Profile: catering tycoon Alan Payne

"Everyone assumes I can cook, I can't, not at all," and that's a bold statement from the former owner of one of the country's largest small outdoor catering companies.

Alan Payne ran the prestigious Payne and Gunter caterers for 35 years, taking over the family business from his father and grandmother before him.

Now, as he enjoys his retirement in Richmond, he is reliving the trials and tribulations of an illustrious career as he writes his first book. And that means meeting old friends down the pub for a couple of pints.

Payne caterers began life as a coffee bar in Shepherds Bush under the guidance of Alan's grandmother. When the bar was bombed during World War II, the family were forced to move the business to a bigger restaurant and from there Guss Payne, Alan's father, set up an outdoor catering company.

Alan was under no illusions that he was to join the Payne catering business straight from school in 1961.

With no formal training he learnt the skills of the trade travelling the country catering for golf tournaments and agricultural shows.

In 1967 he married Judy and they moved to Mortlake where they began a family, before moving to East Sheen in 1974. Their children are Emma, 33, and Richard, 35.

By the 1970s Alan had taken over as managing director of Payne Catering and when his father passed away in 1978 the company had started one of its biggest operations hospitality at the Henley regatta.

"It was a classic case of going against conventional wisdom," explained Alan. "Everyone told me no-one was interested in rowing and I thought - great reason to have hospitality."

Alan was soon joined by John Coomb, who, with his city banqueting experience, helped the company turn its hand to catering Corporation of London events.

At the same time May Fair catering came up for sale, a company which included the renowned Gunter caterers.

"We took them over, mainly for a wonderful range of silver equipment and the very old Gunter name," said Alan. "We changed the name of our company to Payne and Gunter and did a lot of research about the Gunter's history. We discovered they had royal warrants from George IV through to George V and Napoleon III. Having done the research, we held a series of banquets with dishes they had done for each of the monarchs to commend Gunter's bi-centenary in 1986."

The banquets were successful and provided the opportunity for stately homes like Syon and Ham House to be opened for the purpose they were built entertaining.

But at the same time Payne and Gunter were developing their outdoor catering side.

"We were asked to take on the catering at the RFU at Twickenham," said Alan. "The main reason was that the previous caterers had problems serving the amount of beer they had to, given the rather rickety state of the facilities at Twickenham. When I was on holiday in Canada I had seen a machine which could pre-pour a vast quantity of drink with a polythene wrap on the top. Using one of these we were able to increase the sales from 12,000 beers to 50,000 a match."

Payne and Gunter also increased the number of meals served at the stadium from 500 to 8,000 by the time Alan sold the business in 1996.

But with no more than 20 full time staff, things didn't always run smoothly.

"We took on a lot of temporary staff wherever we went, which was sometimes quite hazardous," explained Alan.

And although he claims there was never a time when people didn't get their food, it did come close.

"At one of our first varsity matches John was running the whole day. We had staff coming from all over the country. One team was coming from Birmingham and that morning at 4am I got a phone call saying There's thick snow here, should I still come?' I looked out the window and it was covered."

Alan ended up at the stadium offering free pints to the stewards who required food and asking them to return their plates before receiving the next course he was working with just one chef and one waitress.

And even the most prestigious events don't always run smoothly. Payne and Gunter were asked to cater the banquet to mark the 40th anniversary of the Queen's accession. The event was held the Tuesday after the Windsor Castle fire and the Queen had a cold.

"Timing was crucial and we were told during the reception that Her Majesty was not well and she was going to make her speech before lunch, not after," explained Alan. "We were asked to put the food on the back burner for half an hour. It was not easy."

But the Queen has not always caused such problems for Alan. At one of his earliest banquets at Hampton Court Palace, when there were no catering facilities, she was guest of honour.

"I was introduced to the Queen. She said: I cannot remember ever having eaten here before, what are the facilities like?' I said: A challenge Ma'am.' She smiled and replied: We will soon see if you are up to it, won't we.'"

Despite the challenges Alan was passionate about catering. "Every event we worked was a special occasion for someone, that's why we were there. We are there for the climax of events; they have been building up to it all year."

But there was always time to make sure things were just right. A normal week saw at least four events, which meant two or three tasting lunches with clients.

For Alan the most enjoyable part of his career was the Henley banquets, set up to pull together every aspect of the business and sell it to prospective clients. "We were bringing together outside and city events in a very sophisticated way, which also involved the Gunter history," he said.

Alan was not only involved in event catering. When Twickenham was rebuilt he had a say in, and part funded, the catering facilities and his input was duly recognised.

"I was showing a group of people round Twickenham after the west stand had been completed," he said, "when I was introduced by the secretary of the RFU, Tony Hallet. He described me as the oil that makes the RFU work."

Payne and Gunter was sold to the Compass Group UK in 1996, when Alan decided the business was too big to be little and too little to be big. At the time its turnover was £23 to £24 million, while its nearest smaller rivals were making five to six million.

But Compass kept the Payne and Gunter name, and it is now part of one of the biggest catering companies in the world.

Although enjoying his retirement, Alan remains a businessman as the director and chairman of two companies. One will soon be launching a new fast food on the world called Dog House selling the English hotdog.

A Richmond town centre resident since 1997, Alan has developed an affinity with the river.

"I walk by the river everyday and bird watch," he said.

"But when we lived in Sheen my favourite thing was Richmond Park. I walked there everyday, that is my only regret about moving to Richmond."

Alan is clearly proud of his catering achievements. A lifetime worth of memories are being recalled for his book inspired by friends and the banquet menus marking special occasions which adorn his walls.

But as I left Alan to return to his typewriter, he hints towards the secrets of his success: "Hospitality is making people feel at home when you wish they were.

"The emblem of the caterer is the swan, gliding serenely on the water and paddling furiously underneath."

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