Things were grim for Frank Schwarz during the pandemic. Major events cancelled, parties restricted to small numbers, virtually no demand for school catering. A disaster for catering businesses like Schwarz’s. What could he do? Lay staff off, shut the doors and wait for the pandemic to pass? That was one possibility. Or: make a multi-million euro investment in an innovative technology that could make the business more sustainable – in both senses of the word.
Schwarz chose the latter.
‘Finding the silver lining in coronavirus’ or ‘Innovating your way out of the crisis’ – these sound like empty phrases, but that’s exactly what Schwarz has done. He has no doubt that his industry will still be dealing with the impact of coronavirus for a long time to come. ‘2024 at the earliest,’ is when he reckons the catering business will be back to anything like ‘normal’ with regular trade fairs and events on the same scale as before. ‘But a lot of things will change,’ Schwarz believes. He had to come up with a solution to save jobs and ultimately to future-proof his business.
Delicious: salmon that stays fresh for 7 days
The name of this solution is the ‘S-Chefs Culinary System’. It’s Schwarz’s interpretation of ‘Packaging by MChef’, a packaging technology invented by Martin Eilerts . The original idea was for ready-to serve dishes from high-end restaurants – portioned up on china plates – to be covered with a plastic film by a patented machine so that they can be reheated in a high-frequency oven when required. ‘Brilliant technology,’ says Schwarz, who first learned of it at an event 3 years ago. ‘I’ve been itching to offer this to the catering industry ever since.’ When the coronavirus pandemic shut down his business in spring 2020 and he finally had some time on his hands, he contacted MChef. The entrepreneur’s Frank Schwarz Gastro Group (FSGG) is now the first and only licensee in Europe.
But Schwarz’s team and his head chefs Roger Achterrath and Angelo Vocale didn’t just put the technology straight into operation. The staff spent months tinkering, adapting, trying things out. With revolutionary results. The unique process keeps dishes fresh and safe to transport for days or even weeks, which means catering platters can be sent out and used when required. Smoked salmon, for example, stays fresh for at least 12 days. When the film is removed, the fish smells and tastes as if it has only just been prepared. The same is true of canapes, cheese platters and sausages in curry sauce. Or even a complete brunch buffet including dessert.
Less waste, more predictability
This is made possible by an exchange of atmosphere, explains chef Vocale, who completed his training at FSGG and returned to the company after working in Michelin-starred restaurants. ‘The oxygen content under the protective film is reduced to less than 1%,’ he says. As Executive Head, Vocale is responsible for the product and concept development of ‘S-Chefs’. The technology functions differently to the conventional vacuum packing of foods – but precisely how it works is a trade secret. What we are allowed to tell you is that the machine that covers the food with the mystery protective film measures an impressive 9 metres. Equipped with grabbers and conveyor belts, the mighty machine clatters and hisses as 2 plates of meatballs undergo the process. The whole thing takes 15 to 17 seconds, and ends with a jet of air blowing a label onto the ready-wrapped ‘Meatball Parade’. Up to 6,000 catering platters can be wrapped over a 22-hour period – at least in theory, as the business is only just getting started. The next step will be to set up an online shop for the catering dishes on offer, and then things will really get going.
Securely packed for transport, the platters can then set off on their journey to the customer. In comparison to traditional catering, the much longer advance preparation and storage times this process permits offer a number of advantages. For a party planned for a Sunday, for example, all the preparations can be carried out stress-free several days beforehand. Or a pre-school that suddenly needs fewer lunches than planned can simply keep the excess meals and use them the next day. This means less food waste. Schwarz and his team also appreciate other sustainability-related aspects of the process. The reusable plates can withstand at least 100 dishwasher cycles and the single-use plates offered as an alternative are made from 85% recycled plastic. The film used to cover the food contains no palm oil, and there are plans to switch fully to organic film that is also free of microplastics. Here too, months of testing are required before the materials used satisfy all quality and handling standards. Business consultant Özgür Güneş will support Frank Schwarz with the strategic placement of the project.
It is during the testing process that METRO comes into play. Every food reacts differently, which means countless different ingredients have to be tested. FSGG uses the METRO food service distribution , with METRO delivering to the catering company 5 times a week. Customer manager Sven Fydrich is in daily contact with FSGG. Schwarz sources a range of products from METRO, from meat to dairy products and dry goods through to cleaning products. Now, with ‘S-Chefs’, the collaboration has intensified further and the requirements have become even more bespoke. ‘Customer service is paramount,’ Schwarz says. ‘The personal connection to the customer service manager is crucial.’
An investment in the future
The entrepreneur has already invested around €1 million in the ‘S-Chefs’ project. For a catering company to risk such a huge investment during this time of crisis – well, the stakeholders took a lot of convincing, says Schwarz, and laughs. One thing that undoubtedly persuaded them was the obvious enthusiasm Schwarz and his team have for the project. Schwarz, who is trained as a master butcher, is passionate about his job. ‘The hospitality industry is great and allows you to work more freely than any other sector,’ he says. Schwarz can only shake his head when he thinks about the poor image some people have of the industry. ‘This work, in the trades and in hospitality, offers opportunities for everyone.’ His company is a training organisation and also offers employment opportunities for people with disabilities; 6 disabled people currently work for the company and 4 more inclusive jobs are to be added shortly. The hospitality industry is ideal for people from all kinds of backgrounds: ‘People can make something of themselves here.’
Schwarz himself, who was born in 1965, left school at the age of 15 and set up on his own in 1989, urged on by friends and family who believed in his cooking ability. He now employs 85 people at a site covering 2,500 m2 at the Duisburg wholesale centre, and is also a majority shareholder in a Berlin-based premium catering company. Both of his children, a son and a daughter, work with him in the Duisburg business, as does his wife, Christine. In 2020, the family had to put the entire workforce on short-time work; Schwarz topped up the salaries of all employees from his own pocket. Frank Schwarz firmly believes that ideas such as ‘S-Chefs’ are essential if businesses are to survive both during and after the pandemic. And translating these ideas into reality requires perseverance – and a lot of guts.