reindeer Droppings—but our clients are used to a few quirky, questionable items!”

Secrets and challenges

Many businesses dream of the kind of growth OHH has enjoyed, which Dair attributes partly to repeat business and word of mouth. “We’ve engaged in very little marketing over the past three years—we’ve really just been trying to keep up with the growth that’s been coming in the door.”

“We wanted to offer a unique, full-service concept where we looked after all the food, styling, equipment—everything on the day.” —Chris Dair, director, OHH

Nevertheless, Dair admits that if they could rewind the clock, they would do a few things differently. “We realised our business was growing extremely quickly but didn’t appreciate the time and resources required to build a new production facility, so we had a six-month crossover period where we’d outgrown our old space and had to start turning away new clients. While it was a little terrifying increasing our production space five-fold, it was the necessary next step.”

Good organisation and rigorous planning are cornerstones of the company’s success. Adler, who worked in London, the Caribbean, Singapore and Bhutan before joining the company six months ago, says his experience with large volume production meant he could hit the ground running. It also helped that many of the systems were already in place.

“We have standard operating procedures for the kitchens; everything is photographed to the letter so new staff members can come into a section and know exactly what they have to do,” he explains. “The systems are really tight, which enables us to take on more business.”

Dair adds that it’s also critical to choose the right cloud-based software. “We use Xero for accounts, Receipt Bank to track invoices and Tanda for time sheets, and all three speak to one another. Having a system that could grow with us has saved us a lot of time and helped us scale our business, eliminating the need for accounts people. Everything is very automated.”

While the company doesn’t rely hugely on social media as part of its marketing, Instagram has been an unlikely sales acquisition tool. “It’s incredibly powerful,” says Greenwood. “In the last quarter we’ve had two or three big event lead enquiries through Instagram—and we also use it a lot when we’re looking for food suppliers, photographers and designers.”

Purpose-built premises

Moving from Surry Hills to their new premises in Annandale has transformed the business, enabling Dair, Greenwood and Adler to combine operations, sales, business development, management, production and despatch all under the one roof.

It’s a funky space, with the peach-and-blue meeting space at the front featuring polished concrete floors, a huge table, comfy bench seats and cushions. The kitchens behind are spacious and full of daylight, with sunny decks here and there where staff can break for lunch. A huge Mulga artwork brightens up an outdoor wall; and the staff toilet doors are painted with Batman and Batgirl silhouettes.

They also wanted a space where they would happily bring clients, which they do regularly with their ‘chef’s table’ experience. “You see this a lot in Europe in the Michelin star dining scene—where a chef’s table is located in the kitchen, and we wanted to emulate that with our window into the kitchen,” Greenwood explains. “Our chef is standing behind the window preparing the food and Mark comes out and talks the clients through the menu. It’s about creating an experience also around the whole journey of planning an event.”

The future looks bright for the company, who are now preferred suppliers for Centennial Parklands and Barangaroo. “That’s given us access to a range of new clients, and a number of new partnerships are on the horizon for 2017,” says Greenwood. “Watch this space!”

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