If you look on the shelves of more than 50,000 of Britain's commercial kitchens, you will find a slim, A4 catalogue with a purple cover that carries details of roughly 10,000 items of fresh, frozen and chilled food. The catalogue belongs to a very important company, but one with a very low profile. Its name is 3663, which spells "food" on your telephone keypad. Three Double Six Three, as the firm's name is normally rendered in speech, is officially the largest player in a mushrooming industry called "foodservice," and which supplies raw materials to restaurants, pubs, canteens, and any other outlets from which people buy or are served cooked meals. Some of their 10,000 products are fresh, high-quality ingredients, destined for the smartest restaurants in the land. Others, are artery-clogging, processed, "basics," chucked into the deep fat fryer of your local fast-food outlet.
For any Briton who eats meals prepared outside a private home, 3663 is almost impossible to avoid. The firm boasts 30,000 customers who run the more than 50,000 outlets - a staggering 20 per cent of the commercial kitchens in the country.
Look carefully and you'll notice 3663's discrete logo on Scania lorries pounding almost every motorway and through every town centre in the land. They supply every Pizza Hut, Burger King, and KFC outlet, pubs owned by the chains Greene King and Compass, and sandwich bars run by Pret a Manger. If you buy a pie at the new Wembley, or a burger at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, 3663 delivered it. Eat porridge in a British prison, and it'll have come from their warehouse, just like the doughnuts they flog to the Metropolitan Police Service's canteens. The firm holds a royal warrant for delivering "groceries and frozen goods" to the Queen, and contracts with hospitals, public buildings and hotel chains. In a society that now eats out for 30 per cent of all its meals, it influences eating habits as much as Gordon, Nigella, Jamie, and Delia combined.
On the face of it, then, 3663 is one of the modern Britain's great, undiscovered corporate success stories. Last year, the firm - which is owned by a South African company - turned over £1.5bn, made profits of £50m, and employed 6,800 people. Yet behind the serving hatch, not everything is rosy. The environmental lobby dislikes 3663's 1,000 gas-guzzling lorries, and 39 refrigerated warehouses. Farmers compare their purchasing policies to major supermarket chains that use corporate muscle to force suppliers into unfair contracts. Foodies, meanwhile, complain that customers of some of the pubs and restaurants that 3663 supplies - who may expect their dishes to be lovingly prepared by a local chef - are actually being conned into buying a range of glorified ready-meals.
The firm's catalogue, to pick a couple of examples at random, contains a "breast of chicken, with apricot, brandy and herb stuffing, wrapped in Serrano ham", and some venison and pork sausages "infused with sloe gin and served in a rich and sweet bramble berry and red wine sauce". For dessert, it suggests that chefs offer "strawberry Romanoff with mixed berry coulis", or an indulgent-sounding "apricot, apple and stem ginger crumble... heaped with hand-placed golden oaty all-butter crumble".
Read the small-print, though, and you'll discover that the chicken and sausages are, effectively, boil-in-the-bag. The coulis must be defrosted from frozen before serving; and that crumble gets 60 seconds in the microwave. They are all fake restaurant-dishes for customers of Britain's thousands of pubs and restaurants run by de-skilled staff. Depending on your point of view, this is either a national scandal or the inevitable result of our desire for ever-cheaper, more quickly prepared, restaurant meals.
The 3663 depot on the outskirts of Harlow, in Essex, provides a 60,000-square-foot insight into the eating habits of modern Britain. Inside, I wander past shelf after shelf of 25kg bags of salt and sugar, and tins of reconstituted egg (apparently the scrambled eggs in many top hotels are not freshly broken). Fork-lifts carry massive pots of jam and confectionery, and boxes of frozen meat products. Lorries are loaded with breathtaking efficiency. Some of their loads are fresh; most is frozen or pre-prepared. The driver of one lorry, Andy, allows a photographer to follow his normal delivery-round: a variety of schools, hospitals and small hotels. Upstairs, in a small call-centre, white-collar workers sit chatting to clients and suppliers. The atmosphere is of restrained joviality. Motivational posters adorn the walls.
Yet the scale of the firm's reach, and the efficiency with which the staff go about their business, has worried critics. Emma Hockridge, of the pressure group Sustain, which campaigns for better food and farming, believes that, like any large supplier, 3663 is a bad deal for farmers.
"It's an almost invisible problem," she says. "In terms of a local supply chain any big firm is bad. A large firm needs large farms. In places, 3663 have made small efforts to involve local farmers, but we would say those are token efforts. They are excellent marketeers and put huge resources and budgets behind marketing. They will take out huge adverts, or have a presence at conferences, with smart stalls giving out freebies. But little of their efforts go into supporting local farmers."
The National Farmers Union believes that all major foodservice companies ought to be subject to the current Competition Commission inquiry covering supermarkets. "3663 are one of the major customers for farmers, and serve virtually everybody," says its food-chain expert, Robin Tapper. "Their buying policy is like any major company. There's precious little difference from supermarkets at the farmer's end. The Competition Commission is uniquely looking into supermarkets. Our view is that the inquiry should actually apply across the whole industry."
On the ground, however, the company is anxious to demonstrate that it takes small producers seriously. Up the road from Harlow, at a smaller depot on the outskirts of Stowmarket, I am shown sausages, bacon and jam that it buys from local specialists, and delivers to customers. Many of the products taste excellent and are of the highest quality. 3663 claims that these underline the fact that the single, vast company can provide high-quality ingredients to both the high- and low-budget ends of the market, from chicken nuggets to Beef Wellington.
3663 can excite mixed views. The critic Egon Ronay, for example, says that he would expel any outlet selling such dishes from his guides, describing it as "cheating". He does, however, admit that high-end ready-meals can be impossible to spot.
"If somebody buys a ready-made dish at M&S, which is in my view the best of all ready-meals, its very difficult to tell," he says. "They do a chicken Kiev filled with garlic and butter that is actually very good indeed, and a duck in orange you would certainly not spot."
In fairness to 3663, I also learn that the pre-prepared-food division which has so stirred-up debate represents only a small part of its portfolio. Much of the catalogue is full of fresh foods, quality seasonings, and proper cooking ingredients.
"People like 3663 have actually upped their game in the past 18 months," adds Tapper. "They have cottoned onto local supply and are talking regionally, and have done a tremendous amount of work. In fact, I would say that the firm is leading the way in actively sourcing and buying locally, and setting up meaningful partnerships with local suppliers. One swallow doesn't make a summer, but it's a positive step."
Fred Barnes is the chief executive of 3663. Like many captains of industry he may at first appear unremarkable, but his soft demeanour and sober business-suit hide an occasionally inspirational individual. He has driven 3663 to the top of its tree by placing customer relations at the heart of the business. 3663 has an attention to detail that leaves rival firms looking slovenly by comparison. Each 3663 depot services its local area, meaning that individual tele-sellers, delivery drivers, and field sales reps build up personal relationships with local chefs and restaurateurs. Other big companies might outsource sales operations to Milton Keynes, or even Bangalore.
Barnes also claims to be a proud environmentalist. His firm recycles all plastics and cardboard, and has achieved an EU environmental standard called ISO 14001 at every depot (which is a big deal, apparently). In Harlow, lorries are washed using recycled rainwater.
"Actually, it is economically sensible for us to recycle," he says. "It's good for the environment and good for the company. Firms like ours have a choice: we can either say, 'we're the bad boys and we don't care', or we can seek to minimise our impact, and that is what we've done."
Barnes also rejects accusations that, as a major food-supplier, 3663 is a villain in the food-mile debate. "In terms of resources per kilo of product moved, we are about as efficient as it gets. We don't move stuff unnecessarily. We're very focused on that, because it saves us money, and so we are always constantly improving."
The firm was formed in 1999, when the food-supply wing of the troubled cash-and-carry giant Booker was sold to a South African conglomerate called Bidvest, and ordered to change its name. Barnes was then the firm's managing director. When it became 3663, turnover was £1bn, but net profits were just £10bn and morale was poor following decades of underinvestment.
Today, the company is 50 per cent bigger and has about 15 per cent of the country's entire foodservice market, a sector that itself is growing exponentially. Most of 3663's managers have been with it for more than a decade, and it appears to be a happy ship.
Barnes is unapologetic about catering to the budget end, as well as the luxury end, of the market, saying that pub customers should expect to eat predominately pre-prepared food. However, he also says that 3663 should be capable of supplying top-end materials.
"You're naive to think somebody's rolling out pastry and making you a steak and kidney pie for £2.50 or something. If you want to go to a gastro-pub and move up the price scale, then more will be made on-site, but the products we sell are all good products at a good price."
"Sure, some are boil-in-the-bag. If the chef just snips it and throws it on a plate then that might be a giveaway. But if they present it properly its just a cooking technique like anything else. The further up the market you go, the more work goes into food. We are catering for everyone."
At the sharp end, plenty of culinary experts agree. Michael Caines, who boasts two Michelin stars at his Gidleigh Park restaurant in Devon, is a proud 3663 customer and uses it to supply some, but not all, of his materials and ingredients.
"People ask why I use such a big firm, rather than local suppliers for everything. But a lot of the basic ingredients I buy from 3663 are as good as any. I mean, does it matter where you get sugar or flour from?
"They are also good at specialist things, always talking to us about what we want, and try very hard to include top-quality stuff in their ranges. For instance there's a particular brand of butter I like to use, and when they learned about it they went out and sourced it for me straight away."
When I pass on Caines's compliments to Barnes, who is driving me, in his smart Mercedes, between Harlow and Stowmarket, he says that they're only doing their job. But I feel an unmistakable glow of pride from the driver's seat.
In the long term, 3663 plans to achieve nothing less than the domination of the industry. Its largest rival, Brake Brothers, is also riding high, but 3663 is stealing market-share from the third-biggest player in the industry, a firm called Woodward.
The effects this change on our diets are impossible to predict. But some say that the onward march of food conglomerates like 3663 will represent a sort of extinction for quality food products. The television chef Giancarlo Caldesi, who runs a Tuscan café and restaurant in Marylebone, says that it is killing regional foods.
"Every area, every region loses its individuality with these people," he says. "The big firms rip it out. If you live in Yorkshire, you can have lovely leeks, cooked with maybe a bit of wild garlic. So why should you want other foods transported maybe 350 miles in a truck? It's a nonsense, but what can you do?"
Where Barnes claims that pre-prepared food represents customers getting what they pay for, the actual picture is pretty mixed. Some low-budget pubs, for example, do employ a skilled chef who can provide fresh meals. Other expensive "gastro-pub" venues actually serve boil-in-the-bag dishes.
"There is nothing uniquely British about this problem," says Richard Harden, who produces the eponymous restaurant guides. "In fact, the French government recently launched a stamp of approval for restaurants in France that cooked with fresh ingredients, and only 20 per cent of the restaurants qualified for it.
"If only one in five French outlets are using fresh stuff, how many in Britain are? You've got to wonder. I walk past pubs and I see signs advertising three-course meals for a tenner. I think: 'Ugh, how little must they be spending on ingredients?' At that end of the market, what do you expect?"
Joe Warwick, the editor of Restaurant magazine, also points out that 3663 is servicing an industry with a big skills-shortage.
"The restaurant industry has expanded hugely in the last decade, and there simply aren't enough chefs capable of cooking fresh food. 3663 is a business, they're providing a service and there's no deception involved in it: they are just filling a gap in the market. So we shouldn't knock them."
Back in the local pub, needless to say, the lamb confit I mentioned earlier will turn out to be a pre-prepared number, selling to chefs at £4.50 a serving, and being put on the menu at closer to £15. But, according to Steve Dancer, the purchasing director of the pub giant Greene King, I shouldn't be complaining as I tuck in. And neither should I be calling the food "boil-in-the-bag."
"In the industry, we call it sous-vide," he informs me. "It's a great name for boil-in-the-bag, because its French and it sounds nicer. Anyway, if a pub had to cook an individual lamb shank, it would take six hours and you'd be waiting quite a long time for your dinner to arrive. So you tell me: is it really so wrong?"
Own-brand Alabama fudge cake
This pub-pudding favourite can be microwaved in seconds, and then served with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream and a sprig of mint. It comes in boxes of 16 portions, costing £12.85 (around 80p each).
If you want, you can cook an entire "full English" from frozen or tinned products (even eggs). This specimen uses some fresh vine-tomatoes, but those mushrooms came out of a can (frozen egg nuggets £3.90 per kilo; ready-cooked bacon £7.66 per 500g).
From White's, the luxury division of 3663, the lamb confit pictured here has come out of a plastic bag. It comes in packs of 10, priced £35.99 (£4.50 each).
Pork and leek sausages
A "premium British-assured sausage with a coarse texture", claims the catalogue. They can be cooked from frozen (80p each).
The simplest of culinary challenges: all it takes is mince, some pasta, and a couple of sauces. For the lazy chef, though, 3663 sells two ready-made varieties: normal (£6.43 for a big tray) or "deep dish" (£8.53).
Chicken tikka masala is one of Britain's favourite dishes. 3663's partner, the Authentic Food Company, makes a version that comes in a microwaveable tray, with sections for curry, rice, and poppadums, (£9 per tray).
Plate of chicken nuggets
3663 sells 15 varieties of chicken nugget, called "goujons," "dippers," or (at the top end) "fillet bites" (from 8p per nugget).Reuse content