Local food is old news for Norfolk catering enterprise

Caroline Blake and Shirley Edwards, co-founders of catering company Edwards and Blake, stand with ch

Caroline Blake and Shirley Edwards, co-founders of catering company Edwards and Blake, stand with chef manager Daniel Howe-Li-Rochi at Attleborough Academy. Picture: Jessica Staufenberg - Credit: Archant

A Norfolk catering company which started out with frantic weekend shifts in kitchens across the county has grown to a £15m turnover business that has bagged more than 100 contracts with clients in the region and beyond.

With some big business names under their belt including Greene King and Birdseye Foods, the team at contract catering company Edwards and Blake have seen expansion in a perhaps less expected direction – the education sector.

Shirley Edwards and Caroline Blake threw in the corporate catering towel to become their own bosses in 1997, and in the 18 years since starting out they have seen plenty of change - including businesses axing catering contracts during the recession, and the Jamie Oliver-inspired 'health' boom in schools.

Asked whether women become self-employed because it is more flexible, Mrs Edwards said only a passion for food could have seen them give up so many weekends to cover absent staff in the first gruelling nine months.

'We were frustrated by the focus on the bottom line and profit in a big national company,' said the ex-regional manager for a now closed UK catering company. 'Setting up demanded hugely long hours and commitment, so it was our passion for our own smaller regional business that drove us.'

The key selling point of the meals designed and delivered by the two women and its 600 staff has been fresh, local produce and a back-to-basics inventiveness.

While this won a lot of customers in business and has seen them expand into Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire and London, a passion for seasonal produce was not always shared by some clients as times got tougher.

Most Read

'The recession did have quite an effect because it created a focus on the core business, and unfortunately some clients out there did not see staff food as a priority,' said Mrs Edwards. 'It was about economising - what do we get back - and obviously good food for staff doesn't bring revenue.'

It does bring results though, as the Jamie Oliver school food campaign demonstrated by showing the health and performance risks of a soggy, fat-heavy lunch on students across the country.

As the healthy eating drive got underway, Edwards and Blake smashed its original target of 50 contracts to reach more than 100, with 60 to 65pc of these now in the schools and academies sector.

Ironically, the Jamie Oliver drive was what the company had been talking about for years, said Mrs Blake.

'Whereas some of our competition were threatened by the Jamie Oliver campaign, he was flying our flag really,' she said. 'We didn't have to change what we were doing, because we were doing it already.'

And schools have scrambled to get on board, with the pair keeping their very first contracts with two Norwich schools as well as expanding further as academies get to choose their service providers.

Neil McShane, principal of Attleborough Academy, said finding a business which was high-quality but within his pupils' pocket money range was the key challenge for schools choosing a contractor.

'We eventually decided because food wasn't our core business, we would outsource it,' said Mr McShane. 'We wanted somebody that was local, and who would source good food locally as well, not cheap frozen food - and Edwards and Blake fitted the bill.'

With their sights on both the private and public sector, the City College-trained chefs are looking at expanding up the M1 corridor towards Birmingham from their base at the EcoTech Innovation Business Park in Swaffham - and are on course to hit their £18m turnover target this year.

The main challenge of running such a large organisation from such a personal dream is getting things done to the right standard while allowing input from innovative staff, said the pair.

'It's just making sure that standards are maintained how you want them across the business - as the business gets bigger, you know, it becomes more difficult,' said Mrs Blake. 'That is the one thing that probably frustrates me.'

Yet could Mrs Blake and Mrs Edwards return to working for someone else's company? Not a chance.

'I guess I've got used to being able to effect change, and if there's something not right I can do something about it,' Mrs Blake said. 'I think if you've got that power, if you like, it would be very difficult not to have that in future.'

Has your business branched out into new markets? Contact business writer Jess Staufenberg on 01603772531 or email jessica.staufenberg@archant.co.uk or tweet @StaufenbergJ.