Love Shack: The mobile Wallasey entrepreneur snacking into Wirral’s catering industry
Robert Leatherbarrow’s the last person we see when we walk into New Brighton’s Master Mariner.
We feel daft. He’s sat directly in front of us and we couldn’t have missed him. He’s a good 10-foot taller than us and would have made an effective windbreak on the coast road. Even with it closed, the Wirral Way mini got heavily covered in spray from a raging River Mersey on the way here.
We instantly enjoy the 28-year-old’s company, though. Rob’s polite, enthusiastic, and desperate to get his young mobile catering business, Robert’s Snack Shack, off the ground.
“What I’m trying to do is build a professional catering company that’s reputable and competitive,” Rob tells us.
“The hospitality industry’s really competitive with lots of pubs and restaurants, but it benefits us being mobile. We’ve had some repeat business; we can turn up, host an event for a few hours, clean up and leave so there’s little hassle for people.
“We hire the van. We have four marquees which was a key investment for the business. Two sets of fryers, a range of grills, fridges and freezers, tables… Everything that needs to be in a professional kitchen we’ve got it.
“You can talk about business plans but the main aspect all the time has to be meeting people’s expectations. We use a quality butchers on the Wirral – Beresford’s in Wallasey – and the produce is brilliant.
“We hope in two years’ time to have a food van to deal with the weather. Marquees help with the weather. We still managed to turn a profit last winter but it was tough with the weather.”
“I want to be able to offer drinks packages for customers too; maybe offer a competitive drinks service for weddings. I’ve got a personal licence and can get a temporary events licence. Maybe get a horsebox and serve Prosecco from it. We can pop up anywhere, we’re self-sufficient.”
The generation game
We’ve already picked up on a couple of things with Rob in our first few minutes. First are the marquees which are the perfect way to complement Rob’s food and outdoor service, but the other is that he’s had the sense to begin renting a van instead of ploughing thousands into buying one.
A small but clever move that highlights Rob’s business sense. It’s decisions like that that make us think Rob’s onto something with the Snack Shack, and it’s interesting to hear his motivations on starting up, especially when the Guardian’s busy throwing data into the Baby Boomers Vs. Millennials argument.
“I used to work for Greene King when I was younger. I learnt a lot there and used to work in a local pub called The Lighthouse (in Wallasey) and had time at the Ring O’ Bells in West Kirby. Between 18-24 I learnt the basics and fundamentals of the hospitality environment.
“I then came out of pubs and went to study events management at the City of Liverpool College. I found it very useful and got some good contacts from it, and adapted the information to the skills I’ve already got.
“Maybe it wasn’t the best idea coming out of the pub sector when I was 24 and doing something else, because trying to get back into work was a nightmare. After a few months of sending CVs to places I had enough. I didn’t want to chase it anymore, and I started to power through with this idea.
“Maybe we’re a bit delusional and want a comfortable life that’s not there. We can’t get it. It took the best part of eight years getting to a decent salary working for Greene King, and I want to do it myself now. As well as my skill set I’m out there speaking to venues, speaking to customers, and building the business’s profile. The rewards already feel sweeter.”
We can feel Rob’s pain from personal experience. (Not from working at Greene King, but in a generational sense.) He can barely contain his drive and enthusiasm, and has already delivered large-scale events for Claire House, National Trust, Food Lovers North West, and more.
He’s winning fans for his original dishes such as his eight-inch 100 per cent pork shoulder sausage topped with BBQ pulled pork, his crispy red salt seasoned fries, buttered onions, and more. Combined with his marquees, equipment, and friendly nature he’s in a good position to compete against a crowded Wirral catering market.
“We can do weddings and large public events as well. We did an event for Claire House a while back; we’ve got a few other events in the pipeline including one in a few weeks by Aintree race course for the Grand National.
“It’s something I wanted to carry out and develop myself, and I think I’ve found a good concept. There are challenges when starting out but being mobile helps a lot. The amount of overheads for a large public event can be staggering, so we can help with that.
“Now we’re focusing on catering for a range of events and events management planning. I take it really seriously; we just don’t turn up and plonk loads of things in, our events are all carefully planned with the customer. We’ve been all over the North West and even as far as Birmingham and Stoke.
“We had a 12-18 month plan put down but have surpassed those objectives within a couple of months. Over the next year I’m looking to invest more money from the jobs we’re doing now to purchase more equipment, employ team members, and more.
“I’m doing a lot of it on my own but family members help, and I employ help from freelancers for the customer-facing side of the events. People who can help and serve the guests while I’m behind the scenes putting the food out.”
Snack to basics
It’s a world away from working in pub kitchens and one thing that Rob mentions, possibly without him realising it, is that he’s determined to prove people wrong and show that he can do it after they told him he can’t.
“I did two years as a chef in the pub sector, and a lot of chefs look down their nose and say that’s not cooking. It was good to learn the fundamentals, and I’ve worked in higher-end establishments over the last few years on a part-time basis which has given me the confidence to push on with the Shack.
“I can deliver and compete with the competition. We can do the hog roast scenario with the spit and cook it on-site, or we can drill the concept down to where it’s pre-cooked and prepared and serve it at the event.
“A lot of people like the theatre of it all, but the Shack can offer it at a more competitive price the other way, too. Price is the key thing, we offer great food and convenience, and can serve 100 guests in two hours.”
We mention our recent chat with Kate Verdin-Walsh of Hoylake’s Vanilla Lounge; there’s a generational issue here that we feel keeps cropping up.
People above the age of 30 don’t appear to want to go out much anymore. Possibly still because of the after-effects of the recession, or maybe they’re just settling down. Rob’s noticed it too, and thinks it’s the perfect market for the Snack Shack to appeal to.
“I see a market where people want events in their own house, where we turn up with the equipment and do it all for them. I think people are looking to stay in and have house parties. Looking over the past 10 years I think there’s a financial element, too.
“Hoylake 10 years ago was a different kettle of fish, it was thriving. People are still feeling it from the recession. I don’t think that mentality will move for a generation.
“I think people are thinking more that if they have £1,000 for an event, they’ll want to do it in the best possible way for the best possible price. That can include staying at home to save, I think that’s what it’s coming down to. It’s also a lot easier for people to have an event that way.”
We think he’s hit on something there and is well placed to cater for that market. We also steal his horsebox/Prosecco idea (we’re sure there’s an old busted one around Church Farm way somewhere) and set ourselves up for a liquid lunch.