During the Covid pandemic, army-trained chef Paul Hodge has called on his military training to help his Hamilton-based hospitality business survive and thrive…
On March 22, 2020, Cater Plus chief executive Paul Hodge was preparing to reward his clients with a high-end dinner in Auckland. The three-course menu (designed by Canadian chef Matt Shuker) included roasted carrots on a bed of buckwheat with dill pesto and pickled beetroot, a black rice cake, chicken stuffed with watercress and goats cheese followed by a chocolate mousse with orange coulis and nuggets of hokey pokey. It was designed, says Hodge, to showcase the talents of the company’s chefs and thank clients for a year of exceptional growth.
In the background, the dark cloud of Covid-19 hovered on the horizon. but there was still optimism in New Zealand that the virus could be stopped or at least contained.
On March 23, 2020, that changed. As Covid cases rapidly doubled then trebled in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a state of emergency. The country would be locked down for two months from 11.59pm on March 25. Overnight, New Zealand shut down.
Hodge was one of many who was surprised. “I never thought the country would be completely locked down.” But when the announcement came, his military training automatically kicked in. A chef in the New Zealand Army for 21 years, before he formed his catering company in Hamilton in 2006, he was trained to prepare for unexpected consequences and to move quickly to deal with a crisis. “I knew exactly what we had to do. It was the equivalent of a disaster in the armed forces; dealing with something that wasn’t normal.”
Because this was a public health issue, his first focus was on the wellbeing of staff and clients. “Clients were going through the same thing as us, trying to unpack it,” says chief operating officer Craig Elder. “So while our staff were asking us what was happening, we were dealing with clients who still didn’t know what they could do. We had to interpret the rules and then pass on the information as quickly as possible. We were literally building the bridge as we went over it.”
Staff – many of whom had large families – were worried about their jobs and how they would pay the rent. “The first thing I said to them after the lockdown announcement was, ‘you will get paid on Tuesday’,” says Hodge. “You could hear the sighs of relief.” He is proud no staff have been laid off.
Then there was the food.
At the time the company, which has its head office in a renovated 100-year-old villa on the corner of Galloway St and Clyde St in Hamilton East, provided catering services for around 50 sites across the country, from Kaitaia to Timaru. Among them corporates, private hospitals, boarding schools, polytechnics, local bodies, and aged care. Major Waikato clients include The Hub at Wintec, Resthaven in Cambridge, Alandale Retirement Village and Southern Cross Hospital in Hamilton, plus several Fonterra sites.
When the lockdown was announced, students were sent home; half the clients closed their doors immediately and two others cancelled contracts to save money. Nearly $50,000 of planned functions were called off. Resthomes, where staff were deemed critical workers, were the only outlets able to function.
While he confronted the real possibility of his own business falling off a cliff (initially, with 250 staff, the company was too large to qualify for a Government wage subsidy), Hodge focused on the logistics of dealing with perishable goods. He and Craig Elder worked through the night, assessing which food could be frozen, which had to be binned and which could be rapidly and safely redistributed.
Resthome residents in Auckland enjoyed some of the food destined for the cancelled client function.
But, while there was relief the aged care part of the business could continue, there was heightened concern over transmissibility of the virus. “Staff were chucking out banana peels before they had even touched a bench because of the fear that they would be contaminated by the virus. One person slept and ate apart from her family so she wouldn’t put others at risk.”
The business established a “clean team” where workers were paid to stay home so they could be deployed if others had to stand down because of illness. Other staff had to quickly adapt to using different skills.
For Hodge, the operational task at hand was massive. But he needed to keep his head. He says the army contributed to his resilience.
“The other thing the army teaches you is not to panic,” he says. “You don’t want a boss who panics. In the army, if you are told to walk 100 miles, you put your head down and walk. I knew I had a job to do. That’s what I did.”
For the two months of lockdown the senior leadership team operated like a war room. Order, consistency, and reassurance were essential given that there was no physical contact between staff. “We would meet via Zoom in the morning and again in the afternoon so we could communicate the right information to staff. It was essential they had accurate information communicated well.”
Those systems are now bedded in after two years of disruption.
Today, Hodge admits people are bruised and tired. Mental health is an issue. The People, Performance and Culture team takes dozens of calls a week from staff struggling with mental fatigue or economic hardship. Three-quarters of their work is Covid-related. Ten years ago, the company established the Cater Plus Foundation to provide interest-free loans and other assistance during times of financial hardship. That has proved invaluable. “People are needing more help than they ever have,” Hodge says. “We have built safety networks and welfare systems into the business, which has helped during the pandemic.”
But he is upbeat about the future and says the company has benefited from what has been learned. “We have found new ways of operating and communicating. Staff have been incredibly supportive. We have always been a family-owned business with family values. When family members are stressed, the rest of the family steps in. That’s what happened here, and that’s what got us through.”
The values came into play again last year when Auckland was at Level 4 for weeks. About 60 percent of the company’s contracts are in Auckland and 50 percent of staff. With many businesses unable to operate and schools closed in that city, there were 20 chefs without work. “They wanted to work but they couldn’t because of the disruption. So we redeployed them to help serve communities in need.” Three days a week they cooked meals for the Otara Kai Village Kitchen. On another day, they cooked meals for Cater Plus staff and their families, which were distributed free on Friday nights. Over the lockdown period, more than 12,000 meals were prepared and distributed in Auckland and Waikato.
Today, the business has 65 clients, employs 316 staff and Hodge estimates there will be good growth over this financial year.
The greatest challenge now, he says is finding staff. “The Government has to open up immigration. We have 3.5 percent unemployment and 3 percent of those are unemployable for a variety of reasons. So we are trying to pick people from a very small pool. Businesses are stealing staff with sign-on bonuses. We don’t want to play that game. We just need more people in the pool who want to work.”