In the Spotlight: Exeter Chiefs
Exeter Chiefs are current Champions of the Aviva Premiership, the top tier of English Rugby Union. And with 12,807 in attendance on match days, plus regular hospitality and conference events for up to 1,200 people, the catering team is also top of its league. Take Stock went to find out the secret of their success.
The catering team at Sandy Park, home of Exeter’s Premier Rugby Club, is a busy one. On match days the club’s 13 outdoor concessions are heaving.
“Our fans arrive all at the same time,” says Natasha Pavis, general manager at Sandy Park. “They want to be served quickly and efficiently before heading to their seat, so it’s our job to deliver that service.”
Selling everything from curry and chips, to burgers and hot dogs, all dishes are served in a cardboard box with a spoon.
“We have to make food easy to eat with one hand – the other has a pint in it!” adds Natasha.
Hog roast served in a bap with apple sauce and crackling is popular, but their famous steak pasties take centre stage, with an impressive 3,000 being sold on match days.
For those that want a sit-down meal, the club has a range of corporate hospitality packages available within the internal hospitality suites and corporate boxes.
“A lot of people don’t realise what we produce here,” says head chef Sam Bilson. “They have a preconception of the food we serve – sandwiches and cold buffets – when in fact it is much more than that. It’s fine dining for mass numbers.”
The club offers several dining packages. Starting with a fully inclusive VIP package down to a pre-match two-course meal for anyone to enjoy.
“I sit down with my team three months before the season starts to plan the menus,” explains Sam. “I find out which dishes have been popular and which haven’t and I mix those up with seasonal and trending ingredients to produce good, honest food.”
Sam sticks with the classics, because they work best for large numbers. “I have to make sure I get the best out of our cuts of meat – nothing can go to waste,” he adds.
Braised feather blade of beef, pork belly, traditional chicken breast and rolled lamb shoulder are all popular cuts that Sam uses regularly.
Sam and his team of six run a tight ship. Match days account for around 16 days of the year, so the rest of their time is spent prepping and planning for the catering at their premier conference and event centre. The venue can cater for anything from meetings of 10 people to a conference of 1,200. They host charity events, prestigious awards dinners such as the Devon Life Food and Drink Awards, and put on their own events like comedy nights, network breakfasts and even a Ministry of Sound night, plus Exeter Rugby Club’s annual End of Season Dinner.
“We have to be precise with the supplies we order – we can’t have any extras,” says Sam. “We don’t get a second chance to re-make a dish – the first one has to be right, so there is a lot of pressure on my chefs.”
The use of a regeneration system and production line makes it possible for the team to produce such high numbers successfully.
“For large events it is impossible to do all the prep and cooking on the same day,” explains Sam. “So, if we are are serving our beef dish with garlic sweet potato mash and veg for example, we spend two days prepping and cooking the potatoes and veg, and one day plating them up via our production line – a large conveyor belt. They are stored chilled overnight before being heated up the following day, ready for service. The beef is cooked fresh that day and garnished, before being added to each plate.”
Sam is conscious that whoever eats at Sandy Park must be served a first-class experience.
“Whether it is the fans buying from the concessions or guests being entertained for an event, we have to get it right,” he says. “They are foodies who expect fresh, seasonal and local produce, so it is our job to deliver that.”
As well as food, drink plays an important part at Sandy Park. “We sell a lot of pints!” says Natasha. “Real ale is our biggest seller. On match days we go through 70-80 barrels of Otter Ale and last season we sold 334,205 pints in total!”
The club has also introduced a van that sells mini bottles of prosecco and three or four flavours of gin; both £7 per glass, perfect for those people who don’t want to drink a pint or want a change from it. They also sell wine in individual 187ml bottles with a plastic cup on top – another way to increase speed of service.
“Our objective on match days is to get our customers served as quickly and efficiently as possible, so we have recently introduced card only outlets,” says Natasha. “Enabling the customer to just ‘tap and go’ frees up the queuing system a lot faster and increases sales; making both us and the customer happy.”
The club has also introduced a reusable pint cup. Fans pay an extra £1 that is refunded if returned. “It has reduced the amount of plastics that we recycle,” explains Natasha. “Plus it’s a nice keepsake for those that decide not to return it and instead take it home.”
Despite the Exeter Chiefs’ premiership status, Natasha is conscious that the conference and banqueting element needs to be a stand-alone business to the club in order for it to stay successful. “We have to hold events that will draw customers in, and make sure everything, from the catering to the technology we provide, is spot on and looks great,” says Natasha. “That way, we will continue to attract regular and new guests.”