Our success – it’s a ‘vision thing’

Ten years ago, I had an idea that I could build a school catering company that would revolutionise school food. Now I can look around me with pride and realise that this is what my team and I have achieved. Not many of us in business get the chance to look back and dwell on our achievements; there is always a new challenge or new goal to preoccupy us and keep driving us further.

With Cucina, we now have a company producing school food that is far better than can be found in almost any school in the UK. In all new contracts we double, triple and sometimes even quadruple sales. It’s standard for us to see 80% of students on roll eating in the school restaurant. In basic business terms, we have made a revolutionary and highly successful school food company. So how did we get here?

Above all else ours is a story of strong vision and high risk. Cucina is a company that grew organically without the assistance of equity partners. This by itself is phenomenal and it shows just what can be achieved when a company follows through on its vision.

If I can offer any kind of lesson to the prospective business person starting out – in food or any other industry – it is this: no matter what happens, always stay true to your founding vision. Never sway from it, because this is the ‘diamond core’ of your story which will define your brand. Sometimes, in the course of growing a business, circumstances cause plans to be modified or changed. This is a given. But to abandon or depart from the initial vision in any major way is to invite failure. A truly effective vision sets you apart and gives you the strong USP. Stick with it, be faithful to it through high and low, thick and thin, and you have the best chance of growing a successful company.

When I started Cucina in 2005, my vision was clear and simple – my new catering business would be all about the food. If I carried through on this and got it right everything else would fall into place because I knew how to translate the vision into reality and make school food as good as it could possibly be. This may sound like the empty, meaningless, high-minded words that business owners sometimes utter when they’re starting out. But it’s important to realise that my vision was tied to a carefully developed business strategy.

In essence this involved a new way of looking at school food, involving the word ‘restaurant’. So what is the heart of a good restaurant? The chef. I wanted to move beyond the notions of ‘school canteen’ and ‘school dining hall’ by creating restaurants in schools. At the time, this had never been seriously considered before. The traditional, margins-based model of school catering put an invisible ceiling on how good school food could be. I had devised another approach – one which involved a giant leap of faith.

My company would employ high calibre hotel and restaurant chefs and put them in charge of school kitchens. The main reason that this had never been done before was that ‘school food’ and ‘restaurant food’ were widely perceived as being mutually exclusive. My vision was all about bringing these things together. This required a different way of thinking. Because school catering had always been approached in a kind of ‘let’s see what kind of quality we can afford, given the margins we need to make’ kind of way, nobody looked likely to be successful in translating the Oliver vision of school food into reality – including Jamie himself, I must say.

This ‘different way of thinking’ is what has made and is continuing to make us successful. My advice to any entrepreneur is to develop a similar kind of vision and then have the courage, determination and self-belief to keep it right at the centre of everything you do. More on this in my next blog post.

Till then,

Steve

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