Recipe for Success: Peter McCluskey
It’s no picnic running a catering company—it takes serious organisational skills, a passion for people and a cool head. Fortunately, five-star hotel veteran Peter McCloskey, managing director of much-lauded Sydney outfit Fresh Catering, has all three. He’s one of the reasons Fresh has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 1999.
My family had bakeries and pastry shops, so I grew up around hospitality. I left school at 14 to work at Qantas as an apprentice chef, was with five-star hotels till I was 30, then started my first catering company, Mode Group, selling it 12 years later. After a couple of years’ break, some people I’d worked with talked me into starting Fresh Catering. I grew it from the ground up.
“My biggest stress coming from five-star hotels into catering was packing everything in a car, taking it to a site and having to ‘build your own kitchen’. The first few times, I’d always forget something—but I’d put systems in place, so next time I’d get it right.
“Planning and organisation is hugely important, and needs to come from the top. I’m driven by policies, procedures and checklists—and training with Hilton made me a ‘tick-the-box’ kind of guy. So that’s how we do business, and it’s become very important. Catering is so much about logistics and details; you have to be meticulous with procedures and checklists, otherwise it just unravels.
“Your business is only as successful as the people you employ. You need your brand to be able to attract the right people. Fresh Catering is known in the industry as a great company to work for, so we don’t have issues recruiting or retaining staff. I’m also passionate about creating great job opportunities for the next generation. People come to us, often from difficult life circumstances. Watching them thrive is hugely rewarding.
“Food quality’s important, but the danger with catering is a lot of people can cook well—they start a little company and everyone’s wowed by the food. But then they grow and can’t put systems and procedures in place to cope with the expansion. It’s not just about great food; you have to create a business that clients can have a good working relationship with. I’m never one to say, ‘This is what we do—like it or lump it’. Our catering is tailored to exceed clients’ expectations.
“A key factor in our securing big contracts is people feel they can have a collaborative relationship with us. We have extremely high standards and work hard to achieve them, so we can guarantee quality and consistency. All our departments are headed by strong professionals, many from big-hotel backgrounds. So clients know they’ll get their accounts paid on time, regular financial reporting, transparency, fantastic marketing. And unlike most caterers, we bring business to venues through our network.
“A lot of companies start off engaging with customers but once they grow, it becomes all about operations. We think it’s extremely important to hear from customers. In all our venues, we solicit customer feedback and send in ‘mystery diners’, adjusting what we’re offering depending on their feedback. Clients’ requirements also change—they may want a more casual style of catering, or the status of having a celebrity chef attached to the business, as we have with James Viles and three-hatted Biota Dining. Our strategic partnership with James focuses on a shared commitment to ‘sustainability without compromise’.
“Our business is driven by competition. Once you’re successful, others copy what you do, so you need to always be a step ahead. One reason we’re in this position is I’ve kept picking away, constantly evolving, constantly improving. Catering’s relentless—you need to be extremely determined, resilient and perseverant. If you want to keep operating well and not burn out, knowing your limitations is critical. I know I can be switched on to the business 100 per cent for 50 hours, but no more—and I don’t expect more from my staff. We work hard, but we have great work-life balance.”