Melissa Blease meets Gary Fisher, director of Strawberry Field Catering
What have Mercedes Benz, Nicholas Wylde jewellers, Buro Happold architects, Savills estate agents, the Law Society and newlyweds Mr and Mrs Loved-Up of Combe Hay all got in common? Impeccable taste, that’s what. For they’re all on the long, illustrious list of companies, organisations and individuals who have put their request for special event sustenance in the safe hands of Strawberry Field Catering, a Bath-based company established back in 1985.
In the following three decades the company has continued to build its reputation for providing high quality, memorable food, offering outside catering or hosting at one of several characterful venues in and around Bath.
But according to the company’s director Gary Fisher, the secret behind the success of one of Bath’s longest-established food businesses comes down to one thing: “If a customer is good enough to entrust Strawberry Field Catering with their event, we can be totally relied upon to give them our very best service,” he says, in a refreshingly modest manner for a chap at the helm of a foodie empire. But then again, it has to be said that Gary was hardly handed the business on a plate – he’s all too au fait with the hard work needed to build such a solid business, as he’s been with the company from grass roots level pretty much since the beds were first planted. So how did this fruity feast of a garden grow?
“A lovely lady called Belinda Winchurch started the business towards the end of the 1980s, from what was then her home on Lyncombe Hill,” says Gary. “Belinda took me on as head chef in May 1988. I became a partner in the company in the summer of the following year, then Belinda moved on to pastures new in early 1990. My parents had great faith in what I was doing with the business, and helped me move the company forward with a loan.
“Our big break came in 1996 when we were given the catering contract at Priston Mill. It was a initially a 12-month contract that we maintained for the following ten years. During that time, the wedding industry changed dramatically; we went from catering for 23 weddings in the first year to hosting and catering for 200 weddings by 2006.
“In 2007, my wife and fellow director Deborah and I bought the Pride of Bath river boat, moored at North Parade Bridge. After an 18-month, £250,000 refurbishment we relaunched her as the Penny Lane. She’s a fabulous boat, and a credit to Deborah (and Kev and Andrea Bassett) who look after her so well.”
Today, Strawberry Field continues to cater for trips and get-togethers on the Penny Lane, sailing between Pulteney Weir and Saltford Marina. It also maintain a long-standing contract with Sophie and Julian Janes at Wick Farm in Farleigh Hungerford and other contract venue collaborations including Kingscote Tythe Barn near Tetbury, Bath Pavilion, Brunel Old Station at Temple Meads and Almonry Barn, near Langport.
How does Gary select which venues to work with? “The collaboration only works if the venue and the caterer – us – can create a realistic business plan, respect each other’s point of view and deliver the right product. There are multiple challenges to consider, the Penny Lane, for example, has a big problem when the river flows fast – getting rid of big trees that have jammed under the pontoon is an extremely arduous task. Aside from venue maintenance, there’s the happiness of our all-important team to consider, and we need to keep a keen eye on suppliers’ prices and consistence in the produce we require. All caterers will come across some pretty stressful challenges from time to time, but with our level of experience, we expect to resolve whatever the problem may be.”
These days, its probably more important than ever before for food businesses to keep ahead of the curve, offering novel twists and turns to their existing array of services. To this end, Strawberry Field has recently launched its Food Drawer concept, a mini food box with the option to have either two or three drawers full of goodies. It’s ideal as either a sharing gift or as a treat for a friend or a corporate client (logos can be incorporated on the recyclable packaging). The drawers can be filled with either one, two or three courses, and tipples are optional.
“We now offer circular maple boards that can be used for all kinds of antipasti and tapas dishes – sharing is now much more popular than, say, hog roasts once were…”
“What the general public expect nowadays compared to 30 years ago is of an extremely higher, more labour-intensive standard than ever – we all have access to far better restaurants than we had back when Strawberry Field started, and now we all wish to replicate the same qualities and flair that we see on the food pages of magazines or on cookery TV shows. We have to move with the times.
“The biggest trend in wedding catering over the past three years has been the massive rise in the popularity of sharing courses. We now offer circular maple boards that can be used for all kinds of antipasti and tapas dishes – sharing is now much more popular than, say, hog roasts once were. They’ve had their day now, so instead of hog roasts, we offer fabulous marinated/rubbed pork joints which deliver a vastly better, consistently tasty celebratory feast. And people are genuinely more interested in the provenance of food than they used to be too, so we use locally-sourced produce as much as we can – we’ve relied on Terry and Son Butchers in Bath and Cirencester-based M&J Seafoods for 30 years, our eggs are from Paxcroft Farm in Hilperton, and our fruit and vegetables from Eurofresh, based in Shepton Mallet.”
So when he’s not busy catering for others, where does Gary prefer to be catered to? Unsurprisingly, his foodie credentials go back as far as the start of his business does. “I’ve enjoyed Rick Stein’s philosophy on cooking since he very first started out, but going back even further than that, I always believed Anton Edelmann during his stint at The Dorchester was a total craftsman. Back in Bath, I’ve eaten wherever Dan Moon has cheffed in the last ten years. He’s a great local food hero who will surely be a long term success in the Gainsborough Hotel. And I really enjoy Clayton’s Kitchen in George Street, because it offers a great range of dishes that won’t break the bank, at lunchtime in particular.”
When making decisions as to where to eat in Bath, we are spoiled for choice. But when it comes to having a company cater specifically for our needs, Strawberry Fields Catering is pretty much the cream of the crop. “We hope to continue doing what we do in Bath for a long time into the future,” says Gary. Altogether now, let’s sing: “Strawberry Field forever.”
Strawberry Field Catering, The Old Bakery, Jews Lane, Bath BA2 3DG. Tel: 01225 339394;