R&CA’s Cafe of the Year, Café Alere at Flinders University, is an example of innovative catering at its best—with quality produce and excellent service set in a unique campus setting. By Sue Nelson
Eating on a university campus isn’t what it used to be: greasy food in a grotty environment. Café Alere at Flinders University is a case in point.
“The name Alere is derived from the Latin word ‘to nourish’,” says Christopher Horner, co-founder of Blanco Horner, the company behind Café Alere. “We obviously supply food as nourishment, while the students study to nourish the brain.” The café is also ideally positioned to nourish the soul, with stunning views of the lake and southern coastline.
“We designed our menu to have a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influence, with a focus on seasonal local produce that is fresh, fast and affordable,” he says. There is also a range of gourmet sandwiches, all-day breakfast items and light lunches, which are around 70 per cent vegetarian and vegan.
Indeed, Café Alere’s menu—featuring ingredients like pickled kohlrabi, coconut and chili sambal, jalapeno cream and brussels sprouts, not to mention a decent coffee—is a far cry from the university cafeterias of old selling sweaty dim sims from a bain-marie. It’s no surprise that students and staff alike flock to the award-winning cafe.
The secret to success
Horner credits a long tradition of high-quality hospitality for the café’s success. “Jimmy” Blanco, father of Horner’s business partner Steve, founded the company in 1977. He specialised in barbecue catering, serving quality meats to the very large and mainly Italian function centres of the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s.
“Back in those days, catering was seen as the economical alternative to the emerging restaurant and international hotel scene of the time,” says Horner. “In the early-to-mid ’90s, catering started to become more holistic in its approach; rather than just supplying food, it became a unique hospitality alternative to restaurants, hotels and function centres.”
Steve Blanco had honed his skills in Adelaide’s restaurant and high-end hotel scene and when he took over the reins of Blanco Catering, he was primed to take the business up a notch, and the awards started to flow.
Blanco Catering was named the Restaurant and Catering Association’s South Australian Caterer of the Year in 2003, 2004 and 2005, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. Since then the state and national awards have continued to accumulate, with the company achieving the ultimate success in 2008 with a national gong, and again this year.
It has been a long journey for Horner, too. “As a teenager I had worked in hospitality while still at school, and it gradually became my career while I was at technical college,” he says.
“Our vision has always been to become the market leaders in hospitality, no matter which area of the industry we operate within.”
Christopher Horner, co-founder, Blanco Horner
“I joined one of South Australia’s leading restaurateurs and hoteliers, Bill Sparr, and over my 15 years working with him I became a senior manager, operating restaurants, pubs, night clubs and accommodation hotels.
“Hospitality is all I know,” Horner adds. “It’s an all-consuming passion and a way of life. It has given me and my family a great quality of life, and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
In 2009, Christopher Horner joined Blanco Catering, which evolved into Blanco Horner. As a partnership, Steve Blanco and Horner rapidly grew the business from a pure catering company into a diverse restaurant, catering and café business. Staff numbers rapidly expanded from four full-time employees to 48 full-time staff.
“Our vision has always been to become the market leaders in hospitality, no matter which area of the industry we operate within,” Horner says. “Over the last 10 years, our Botanic Gardens Restaurant, Café Alere and Blanco Catering divisions of the business have all enjoyed national recognition with the Restaurant and Catering [Industry Association], which we regard as the industry standard.”
Horner stays close to the tools, which means a firm grasp on culture and quality control despite the evolving business demands. The key to this is placing trust in his staff: “I am never too far removed from the day-to-day operations of our business,” he says. “We set up the business divisions, with clear benchmarks for the managers and chefs to achieve. We then build these staff to become holistic business managers who impart their own personal stamp and make their own decisions on the business.
“Steve and I provide support and guidance, and though we can’t always be the personal face of these businesses as we’re not there each and every moment, we do influence with our business culture.”
This award is invaluable as an endorsement and promotion of Café Alere and Blanco Horner. “It provides a third-party endorsement that we are a successful market-leading business,” says Horner. “It influences first-time customers, whether they are locals who are dining for the first time or interstate conference and event organisers who are looking to book large scale events. It also promotes us to future business partners in places we might be expanding to. We take the awards very seriously.”
Though winning awards has become par for the course with such a tested formula for business excellence, this doesn’t mean there will be any resting on laurels.
“Endeavouring to win these awards ensures we are always striving to be the market leader—setting food, beverage and service trends,” says Horner. “It also means our customers are receiving the very best experience we can provide. What an amazing form of feedback this is for the staff, to know they are performing well!”