Catering for all Tastes

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-By John Boley

In this feature we explore the origins, growth and diversification of Melbourne based catering and event management company The Big Group.

Twenty one years after being created by husband and wife Bruce & Chyka Keebaugh The Big Group has grown exponentially to become one of Australia’s largest privately owned catering companies turning over upwards of $25 million per annum and employing over 1600 staff at its busiest.

The Big Group’s work ranges from managing exclusive functions and corporate venues such as Luminare, ANZ Bank’s Global Headquarters at Docklands, Myer National Support Office and the iconic Mural Hall to having a major events department that caters for premium bespoke events for Australia’s Top 500 corporations, government departments and private individuals.

We caught up with co-founder Bruce Keebaugh at a challenging time of the year, soon after Melbourne Cup week and just as the pre-Christmas rush began to make its mark.

“The Big Group is known for creativity in food and design and attention to detail. We have flourished in tandem with Melbourne’s renaissance as a business and cultural hub, and the design, fashion and style capital of Australia. Events and corporations of international standing have provided us opportunities to show our work at its best. I have always believed to be a success we needed to deliver the consummate catering experience on every occasion, and I believe we have achieved this and are now recognised by peers and clients for exceeding customer expectations in food, design and service,” said Bruce.

“When I left school I first worked at Pellegrini’s, a classic Italian bar restaurant, which is considered a Melbourne institution. I had a lot of fun and the people I worked with gave me my first taste of what good hospitality could be. The impression stayed in my mind so after returning from travelling overseas, I went on to do a course in hotel management at what is nowadays called Victoria University.”

On site work experience for a year was an essential part of the three year course. At the time Bruce was given a choice of jobs – either work for the recently opened Grand Hyatt hotel or with a caterer, Peter Rowland. “I took the catering company option because I found the environment and team highly motivating and exciting, and I have never looked back. I spent two years with Rowland’s, which I enjoyed very much, then a year with commercial caterer Spotless. With Chyka, whom I met at Rowlands, I decided to start our own company. The rest is history.”

The primary company, The Big Group, works in specialty markets within the corporate sector, and a large part of its business, which involves weddings or private parties and functions, has grown as a direct result of working for the owners and directors of the Top 500 companies. “We also have a large public catering section for major events including the Polo, Grand Prix, the Spring Racing Carnival, AFL and so on.” This sector of the group works on a bespoke contract basis.

Under The Big Group group of companies a second company specialises in contract catering for more of Australia’s large companies, serving quality day-to-day food for boardrooms as well as entire office buildings. “For example, we do all the work for ANZ in their national office.” This operation includes the supply of full-time staff to the client and in-house management services. There has been significant growth in this sector as large corporations once again see the benefits of outsourcing catering, meeting and event services to professionals within the field. Keebaugh plans to extend this contract business along the eastern states.

A third part of the business looks after venues. “The Big Group is the custodian for two major venues in Melbourne.” One is the iconic and heritage listed art deco ballroom, Mural Hall on level 6 of Myers’ flagship store in Bourke Street, which was built in 1933 by Sidney Myer. Mural Hall can seat about 500 people or accommodate around a thousand standing. Keebaugh has a full time team operating this venture. Across town at Luminare we have an event space that seats about 300 and stands 600. It is a very modern chic glass box that sits atop the rooftop of a building incorporating balconies that overlook the most spectacular views of the Melbourne skyline.”

Two years ago Bruce and the team took on a new challenge, creating the retail brand Capital Kitchen and opening the first store in the new luxury precinct at Chadstone Mall on the outskirts of Melbourne after the centre underwent redevelopment. A second outlet is open in the Docklands area and “we are looking now at three more sites in Melbourne and two in Sydney.” The Capital Kitchen formula is straightforward – “they are well designed cafés with simple great food, within a modern yet aspirational setting.” The reasoning behind branching into retail is less simple. Having tendered for a major contract in Victoria which “we really wanted and thought we were in good stead to win because of our eventing knowledge and corporate networks nationally, we instead lost due, I believe, to insufficient exposure to the general public on a daily basis, a situation that would have given us the right credentials had we been in retail. It was very important for us to learn from that so losing that tender helped us create the Capital Kitchen brand. It has been extremely successful for us from day one and quite unique within its marketplace.”

A second brand now being rolled out is Buttercup Bakery. “With eight kitchens around Melbourne and 1,600 staff we needed to achieve consistently high quality pastry across all sites so we started a bakery. Buttercup Bakery wholesales into ANZ, Myer, Luminare and to The Big Group and Capital Kitchen – that is all our brands. This, says Bruce, has been invaluable to keeping costs down “as well as making sure that our product is consistent throughout all our companies.” Also consistent across the outlets is Impos, which installed point-of-sale systems.

A further company called The Design Depot is something that grew from the catering and venues business. “We have always been very heavily involved in the theming and styling of events. From inception, we decided that the aesthetic of any environment had to be the same high standard as the food. The Design Depot has two main functions – styling and decorative work, with the other being as a hiring company that supplies uniquely different catering, bar, furnishing and other related hospitality equipment. We would spend millions hiring, not always finding what we needed, and when the GFC started to hit, we decided to tackle our unique point of difference and also keep the revenue inside our business.”

Surprisingly, the Group has done rather well in the GFC and its wake. Corporate budgets were trimmed but strategic hospitality did not disappear; likewise, private entertaining and eventing stood up remarkably well through the doom and gloom. “Seeing the crisis coming, we were very fast to adapt to play down luxury and turn our services into a necessity, but it took some clients and suppliers up to 18 months to even realise what was going on,” comments Bruce. In fact you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that corporate clients continued to value quality hospitality for both their staff and customers but were carefully discretionary.

The Big Group is the Rolls-Royce of hospitality, so presumably if I have to ask the price it’s too expensive? “Not at all,” says Bruce. “We work in so many different markets that our clients have a wide variety to choose from to keep within their budget. Our bespoke business is a very different thing because it is a unique business and market. We are working with the most discerning people in the country and money is actually not the question there. It’s the quality and creativity that count. We hope what we are doing in each business is providing the solution people want: sometimes people want the cheapest coffee and sometimes people want the most extraordinary event so our job is about offering the flexibility to work within all requirements.”

Bruce and his team are firmly based in Melbourne but they are looking more at Sydney, Perth and even up as far as Brisbane. “We currently work nationally and internationally, with our events business, however we see great potential for our Capital Kitchen brand and for our corporate contracts business to expand further around Australia over the next five years.

Diversification had to be carefully managed. From the outset, says Bruce, “I decided that we were going to work on our strengths – our people and our product – in order to build a brand that’s respected. This has been a very powerful influence. Also we kept The Big Group low key so in many ways the business is still a bit of a secret to this day. I get excited when people have not heard of us because it means potentially new customers and markets for us.” That being said, the growth of the company has been entirely strategic and organic, growing only when resources, vision and appropriate growth could be sustained and the master brand protected. “The two things that never change are good food and great service. We do not waver on this viewpoint.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:12 AM AEDT