Winner of the SLC Awards Caterer of the Year, Amadeus has posted the strongest trading results in the company’s history.

The catering arm of the NEC Group, Amadeus has delivered an impressive year of growth with a 20% increase in revenue from 2015/16 and 44% growth in EBITDA.
Within the group, the famous National Exhibition Centre (NEC) has seen F&B EBITDA grow by nearly a third (29%).

Under award-winning executive chef Neil Ashton and Amadeus general manager at the NEC Paul Bate, the NEC has hosted a brand-new foodservice concept that has arguably been key to the success of the caterer – The Edge.

No, not the guitarist from U2, but a dining outlet that has a four-pronged offer for hungry visitors, organisers and exhibitors to get their teeth into.

Replacing a bar and dated self-service restaurants, The Edge is currently available in seven of the NEC’s 20 flexible halls, with a further roll-out planned in 2018 due to its success of delivering 15% growth in spend per transaction.

Named after its position at the periphery of the exhibition halls, the concept was developed in a bid to transform the in-hall catering offer available at exhibitions, which see some 2.3 million people walk through its doors annually.

“The NEC hosts over 500 events every year – each and every one of these attracts a different visitor profile,” explains Bate. “One of our major challenges was working to create an in-hall catering solution that would be popular with a wide range of audiences and demographics.
“From an organiser point of view, they want to retain all the visitors in the show for as long as possible. The exhibitors have paid for that space, and to have interactivity with those visitors in that space, they don’t want them leaving to go out to the public areas for food.”

The Edge is made up of four concepts, including an Italian restaurant known as EvViva; a grab-and-go deli known as Made; The Oak Kitchen, serving British classics; and the man vs. food-themed Butcher and Grill.

The team researched current catering trends and collated visitor feedback on food preferences to help inspire the new customer-driven concept.
“We spoke to customers, organisers and exhibitors and the same answers kept coming up,” says Bate.
“Like the exhibitors wanted to get served quickly because they needed to get back to the stand, while the visitors wanted more seats.
“We also knew that while this site used to be a bar, 50% of our shows here are to the trade so it can be very low on alcohol sales.
“So we increased the seats by 30%, so straight away we got more people staying in there, and we increased the tills by 50%, making it much easier to serve people quickly.
“As a result we have increased average spend by 15% and people are spending more money on our food. Our food sales used to be 16% of our total sales, but that has increased to 34%. It has been very successful in terms of boosting revenue.”

Having looked into the top-selling genres of food, Amadeus spent some £3.5m on renovating the amenities, completely redesigning the venues to aid customer flow and wayfinding while also maximising speed of service. And so The Edge was created.

With their own decoration and branding, each of the four concepts is very different. While EvViva asks customers to place their order before heading off to sit down with a mixed counter and table service, Made is a pure grab-and-go option for those in a hurry.

This flexibility appeals to the different users of the NEC. From exhibitors who need quick service to get back to their stands, to traders who may want to have a full sit-down meal with a client, to a customer who wants to take a break, relax and enjoy some hearty food and drink.

Made, which has the tag line of ‘handcrafted café’, does exactly that, offering handmade grab-and-go snacks created on-site at the central production kitchen.
From deli sandwiches such as honey roast ham, wholegrain mustard and plum tomato on tomato ciabatta, to smoked Applewood cheese with rhubarb and apple chutney on organic white baguette with rocket and red onion – each is made fresh and delivered to The Edge in the morning. Salads offer a changing seasonal option, while the menu also includes sushi, cakes and barista coffee.

The Oak Kitchen offers classic hearty British food from the Full Works Breakfast with Cumberland sausage, fried free-range egg, grilled flat mushroom, grilled tomatoes, hash browns and beans through to main courses such as ale-battered cod, British potato fries with Maldon sea salt and malt vinegar served with crushed minted peas, homemade tartare sauce and fresh lemon.

There is bubble and squeak with toad in the hole, steak and ale pie with vegetables and gravy, or marinated grilled minute steak sandwich on buttered bloomer.
The Butcher and Grill offers a man vs. food-style menu with customisable burgers on offer alongside 28-day-aged 8oz steak alongside slow-cooked rack of pork ribs coated in sticky cola-infused BBQ sauce, and half a roast chicken glazed in a sauce of your choice.

Salads based with lamb koftas and Lebanese couscous or griddled halloumi and avocado make up a menu for both the super-hungry and the super-choosy.
“All of our concepts have some sort of ‘create your own’ aspect,” explains Ashton.
“It is all about being bespoke to each customer, and they can choose what they really want from all these combinations. It helps us with upselling, too, as you can give people the choice to add things on.”

The Butcher and Grill offers three types of burgers – flame-grilled 80z beef burger, southern-style coated breast of chicken or griddled halloumi with field mushroom and sweet chill bean – in a brioche bun. Customers can then choose their style of filling from The Classic with lettuce beefeater tomato Edge mayo and gherkin relish, through to The Mexicana with spiced avocado and Mexicana cheese, or The Beast with BBQ pulled pork, grilled streaky bacon, smoked cheddar and sweetcorn and bacon relish.

Arguably the jewel of the crown is EvViva – an Italian restaurant complete with blue and white tile design, open kitchen and style.

The menus offer a range of freshly made pizzas including margherita, napoletana, formaggio, piccante and pollo as well as two types of calzone, skewers of king prawns or halloumi served with a Caesar or superfood salad, an antipasti sharing platter all topped off with two styles of freshly made pasta – polpette arrabiata and tagliatelle funghi.

“We have a pizza oven in there making everything to order,” says Ashton. “And the two pastas are cooked fresh. It’s nice because the customers can see through the kitchen to see the chargrill and the pizza oven.
“People want to know more about their food and the theatre style allows them to see it being prepared.
“As a customer, when something is served to you through a hatch, there is always a bit of hesitation or question hanging over it.”

But does this add to service time?
“At peak times, there might be a little wait, but if you can see your food being cooked from scratch, then surely it is worth that wait,” says Ashton.
“As much as we need our chefs to cook quicker in this environment, we ask them to cook to the standard and to the spec. There is no point in chefs cooking to the queue and rushing stuff out.”

Designing the menu for each concept was no simple task, and Ashton was keen that his team of senior chefs were fully involved in creating the dish options.
“We had all senior head chefs working on the concepts within The Edge,” says Ashton, and we consulted them on the design of each item. For example, we brought in 15 different burgers, 12 buns and 10 dressings to work out which was the best of each and start to play with combinations.

“Then we brought down the executive team and presented them with three ideas to see which one they preferred – and the decision was made.

“By involving and asking the chefs to write the menu, rather than it be dictated to them, they take a bit more ownership of it.

“For example, one chef came up with the calzone which we have on the menus and he also added the chocolate pizza option on to the desserts, so it’s great to have everyone’s ideas coming in.”
There is a flexibility about The Edge concept, with EvViva sitting opposite the Butcher and Grill in one set of exhibition halls, but this interchangeable concept also sits opposite The Oak Kitchen in another set of halls.
However, the team have had to be a bit more rigid with the food on the menu, with a focus on seasonal options in the Made concept rather than the
other brands.

“We now have a core offer of what most people want to eat most of the time,” explains Ashton. “So if it is proving popular there is not too much need to tweak it.
“We do have an annual review to see what is selling and not selling. For example, we had blade of beef on when we first opened, which wasn’t popular, so we switched it for a steak sandwich, which is really holding its own.
“We have tried to keep a core menu that fits all year round and fits our core audiences.
“Previously we have changed the menu depending on the show profile (of customers). But we found we had too many lines and too much stock and it was getting complicated.”

Bate adds: “We are fortunate that we don’t suffer too much from menu fatigue because visitors only tend to come to us up to three times a year.
“The biggest group that might suffer from menu fatigue is the exhibitors, as they can be here for five days sometimes, but with the breadth of the menu across the concepts now we have pretty much quadrupled the offer.”

In fact, there are more than 20 main courses across The Edge’s concepts, showing just how much choice there is for customers using the NEC.

Bate continues: “With the development of The Edge we have raised the bar for exhibition catering across the industry – instead of having a limited range of products to choose from, visitors are now greeted with four fantastic catering concepts with distinctive brand identities that wouldn’t look out of place on today’s high street.”