Asia Pacific

Project focus: Castle Hill, Sydney, Australia

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FCSI Associate Steve Sidd tells Jon Horsley how his Catering HQ team took on the challenge of converting the catering services at a Sydney hospitality destination and succeeded

When Castle Hill Returned Sailors and Soldiers club was established in 1932, it was a small group in a church hall set up to assist World War One veterans in North West Sydney. Today, now known as Castle Hill RSL, the multi-million dollar entertainment venue welcomes thousands of visitors every day.

So, when Catering HQ’s Steve Sidd took over the catering operation of the club, it’s no surprise the consultant was excited and perhaps a little daunted by the size of the business and the task he faced.

“They have five different restaurants and concepts and we only had four weeks before we took over,” he explains. “On the changeover day, the incumbent caterer finished at 3am and we had to bump in at 5am with all our teams, chefs and suppliers – and be ready to open at 10am. I turned up with a queue of trucks. It was a really quick turnaround and really, really hard work. Intense and stressful.

“The hardest part of the process was definitely the recruitment. Most of the equipment was in place and I already knew suppliers, so it was mainly finding the staff that was really tough for us. We had to employ 90 in a short space of time and that was really testing but I’m very happy with the people we found,” he says.

“I would advise anyone taking on a similar scale project that you have to have clear procedures in place, put in timelines and project manage it properly. Make sure you have key people in place and you’re clear and transparent with them. The more organised and accountable you can be, the better it will run.”

Something for everyone

Now the team are all in place following the transition period, they have a defined vision, new designs for the spaces and rejigged menus. “There’s the café, which serves from 10am to 1.30am,” begins Sidd. “That serves cakes, desserts and lots of things between bread. There’s a lot of healthy organic options, poke bowls and salads. There’s also some light hot items, empanadas, arancini and tempura fish. And a full beverage range, including coffees, teas, cold press juices and we make all our shakes and smoothies too.

“Then there’s the Courtyard Restaurant, a casual dining space, which has a large menu of about 35 items. Everything from grazing plates to healthy salads to power bowls, pastas, steaks and seafood. There’s also a signature range
of dishes including Moreton Bay Bugs. This has to hit a lot of demographics and it does it really well,” says Sidd.

“Moving on from there we have The Hills Diner, a classic American diner, serving seven gourmet burgers, kilo buckets of wings and some healthier options, such as barramundi fillets.

“We also have the pizza and gelato bar, in which we make pizzas to order from scratch and serve 14 flavours of gelato from a local company – Gelato Factory By Charlie.

“Launching in August, we’re opening a pop-up shack space on the outdoor terrace, which will start off as a smokehouse with brisket and pulled pork, but will change monthly with different skins to whatever theme we want to take on.

“There’s also the Asian outlet Jin Yan, which we don’t run, but has a full Yum Cha menu and serves excellent food.”

Doing it with style

In terms of decor, given the tight timeline, Sidd had to work hard and fast to get concepts across. “We activated
the space with artwork, table decorating and styling items,” he said. “For example in the diner, we use caddies on the table, with stainless steel items around them. And we worked with a graphic designer
to get the right feel on the printed material and signage.”

But on top of that, he has a secret design weapon – browsing second hand stalls. “We pick up knick-knacks and items that evoke an era or a time and it really works,” he explains.

Whatever Sidd does, his work is vital to the future of the club, according to Castle Hills RSL CEO David O’Neil. “We’re growing very quickly and the demographics are changing,” he explains. “In 2006, we had a AUS$1.6m food business and now it’s an AUS$8m business. Food is absolutely a driver for our reputation and for our foot traffic. We recognise food and families are our longevity. We’re marketing to all age brackets, but with particular attention on 30 to 45-year-olds and food is a central part of that.

“Steve can help to make that much bigger. He brings an extra talent to grow and evolve the market and he lives and breathes his product. He’s invested in it and he’s so passionate.”

That passion ensures that Sidd stays on top of all the details, something he feels is vital in this day and age.

Meeting customer expectations

“Everyone knows so much more about food than they did,” says Sidd. “The quality of the food has to be really good because people know what they like. That’s what my business always comes down to – getting out good quality food. Nowadays, customers are watching TV shows about food, they’re engaged, they know about healthy eating and you have to cater for all of that.

“In the old days, you could show up and make a quick dollar on food because the attraction was the club itself and whatever they were putting on. Now that’s just not the case any more and quality food has to be part of the package. We’re all about providing a high-standard product on the plate. Everything is made from fresh. We find barramundi and buy it ourselves. We buy quality products and source everything as locally as possible. That’s what people want, they won’t put up with frozen stuff.

“It does take a lot of labour, though. We have a production kitchen element, where we make bulk sauces and jus. That’s where we’ll batter our fish daily and our roast meals for the carvery options are done overnight. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

“In a busy week, we can feed 6,000 people. So, as you can imagine, it’s been tough and maybe I do worry. But I have still got some hair left,” Sidd laughs.

The club’s management also believes the project is a success and will continue to grow.

“The reception has been outstanding,” says O’Neil. “It’s been very well received by our members. For me, Steve has re-established the venue as a food venue. We get a lot more repeat business and the quality and attention to detail is excellent.”

Jon Horsley