Full of energy, but by his own admission, not particularly academic, Dan left school at 16 with no clear idea of what he wanted to do. Living near to Waddesdon Manor, a stately home and gardens, he took a job as a Catering Assistant in their restaurant while he tried to figure things out. What he didn’t plan for was how much he’d grow to love the hospitality trade. Nine years on, he’s still there. He’s tried it all from barman, waiter and kitchen help to supervising the delivery of 300+ seat wedding banquets. Now Catering Manager, Dan oversees 7 different catering outlets on the estate including the restaurant, café and 4-5 Food to Go units and manages over 20 employees.
Catering Assistant - Trainee Assistant Supervisor – Assistant Banqueting Manager – Assistant Supervisor – Restaurant & Outlet Manager – Catering Manager
Catering Managers plan, organise and develop the food and beverage services of organisations such as restaurants, hotels, resorts or event businesses. Leading a team of chefs and catering assistants, they are responsible for running the day-to-day catering operations to ensure customer expectations, food and hygiene standards and organisational targets are met. They recruit and manage staff, help to plan menus and service innovations and work to budget and financial targets.
Dan Caterer – the caterer – did your name have anything to do with your choice of career?
“No, although I did learn many of my skills from my mother who was phenomenal at catering. She taught me how to carry four plates at once and her passion must have rubbed off so I suppose it’s in the blood.”
(It may be more in the blood than Dan realises. Some quick research reveals the surname ‘Caterer’ derives from the Old French ale catour, a title meaning ‘a buyer of groceries for the gentleman's house’, typically in manors and castles. Some distant ancestor may have walked this path before).
How did you get started?
“Almost by accident. I lived near Waddesdon so came here to earn some money in the short term. I was just helping out with lunches and afternoon teas but from the first day it just drew me in. Any successful restaurant you go to, there's a huge atmosphere and a huge buzz and I've always been about talking to people so I fell in love with it within the first few days of working here. I never really liked the idea of being sat behind a desk, and with catering, you’re on your feet all day so I felt the passion really quickly. After four months, I got promoted to Trainee Assistant Supervisor and it took off from there.”
What training have you had in your career?
“I was never formally trained. I didn’t go to college to study hospitality and I haven’t got any NVQs. A lot of my development has been on the job learning, picking up skills from different people and different managers so I guess my skills are homegrown. For me, I don't think you have to have qualifications to do the job. Without them, you may need to work a little bit harder and prove yourself a little bit more. But qualifications at the end of the day, they are just a piece of paper. Saying that, we bring in outside companies for staff training and I’ve completed many parts of the leadership and management programmes.”
What does a typical day look like in your role?
“No two days are the same but it’s about a 50/50 balance between office work and being out with the staff. In the office, I’ll deal with restaurant queries, plan upcoming events, sort out personnel issues. But I try to spend half my time on location because that’s why I joined catering – to make sure everything is perfect and individual to the customer and not just a conveyor belt service. Being visible also means I can resolve issues quickly and support the staff as they need it.”
How did you progress your career?
“Hard work and being open to trying a lot of different experiences – waitering, helping out in the kitchen, everything. Also, once I got to Waddesdon I had a dream of making it to Catering Manager from early on. I tried banqueting for a year and a half but decided weddings weren’t really my cup of tea so I came back to the restaurant. When the manager job became available I worked my socks off to prove I was the right person and I have a little bit of a secret. Every single job I’ve wanted, I try to learn the role before it’s even available to make sure I’m ready when it comes up. That way, I do my best to stay one step ahead.”
What are the biggest challenges in the job?
“Regardless of whether you're in the restaurant or you're in food to go, the challenge is making sure the service level is the same and the same care and attention is put into everything you do. For me, when I eat out, I expect a level of service and a level of politeness, and I think that should be across the board whether it's takeaway or silver service. And that takes a lot of organisation and consistency.”
What skills do you need to be a good catering manager?
“Understanding and empathy are the biggest things. As you climb the ladder it’s easy to get distracted with the title and forget what it’s like to be a member of the Front of House team and the daily challenges they face. So an important part of my job is making sure people feel supported. That goes for the public too. You don't always know what's going on with customers. Just because they're annoyed about a chicken and bacon sandwich doesn't mean they don’t have some other problems they’re facing. It's about how you react to people, how you calm a situation. Having an instinct for people is one of the biggest skills you need.”
If you were recruiting your replacement what would you look for in a candidate?
“Me personally, I look for experience. You can go to university, but just because you’ve got a business degree doesn’t mean you understand the process and how it all works. Or have the soft skills to lead a team. Not everyone may share my view, but I think hands-on, frontline experience is such a huge thing so I’d look for that.”
What advice would you give to somebody thinking about working in this sector?
“Try anything once. You may find doing one thing can lead to ten other things. The only reason I got the Assistant Banqueting Manager job at The Dairy was because I started as a barman there for a bit of extra money and they liked me. I also helped out in the restaurant kitchen one Christmas too and it gave me a new respect for the chefs. If you want to succeed you have to keep challenging yourself. Take a few risks.”
What's unique about working at Waddesdon?
“The people here are always willing to adapt and change with the times. Waddesdon is a historic National Trust property and a beautiful place to work but we have to be open to new demographics and new experiences to give people a reason to come back and bring their friends and families. That means improvising what we're offering and the team here are really good at that. It’s like a big family atmosphere. I've been here for nine years and I still genuinely love coming in and seeing the house every single day.”