About four years ago I had the chance to go to London, England on a food tour. Is England + food the most obvious of pairings? England + Queen or England + Pub might be better. Regardless, there was lots to see.
Coming from Canada, it was fun to see how food retail is run. I was fascinated to see how clearly average refrigerator size defines food shopping practice. At home we run massive refrigerators and freezers. I have friends with two of each. We buy in bulk and go for weeks at a time without another trip to the supermarket. In England, for most, it’s a daily affair.
The most interesting spot was our stop at Bigham’s kitchen. Charlie Bigham used to be a management consultant. In 1995, he turned 28, quit consulting, bought a camper and took off. By 2005, when I met him, he was running a 35,000 square foot kitchen with room for 300 employees. Annual revenues hovered £6m. In ten years he worked up from a camper van to one of the premier ready-made meal brands in England. How?
There are, of course, myriad reasons. My favorite is his investment in systems. Charlie told us of the several ways he invested in outside expertise. One of the key investments was in technology to monitor ingredient use.
Fresh ingredients are key to the Bigham’s brand. Charlie said he can order fresh ingredients, delivered daily, so precisely that they order within the gram (or whichever alternative unit is appropriate: pounds, ounces, etc.). They produce a single extra serving of each of the lines they produce each day. It’s an astoundingly sophisticated capacity for a relatively small company. But, think of all that capacity enables:
- It enables cost control at the most minute level.
- It enables extremely high-efficiency in storage. Nothing is carried overnight.
- It enables maximum versatility. Each night the table is cleared. Every morning is a new opportunity to implement a new line.
- It enables maximum responsiveness. Nuances and small changes are easily incorporated in the next day’s run.
- And, of course, it enables incredibly fresh production. It’s made in the morning and on the shelf in the afternoon.
When I asked where Charlie would attribute his success, he waved at the chefs, stood with his back to a magnificent kitchen, and shoved his hands in very consultant-like trouser pockets — the system, he said. The capacity to create order in the heart of his business.
I’ve got nothing like the system that Charlie built. But I’ve never forgotten his lesson. I invest, every week, about thirty percent of my time in the systems of my work. When I meet with new clients, systems are the first thing I go looking for.
In this down economy it gets easy to dog-paddle around, waiting for things to pick up. I’m convinced though, the first few momentum generating opportunities will go to those that used this time to build the systems they need to be successful.