The Oriental Club Curry Express

31/03/2021
During the first lockdown, as CEO Matthew Rivett recognised the importance of balancing out restructuring actions with positive, revenue generating Member benefits, he wrote a ‘wish list’ on which he wrote “send Curry!”  Although at the time he was unsure as to what he planned to do about it… psd’s Lesley Reynolds talks to Matthew Rivett, CEO of the Club, about the Oriental Club Express initiative.
Oriental Club Curry Express beautifully laid out curry dishes with naan bread

With the Club closed as a result of covid 19, how was the concept of creating Gourmet Boxes borne, and how important did you see the Oriental Club brand as supporting your venture to be the best curry delivery offering?

During the first lockdown, I thought it was important to try to balance out the restructuring actions – which were invariably of a cost saving nature – including a one third reduction in headcount and payroll costs, with positive, revenue generating Member benefits.  I wrote a ‘wish list’ on which I, almost literally, wrote on the back of an envelope, “send Curry!”  I didn’t really know what I planned to do about it…

The Club has a number of competitive advantages in its Eastern offering – particularly South-East Asian Curries.  We have a loyal following of Curry-appreciating Members and some very talented chefs.  We are adept at preparing Curries in volume for our various banquets and events.  Curry generally lends itself to bulk production and is easy and safe to store.  It also tends to be a cuisine that many people ‘outsource’ to restaurants or supermarkets.  We knew that we could out-perform supermarkets in terms of quality and experience and we could stand up – usually very favourably – compared to most ‘local’ take-away restaurants.  We have an established and credible reputation for high-quality, carefully prepared Curries.

 

What were some of the practicalities and logistics you had to overcome to become a viable venture?

The logistics were not straightforward!  Most of the positive fresh food deliveries I had experienced at home had come via high-end companies with an established cold supply-chain, with large volumes involved –  for example, Fortnum and Mason.  My initial enquiries to replicate the same came to numerous dead-ends – we could not possibly have forecast the volumes for this to make economic sense, and our Members are distributed evenly around the UK (and internationally, but one step at a time…).

 

Once the delicious meals are cooked, the big unknown must have been packaging and delivery – how did you address these challenges – it must be very different having your customer 200 miles away rather than next door in the restaurant?

This was the most difficult hurdle to overcome, I quickly learned that, in a business-to-business environment, Google was limited as a research tool.  I started making calls and listened to advice.  We began the venture with a one-stop-shop packaging supplier but we quickly outgrew them.  I remembered that one of my oldest and dearest friends – Neil McCallum, has spent his career in the packaging industry and had recently retired early so I engaged with him – our relationships and access to suppliers took on a new and more focussed pace.

We will shortly enter the next phase of our packaging development and procure resources on a more long-term, committed volume basis.  We also feel strongly about being as eco-friendly as possible which comes with its own challenges.  We decided very early on to avoid polystyrene (thermally brilliant, environmentally criminal!) but avoiding plastics in food packaging, particularly when it must be food-grade – freezer, heat and waterproof is nearly impossible.  Instead, we are looking to minimise all packaging and to be 100% curb-side recyclable very soon.

It is important that the product looks professionally packaged, as well as capable of surviving the journey in terms of quality and temperature and getting the balance right between looking ‘home-made’ and ‘mass-produced’ was challenging, but I think we got there (again through not being afraid to experiment).

We also feel strongly about being as eco-friendly as possible which comes with its own challenges. We are looking to minimise all packaging and to be 100% curb-side recyclable very soon.

We are also working on further refining the packaging and processes by avoiding a layer of packaging and two layers of labour!  We have found that the ‘boil in the bag’ concept is very popular with our Members and customers, and there are all sorts of opportunities (think Camping, Festivals etc) if we can make this element slightly more user friendly – we are currently working on this.

Storage is also an important factor to consider – when you are working with packaging orders of the scale that require an articulated lorry, but have no loading bay or palletised storage things become quite interesting.  Fortunately, we have been able to utilise some empty bedrooms, we have converted part of our Staff Refectory into a purpose-designed Packing Room and have invested heavily in refrigeration and freezer capacity to keep up with production.  We are also researching more efficient cooking solutions as soon as we have access to live demonstrations again.  There may well come a time when we look at moving the operation beyond Stratford House.

A special mention must go to our courier – the second that we have partnered with.  The first courier we used was able to collect and operate on a low-volume basis but their reliability was unsatisfactory.  The disappointment factor with a missed or late delivery with a meal in a box is significant, and of course, if the food is spoiled it is an expensive and inconvenient mistake.  We always aspired to partner with DPD and were delighted when our volumes became attractive to them.  They took the time to carry out due diligence on our business and to really understand our product and customers.  I am pleased to say that they have been incredibly reliable, efficient, and helpful – they keep our promises for us and inspire us and our customers with great confidence.

Oriental Club staff loading curry express boxes from hotel to delivery truck

On the face of it you benefit from having a clearly defined market of members but you have diversified beyond this and are even delivering White Label offerings.  How has this happened and what appetite do you have to develop a wider marketplace?

It is hard for me to be objective in answering this as I feel a great deal of pride for our team and their achievements.  We were very determined, fleet of foot and committed.  The Club Committee were also supportive as they could envision the many benefits this could bring to the Club.

Demand was quite high from the beginning due to our ‘captive audience / market’ of Members and our ability to communicate effectively with them.  We were fortunate enough to have dynamic members of the Team with a really fresh approach to operational and e-commerce systems, which were aligned to our needs and could be refined at speed out, of necessity really.  We embraced e-commerce and bulk production techniques which became self-fulfilling as efficiencies were encouraged by virtue of the systems in place.  We basically grew to a size where it would be just as easy to make 500 as 100, so the business flipped from being operational to sales and marketing based.

Maybe because of my outlook on hospitality and the resilience of the Oriental Club, it never occurred to me to offer just one delivery option per week to the London area only.  From the beginning, I wanted to have the capabilities to deliver six days per week anywhere in the UK and this flexibility and convenience eliminated a potential barrier to ordering right from the outset.

Maybe because of my outlook on hospitality and the resilience of the Oriental Club, it never occurred to me to offer just one delivery option per week to the London area only.

Once we saw the success of Members’ ‘friends and family’ recommendations and the extra value that provided to the ‘customers’ and the business, we resolved to grow further to create a more consistent flow of high-volume production.

I leveraged my contacts and persuaded the Chairmen, Presidents, Secretaries etc of various associations that I am a Member of or connected with, to host Virtual Dinners and this helped to spread the word, acquire new customers, and increase volume.

When the restrictions intensified prior to the second lockdown, we proactively converted in-person Private Dining to Virtual Private Dining for many events that had been in the diary. We promoted OCE ‘Party Boxes’ as an ideal Corporate Gift of Staff Incentive – this was a resounding success and we continue to promote this as a very bespoke, high-added-value service.  We track all the deliveries and pretty much underwrite the guaranteed delivery ourselves (colleagues have been on the train all around the country hand-delivering boxes to keep this promise during the busy December period!).

Enquiries from other contacts within the industry, as to how to emulate our service were met with a response from me of ‘please allow the Oriental Club to do it for you’.  This resulted in a growing group of trusting and supportive partners that have embraced and encouraged just that.  We now have several different relationships, from endorsements through to White Label arrangements and fulfilment arrangements, to charity profit-share schemes and a growing wholesale offer to existing restaurants, caterers, and other hospitality settings.  The objective is to continue to grow, nurture and develop these relationships in the long-term.

Enquiries from other contacts within the industry, as to how to emulate our service were met with a response from me of ‘please allow the Oriental Club to do it for you’.

The next step is to look at providing stocked / branded freezers to Farm Shops, Convenience Stores, Campsites etc and we are looking at expanding the ready-to-eat hot concept, already available locally to the Club via Deliveroo, to the corporate hospitality and Festivals / Events settings.

 

What memorable moments spring to mind when you reflect on how the team responded to the challenge? Were there any particular challenges you and your team had to overcome?

The team is everything.  We have not recruited anyone new to the project (yet), instead all of us have researched, evolved, and above all learned through trial, error, and fortitude to succeed.  This continual improvement has led directly, in my view, to a ‘best of breed’ product which appears to be quite unique in the marketplace.

I am filled with admiration and pride for the adaptability and passion shown by my colleagues for this new, somewhat unconventional challenge and it has allowed several colleagues to really shine.

At least four people have had serious promotions as a result of the initiative and several jobs in the wider Club have been saved.  We have had to be much less reliant on Government and Member financial support than we otherwise would have been.  Naturally, we have had to be financially supported to a significant extent to retain much of the rest of the workforce and to maintain Stratford House beyond the Oriental Club Express operation.  As the business has grown (now averaging around 500 boxes per week) we have brought more and more colleagues back from furlough and into full-time work.

One of my proudest moments came when I was sitting on my terrace at my East Sussex home in late August, enjoying one of the best Curries I had ever tasted.  I had handed our Chefs, and our now Commercial Manager, a nugget of an idea back in July and by the end of August, following extremely challenging and rapid procurement, design, product development and contracts negotiations, this vision had become a reality.  I knew that we would be on to a winner and the principle of ‘build it and they will come’ was central to my thoughts – if we could tell our Members about this and encourage them to try it – they were certain to love it!  The talented and determined Marketeers in our team did the rest and it has worked.

One of my proudest moments came when I was sitting on my terrace at my East Sussex home in late August, enjoying one of the best Curries I had ever tasted.  I had handed our Chefs, and our now Commercial Manager, a nugget of an idea back in July and by the end of August this vision had become a reality.

The other stand out people moments are when I saw a room full of (socially-distanced) Housekeeping Team members undertaking their on-line Food Hygiene Training (which they all passed) in advance of the next steps in their careers at the Oriental Club – on the hugely important packing lines beside the Kitchen!  Another regular occurrence, before we instigated a bespoke trolley solution, was the participation of colleagues – from our Head of Finance to our Head Chef, via Receptionists, Room Attendants, Executives and the Maintenance Crew in forming human chains to assist the Courier load his increasingly large truck each afternoon!  Finally, our Front of House Team have become Customer Service specialists, shipping manifest administrators, box makers and sticker stickers,  all with great passion and – crucially a superb sense of humour.

Possibly for the first time in the modern era of the Club, it has truly broken down departmental silos and bonded us all together as one team for a truly common purpose.

In this pretty dark period for London hospitality and for the Club, the sense of achievement and the act of applying collective effort to a meaningful and joyous purpose has been transformational for our team spirit.  Another positive consequence is that, possibly for the first time in the modern era of the Club, it has truly broken down departmental silos and bonded us all together as one team for a truly common purpose.

Oriental Club Curry Express boxes in hotel lobby during covid 19 pandemic

How are you measuring the success of this venture?

It is a great question for me to answer as there have been several and they fit into three main categories:

Member benefit / enjoyment / pride / amenity / publicity.

Staff morale / productivity / focus / securing employment.

Surplus (profit), diversifying the Club’s risk and expanding to new markets and activities beyond the Clubhouse.

All three categories are currently incredibly successful by any measure, and the results speak for themselves.  The Members, the Staff Team and the Board all love it – ‘money talks’ – but without satisfaction and great feedback then this would be short-lived.

 

Are there any future benefits you perceive which will help your business short and medium term as a result of this venture?

It is incredibly helpful to have a new and growing revenue stream for the business which, at the moment, is practically the only revenue stream.  When the Club re-opens post Lockdown, it will supplement and support other parts of the business and hopefully more conventional business will also return.

It would be good for the Club to be less reliant on Subscriptions to cover the overheads associated with running a large Membership organisation and a Grade I listed Mansion in Central London – with all that that entails.  Also, the Club has a c£9M Development Plan at an advanced stage of planning and the contribution that a resilient revenue flow would make towards funding that scheme could be significant.  It certainly has the potential to be a virtuous circle for the Club and its Members.

 

What else would you like to share?

I don’t want to come across as some sort of great visionary, but I would say that if you believe in something and you can prove it can work then don’t be afraid to go through the pain of making it happen.  Don’t be put off by doing things outside of your, or your colleagues comfort zones – you may be surprised what people can adapt to and there is a great energy generated from new and successful endeavours.  You must be a bit brave and take calculated risks in order to experience rewards.

Finally, listen to your colleagues and your customers – they are rarely – if ever, wrong, but do keep pushing the overall strategic goal so as not to get distracted or compromise on anything other than the best you can be.

 

Are Gourmet Boxes here to stay?

I will let you decide for yourself!

I certainly think boxed, courier-delivered meals in their various guises can, and should form, part of the monthly selection of meal choices householders make.  The more that this sub-sector can pull together to deliver quality and point of difference, then the more chance it has of thriving.

Not everyone currently operating in this market will want, or need to, continue offering this service post Pandemic but the Oriental Club Express is certainly here to stay.

About

Matthew Rivett CEO The Oriental Club

Matthew Rivett

CEO and Company Secretary, The Oriental Club

Matthew Rivett is the CEO and Company Secretary of the Club.  Matthew previously held senior positions at The Ritz, London and the St John Hotel.  Matthew joined the Club Team in 2012 with the objective of reversing a long period of decline in revenues, membership numbers and usage, as well as addressing legacy issues.  The Club has been successfully repositioned as a desirable, premium traditional Club which is innovative, user-friendly and above all – hospitable.

Matthew is a Member of a number of  associations including his role as Chairman of the Club Secretaries and Managers Association, a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Cooks, a Freeman on the City of London and a Member of the Reunion des Gastronomes, Chaîné des Rottiseurs and a Chevalier of the Confrerie Sabrage de Grand Bretagne.

The Oriental Club is a Grade I listed Private Members Club, serving almost 3,000 Members, founded in 1824 by the Duke of Wellington as the first and only President.  Tucked away down a secluded street, steps from Bond Street, a diverse membership enjoys the modern amenities of this central London focal point which offers forty Bedrooms, Dining Rooms, Bars, Drawing Rooms, extensive Outdoor Dining, as well as Private Dining, Club Events, Event Catering and a Premium Meal Box delivery and Sundries service.