‘We are about fine food with attitude ... that’s kind of what all of our brands are really about’
Margaret Canning talks to Gareth Chambers, boss of food firm Around Noon, about mojito cakes, travel and why they conduct meetings standing up
It’s already home to a number of successful, market-disrupting companies. Now another Newry firm is shaking things up — and this time, it’s the food-to-go sector’s turn.
Gareth Chambers took over his parents’ food company Around Noon in a management buy-out last year.
The energetic 32-year-old is bringing his love of food and travel to bear on Around Noon — which started out as a sandwich-making enterprise from the Chambers’ family home in Newry’s Willow Grove.
Now it employs 330 people, has high-end premises with inspirational slogans daubed on the walls — and has made two major acquisitions in the Republic and London in the last few years.
It produces about 60 different types of ‘food on the move’ — and while the humble sandwich retains its place, it’s also making items like protein pots, filled croissants, wraps, salads and cold-press juices.
Taking over Dublin-based bakery Sweet Things last year has also brought a dizzying array of bakery items into the firm. Some are particularly unusual, such as a mojito cake — with Gareth calling its innovation in bakery items “bad ass”.
Around Noon products, many of which are sold under its Scribbles brand, are supplied to customers such as coffee chain Starbucks and Spar store owner Henderson Group.
Sandwiches with fillings such as goat’s cheese, sweet potato and mango earned the company three awards at industry bash The Sammies 2017 — organised by the British Sandwich Association.
Gareth, who lives in Newry with his wife Laura, is evangelical about the products and the inspiration behind them. “I’m really, really into food on the move and eating on the go. I love trains, flights and airports,” he says.
“I’ve always been passionate about food and people on the move.” But there was no concept of ‘food on the move’ when Around Noon was set up.
Gareth says: “It was started in 1989 when I was four. It was on the kitchen table of the family home and there was always food being made and delivered.
“My mum Sheila had been working as a receptionist but there was nothing like ‘food to go’ in those days — no pre-packed sandwiches or pre-packed foods.
My mum used to say she struggled to get something nice for work. Her initial idea was to bring sandwiches around offices by picnic basket but also be able to spend time with her children and not always be away, and be able to work from home.
“My dad Francis at that stage had a separate business for a financial company so my mother was managing director of Around Noon. But it was great learning from them.
“That was a really good learning curve. They are extremely entrepreneurial individuals and great mentors.
“It was that upbringing with them which definitely inspired me to take over the range and take it to the next level.”
However, there was no assumption by Gareth or his parents that he would follow them into the business. He’s the eldest of five children in the family — sister Andrea and brother Gavin also work in the business, while younger brothers Glen and Alan are at university.
Gareth went to Newry’s Abbey Grammar School. “I spent every summer holiday working for the business but then I went off and studied media and TV production. I really was quite interested in it.”
He worked for the Newry-based production company Big Mountain.
“I got great experience but there was something about my parents’ business pulling me back in. I was really intrigued by what they had quite created and so inspired by cooking,” he says.
But he acknowledges wife Laura — who owns a coffee roastery — is the superior cook of the two.
Some months ago Around Noon announced the acquisition of Chef in a Box, a Slough-based company with a major portfolio of corporate clients that will be Around Noon’s springboard into the London and wider English market.
“We would be quite interested in and inspired by working with lots of different brands and supplying the market with really high quality food to go,” says Gareth.
“Our focus is on developing really innovative products for our clients and working in partnership with them to and grow to our mutual benefit.”
That firm will become Around Noon London. “What we want to do is very similar to how Around Noon works in Ireland. We offer a really high quality handmade product and we work really closely with our clients to offer new and exclusive ranges of food,” says Gareth.
“Chef in a Box has a great location on the M25 into London and northwards, and we’ll be working with coffee shops, convenience retailers and also food service contract caterers.”
And it’s not limiting itself to lunchtime foods — with breakfast, brunch and afternoon tea all part of the offering.
“We have got a solid five-year growth plan (called To The Moon 2021) and we’re quite excited about the future,” says Gareth.
“We have a very different proposition to what’s out there in market and approach things very differently.”
He says the company culture is helping it innovate. “Every member of the team is passionate about food to go. We talk about ‘hand-held food for people on the move’. The ‘eating out of home’ market and food to go market in Ireland and the UK is extremely exciting and very fast moving market. We want to be the leading light, the go-to guys in that market.
“We monitor trends right across the globe in food on the move and bring those trends to clients to create new and exciting ranges.
“We also have a thing in the company called Food Safari. All our staff have the opportunity if they’re going on holiday or travelling to come back and tell us what they’ve seen in food on the move, and we pay them for their good ideas. That helps people grow their interest in food on the go.”
The firm is constantly monitoring where the market is going, looking at health trends and food trends. Gareth admits he enjoys tasting the product and is evangelical again about its Sweet Things range.
They bought over the Dublin-based company last year from its co-founder Ciara Byrne. “Those products are a little bit more edgy and different. They are quite bad ass in very rock ‘n’ roll, quirky and innovative flavours. We had a mojito cake for summer and a super-salted caramel brownie. It’s all about daring to be different.
“It’s a cool, rock ‘n’ roll style bakery brand and items are always that bit irreverent and that ties in quite well with Scribbles. We talk about fine food with attitude... that’s kind of what all of our brands are really about.”
The firm moved into purpose-built premises at Greenbank Industrial Estate two years ago. “My mum always had the view that you had to put people first, and our facilities and the office environment is a reflection of that. It’s a very nice place to work with lots of natural light and barista coffee on tap. If you have good coffee, you’re halfway there,” says Gareth.
“We have nice break-out zones and hold all our meetings standing up. It’s important to get people moving around the office and interacting face-to-face. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and the environment here promotes the fact that food is fun and fashionable.”
Gareth has worked in the company now for eight years. He became chief executive in 2013 but has also worked in sales. One of his first big moves was to hire an executive chef to develop its food.
And achieving the company’s goals — Gareth wants to grow sales from £20m to £100m — has meant Gareth has recruited experienced businesspeople Patrick McAliskey of IT firm Novosco and UK food industry veteran Howard Farquhar onto the board.
“I met Patrick about four years ago and he was reflecting on how his journey had brought Novosco from Ireland into the English market. I was very keen on doing that. We went for coffee so he became a bit of a mentor. He was really, really helpful in spending some time helping me to digest the journey that I was on to be thrust into the chief executive role at the age of 27.
“Patrick has been a really helpful and really kind mentor and we worked on the management buy-out last year. I also met Howard Farquhar, who’s a very successful entrepreneur in UK market.
“Howard and I sat down and pulled together a plan to grow business and he’s now chairman.”
Gareth says his parents are still on the board of the company but aren’t directly involved.
He’s talking a calm approach to any challenges Brexit might bring. “There’s an awful lot of speculation and talk and the reality is nobody really knows what everyone’s facing. We’re staying very positive about our growth and expansion plans and looking forward to tackling what comes.”
Its workforce is international. “We’re working very closely with all of our staff to help them understand what Brexit means to them. The mood is very, very good and we don’t have any concerns. As a team we will work through whatever comes,” says Gareth.