Compass Group may have recently won the contract to supply catering and hospitality services for staff working at London Heathrow’s new Terminal Five, but, like many of the people who will be using its services, the company is keen that its feet stay firmly on the ground.

Part of the international, £10 billion-turnover Compass Group plc, a foodservice and support services organisation with operations in 64 countries around the world, Compass Group UK and Ireland is a big operation. But when it comes to sourcing new bakery suppliers, its working philosophy is: size is not everything.

A key part of the bakery buyer’s job at Compass is to set up supply solutions that enable the one supplier/one unit model to be scaled up nationally, as UK and Ireland bakery buyer Rob Topping explains. "Our size may make us look intimidating, but there’s no need for a supplier to trade with all of Compass’ operations," he says. "If the product is right, there are always ways and means to make a good partnership work."

Compass Group in the UK can trace its origins back to 1941, when Jack Bateman founded factory canteens to feed British workers supporting the war effort. Some 60 years and several management changes later, Compass Group’s UK business merged with the catering arm of Granada to become the UK & Ireland division of Compass Group. Now a FTSE 100 company, Compass Group UK and Ireland alone turns in annual revenues of £1.9bn and employs around 66,000 people.

This size is to the advantage of the would-be Compass supplier, Topping believes. Compass UK and Ireland provides foodservice and support to business sectors, including private industry, hospitals, schools, fine dining restaurants, sports and leisure venues, prisons, and defence and offshore installations. Within these sectors it offers a portfolio of Compass-owned brands, such as Choice sandwiches, amigo convenience shops and Deli Marché coffee shops, as well as a number of franchised consumer brands, including some Caffè Ritazza coffee shops, Upper Crust and Delice de France bakeries (SSP runs the majority). The company sells 23m Choice sandwiches every year and serves 3m customers a day, so it stays on the lookout for bakery products at a wide range of entry points.

== Bakery to the fore ==

Given its interests, bakery is naturally one of the company’s most prominent categories - a fact reflected in the size of the buying budget. Without giving away specifics, this is large enough to cover fresh, frozen, and bake-off formats and product areas, including pies and sandwiches, Topping reveals.

In a typical year, Compass will look to introduce around 100 new products, although this figure will include technical changes, such as packaging. "But, there’s no target and no limit," Topping stresses, and if a product fits with the company’s offering, and makes it through taste-testing, its likelihood of then being stocked is very good.

When it comes to the stocking decision, however, there are a few ’must-haves’. Firstly, any new product should keep Compass ahead of the market and should be seen to be offering custo- mers something new. Topping explains: "Foodservice differs from retail in that our customer sites are feeding their people five times a week, so people become familiar with our offer very quickly."

Secondly, the company expects suppliers to operate to very stringent health and safety standards, which must be auditable, although it is prepared to offer support in this area.

Finally, Topping likes dealing with suppliers who have a passion about what they do, and who are able to explain quite quickly how this passion can fit into the marketplace, addressing identifiable trends or gaps. This is especially gratifying when suppliers can support their proposition with data, preferably relating to the foodservice sector, rather than multiple grocers.

Yet would-be suppliers should also note that Compass is wary of any over-ambitious claims on quality. "It’s unnecessary," says Topping, "as Compass sites are looking to buy at a variety of price points."

Sometimes, suppliers go the other way, and don’t explain their full capability. "They may present their new doughnut, which we don’t want, but forget to mention their naans, which we might," he explains. Get past these hurdles, though, and it’s usually only operational difficulties - such as products that don’t thaw quickly enough for a chef - that then thwart a new product’s listing.

== Flexibility important ==

Compass prides itself on being flexible enough to react to the changing needs/wants of its audience, says Topping.

Its current focus, for example, is on meeting customer demand for ’feel-good’ products, or produce that is sustainable or has a local origin. Grab-and- go items, that can be eaten at desks, and treats are also currently in vogue.

In the search for new product ideas, Topping is often to be found out and about trend- spotting. "I spend my weekends eating my way through coffee shops. I do the shopping and I keep an eye on what’s happening in other categories, and whether the underlying trends can be applied to bakery."

He also visits the company’s operating sites. Recently, he was to be found in the kitchen rather than trackside at the Cheltenham Festival, talking to chefs about how well products are working. Inconvenient or inadequate packaging or problematic thawing times are typical issues, he says.

Summarising Topping’s open-door approach to bakery buying is the file, where speculative product information is kept, rather than just binned. For the same reason, he is also happy to see suppliers that have been rejected previously.

What drives Topping is the quest for the perfect product. He says: "When a need keeps cropping up, I want to be able to deal with it. As a buyer, I feel really uncomfortable saying, ’I cannot offer it.’"


=== Compass in brief ===

l Compass Group is a food-service and support services organisation, with annual revenues of around £10bn (year to 30 September 2007) and operations in 64 countries worldwide

l Compass Group UK and Ireland, part of Compass Group, has annual revenues of £1.9bn (year to 30 September 2007) and employs 66,000 people


=== Rob Topping at a glance ===

Job history: A geography graduate from Sheffield, Topping started an 11-year stint at Safeway, initially in store management, and latterly at head office, in bakery and in food and non-food buying. He then moved to cold drinks buying at Compass and has been the bakery buyer since August, 2007.

Top tip to new suppliers: "Don’t assume we know about you and even if you have tried us before, it is well worth approaching us again. You may have what we are looking for now."

Favourite product: "A personal favourite is chocolate topped, banana custard filled doughnut - delicious!"

Outside interests: Watching ’The Hornets’ (Watford FC) in their campaign to reach the Premier League; Topping makes it to around 12, mostly home, games a year. And spending time with his two-and-a-half year-old daughter.