The pick of the bunch

Focusing on quality local produce, contemporary and relaxed environments, and enthusiastic employees, Hand Picked Hotels is taking its already amazing food and beverage offering to the next level of excellence

It has been some eight years since Hand Picked Hotels (Hand Picked) last featured within the pages of FoodChain, and needless to say a lot has happened in the time since for this award-winning group of 19 country house hotels and spa resorts located throughout the UK and the Channel Islands. Privately owned, the business prides itself on offering a quality four-star product, differentiated by bespoke service, with 15 of its hotels holding a minimum of two AA Rosettes and a group-wide wine list consisting of over 100 variations to suit all tastes.

As its portfolio of properties has steadily increased over the years, new people have come into the business who are helping to shape its future. One individual brought into Hand Picked in early 2018 was Graeme Nesbitt, the group’s Director of Food & Beverage. Taking on a newly created role within the senior management team, Graeme not only provides strategic leadership – supported by some 25 years’ experience within the hospitality industry – but is also tasked with overseeing all food and beverage operations across the group. This entails the introduction of new menus, working with local suppliers, and driving its quality, service and training programmes. “For Hand Picked, food and beverage has always been a huge point of focus and a very buoyant revenue stream, and the opportunity to join such a fantastic collection of hotels with a great existing offering was one that was too good to refuse,” Graeme begins.

The food and beverage market, as Graeme is well aware, has undergone something of a sea change in recent years, typified in part by the explosive rise in gastro pubs and independent high street restaurants, which has resulted in renewed levels of competition in villages, towns and cities throughout the country. In the face of this came the realisation that Hand Picked had the opportunity to analyse its own offerings to see what worked, where the opportunities rested and how it could remain on trend with its customers. This is where Graeme comes in.

“My first task was to go around the various hotels to gain an understanding of their respective market mix,” he details. “What became immediately clear was that, with such a varied portfolio of properties with very different market segmentation, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach would not work. With the green light from the Board of Directors, I went into each hotel to really get under their skins to see what opportunities there were for improvement, and how we could better capture the public’s desire for a more relaxing dining experience in a comfortable, welcoming environment.”

Rewarding workshops
This review led to a revisit of the group’s restaurant menu offerings. “We made the decision to move away from the more traditional à la carte offering, instead implementing price points for any guest dining with us so as to not restrict their choices and allow them to select what they want, where they want, when they want,” Graeme continues. “In developing our offering, we gather genuine guest feedback, whether it be from first time visitors or long-term loyal clients, utilise the latest technology to monitor the popularity of certain dishes, and emphasise to our chefs the need to focus on great core ingredients that are available on their doorsteps. If you look at the food and beverage industry in the UK, we have some phenomenal produce at our fingertips, which means we can be proud to shout about provenance, quality and local expertise. We also endeavour to ensure that our menus not only ooze with seasonality, but remain relevant when it comes to the latest trends.”

As anyone active within the food and beverage sector will tell you, it is very much a people industry, and a key part of Graeme’s remit has been to support the development of Hand Picked’s employees. “Invest in your people and profit will follow, that is what we know to be true and why we place so much focus on training and bettering our staff,” he reveals. “One of the things that we have done is introduce a number of food and beverage workshops, which have proven to be very rewarding. One recent example brought together all of the group’s sous-chefs – who are our next generation of head chefs – to discuss menu development, creativity, the challenges they face and what we expect of them as future leaders. In the coming months, we will also be hosting a bar workshop in May 2019, as well as two events in June 2019 that will see our head chefs and food and beverage managers share their thoughts and ideas about how we can work smarter, and put more measurable, tangible objectives in place to drive our offering forward.

“At the same time, when it comes to our younger employees coming into and through the business, we are exploring different avenues and connecting with them through technology as we change the way we approach training. We have a great learning tool called Owl, and are experimenting with things like short burst videos, which means that we can engage with our staff through their smart phones or tablets. I, for one, believe that the days of having 1000-page training manuals sitting on shelves gathering dust are numbered, and that has prompted Hand Picked to become more creative in the way we encourage the growth of our new generation of employees.”

Talent pipeline
Graeme and the team’s efforts continue a strong track record when it comes to employee development. For instance, the business set up its Hand Picked Chefs’ Academy in 2011 – in partnership with HIT Training – as part of its strategy to address the skills gap within its kitchen brigades. The aim to this day remains to give chefs the skills they require, inspire them to achieve career longevity and to encourage the promotion of chef careers with the Hand Picked business. Running alongside the Chefs’ Academy is a new Leaders of the Future Academy, also curated with HIT Training. This provides those working at Hand Picked with the tools, expertise and training to progress in their career towards deputy level positions. Today, there are 29 apprentices across the business’ portfolio enrolled on the Leaders of the Future Academy striving to complete their Level Three Supervisory Management Apprenticeship.

Speaking with Graeme at the turn of April, he and the rest of the group were preparing for the onset of the busy summer period. While he currently finds himself leading a push to increase local awareness of the group’s hotel offerings, he still has an eye fixed on the future strategy for Hand Picked’s food and beverage functions. “On the restaurant side of the business we will continue to look at how we can remain contemporary, while still delivering the phenomenal service that make our locations so special,” he says. “Meanwhile, we will also be looking at ways that we can better push our more structured offerings such as hosting meetings, events, private dining and weddings.

“Overlooking all of this will be our ongoing focus on investing in and training our people. In the face of increasing market competition, we want to go on making sure that each and every member of the Hand Picked team feels truly valued, and ultimately I believe this will help in making the group a market leader in attracting and retaining a talent pipeline that will continue to serve all of our fantastic properties for many years to come.”