Beefeater cooks up a recipe for success

Innovative staff training is the key to the restaurant chain's ongoing success, says Roger Trapp
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The Independent Online
It hardly marked a culinary milestone, but 21 years ago this month, the first Beefeater restaurant opened in Enfield, Middlesex, bringing with it a seemingly endless supply of prawn cocktails, steaks and black forest gateaux. Since the "Halfway House" welcomed its first customers, the menu has expanded somewhat, but the underlying business philosophy remains the same - affordable food for the family.

Whitbread, which owns the 270-strong chain, believes this has helped it to survive the recession with growing market share and customer loyalty. The latest company figures show the third consecutive year of growth. But there is more to it than the food and beer.

The company is certain that a commitment to high-quality customer service is behind this success. With 11,000 staff - most of whom deal directly with the public - spread among the outlets, there is a real danger of significant variations in attitudes, especially in an industry renowned for low pay and high turnover of personnel.

But Beefeater believes an extensive training programme that has cost pounds 5m over the past four years has not just brought consistent standards but also contributed to the development of the business. According to Pat McKeon, human resources director, customer complaints have fallen sharply - creating better staff relationships as well as improving profitability. "Our employees now have a far better understanding of our business as a whole and, through this understanding, far more job satisfaction."

But the programme is not limited to those at the sharp end. As Simon Wood, managing director, points out, staff at all levels go through a process designed to allow personal input.

The concept was launched in 1991 with the establishment of new quality standards. These were produced by teams representing each level and area of the company and analysed such operations as kitchens and bars with a view to improving them.

Next came the creation of a training programme devised with the help of the Hotel and Catering Training Company, the industry body that awards national vocational qualifications, with the aim of implementing these standards. Key personnel were then sent on courses so that they could assist in the development of their colleagues. The result has been falling complaint figures and a rising number of compliments. But the process did not end there. A more refined programme was launched two years ago, while earlier this year the company opened a pounds 1m training centre in Solihull.

Beefeater has introduced an initiative to provide head office staff and regional support teams with extra skills and knowledge to help them to back up the "front-line" workers more effectively. Mr Wood says that the programme - which involves head office staff working in a Beefeater outlet - is already showing benefits. For instance, the relationship between head office and the rest of the business is improving and there is a greater understanding of each area's problems.