After graduating in 1989 with a BA in Hotel and Catering Management, Phil Roker embarked on a career in hospitality that spanned work in a number of top London hotels, followed by stints with two of the industry’s largest contract catering companies. In 2006, he changed direction and joined a new boutique caterer, Vacherin, as a Director.
When the pandemic brought business to a sudden halt, Phil and his team were faced with some very difficult decisions. Despite their own challenges, they chose to put their energy into supporting some of the most vulnerable:
"Our entire client base is business and industry in central London: banks, law firms, property companies. Many started scaling down their on-site activity in early March. We saw our turnover dwindle and knew we had to act. By mid-March we were forced to take drastic action, putting over half of the central support team on unpaid leave, and those remaining on a reduced salary. I can honestly say it was the hardest and most distressing time in my business life, but we had to safeguard the future of the company and our team’s long-term jobs. When the Chancellor announced the Job Retention Scheme, paying 80% of salary to furloughed staff, it was the most incredible relief.
Our wonderful team of talented and committed people might not be working, but we have a collective will to help out and do good and, from that, our volunteer task force was put into place.
When our units were closing down we had a lot of perishable food that would have gone to waste, so we started by donating that to the food collection charity Olio. One of our clients also put me in touch with a project at London Irish Rugby Club’s training ground, where 1,000 lunches per day are being made to distribute to local hospitals, hospices and homes. They needed disposable containers and we were able to source generous donations from two of our suppliers and then offered to match this from our own stock.
Our chefs then started using their home kitchens to produce meals for local vulnerable people and volunteering for local initiatives to support key workers. Two are running cookery demos online for their local primary schools and we have just started collaborating with A Plate for London, producing meals for key workers and hospitals. A number of us are also posting online recipe/cooking videos on Linkedin to raise funds for Hospitality for Heroes.
We have supported Luminary Bakery for three years, a social enterprise that offers training and employment opportunities to London’s most disadvantaged women. In that time, we have contributed over £30,000 to this inspiring charity, as well as training, mentoring and work experience for their trainees.
This year we are raising money for Luminary via our Vacherin Runs to the Moon challenge, where we encourage all our staff to log and gain sponsors for their walking or running miles, in turn recognising how beneficial exercise and enjoying the outdoors can be to mental health and wellbeing, especially in these challenging times. During lockdown, the miles are shooting up and staff are loving it.
Sadly, I believe there will be an enduring effect of the pandemic on the business. I think revenues will take 12–18 months to return to pre-virus levels, and there may be contracts that close or never return to the levels of the past, due to increased home-working and fewer office workers for us to feed.
I think what we will learn from this is that we need to stay agile and not take anything for granted. We expect to keep our clients because we are communicating with them throughout the process, and take a partnership approach to the exit strategy. Many of our clients have experienced significant reductions in revenue, too, so we have to respect each other’s positions and work out solutions that work for them, us and our team. For a long time after this, I think companies will be viewed based on how they responded. Were they seen as a hero or villain – and short term knee jerk reactions may come back to haunt them. I’m pleased to say that we will not be viewed as villains!"