Robyn Jones: How I took the canteen business upmarket

When Robyn Jones, founder of catering firm CH&Co, was made redundant 20 years ago, she turned her bad luck into a fortune. Here's how she did it.

When catering graduate Robyn Jones was made redundant in 1991, she was "devastated". She had joined the catering arm of construction firm Higgs and Hill in 1989, aged 28. But her move coincided with the start of the recession. Two years later, the catering unit was shut down as the firm moved to cut costs. She arranged several interviews for new jobs, but the role she wanted "to head up a catering firm" wasn't on offer. That's when she decided to go it alone.

She sat down with her husband, Tim, and drew up a business plan. The idea was to target blue-chip firms and offer to run their staff canteens. She used her redundancy cheque to buy a car and computer and set up an office in their spare bedroom. Meanwhile, her husband's wage was enough to pay the mortgage on their house while the new business, which she called Charlton House, got going. She began cold-calling firms, but it took her weeks even to get an appointment. "I had no track record and no referrals, the only thing I could sell myself on was my experience."

She decided to concentrate on charities, where competition would be less fierce. After six months she won her first contract, to supply food for Guide Dogs for the Blind. This meant she had to hire staff: "I had to learn how to handle pay, tax and invoices." Jones also tried to differentiate her service by emphasising quality. She insisted on the term "staff restaurant" rather than canteen, in a bid to change her workers' and customers' attitudes. Jones's next contract was with a museum. By the end of the first year Charlton House was generating sales of £330,000 and employed 16 people.

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However, Jones sensed an opportunity to expand when Sony built a British headquarters next to the museum she already catered for in 1994. "It was a chance for me to prove that I could supply large multinationals." But when she rang Sony, she realised she wasn't the only one to have had the idea. "They'd been featured in The Sunday Times and had been inundated with calls from suppliers. I was told that they would contact me if they needed anything."

She gave up and concentrated on winning other businesses, but to her surprise received a call from Sony months later. "By coincidence they had been eating out at the museum and liked the food so much they wanted us to supply their new office." The contract helped push sales past the £1m mark and made it easier for Jones to sell to other blue-chip firms. Boosted by a strong economy, from the mid 1990s Charlton House began adding new corporate clients.

Jones took on new staff, including her husband, who officially joined the firm in 2000. She also began to target upmarket venues, such as lawyers' dining halls. In 2007 Charlton House bought Chester Boyd, a specialist caterer for London's exclusive Livery Halls. Her attempts to start an Irish catering firm were less successful: "It's hard to manage an Irish business when you're in England".

Jones, now 50, renamed the firm CH&Co in 2010. Group sales are £75m and the firm employs more than 2,000 people. That shock redundancy 20 years ago now seems like a blessing.

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.