Spicing it up with Peter Hickson

15/04/2009 - 22:00


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Peter Hickson has catered to all types of people in his 40 years in the industry.

Spicing it up with Peter Hickson

FROM humble beginnings flipping burgers and deep-frying chips inside a shiny red caravan, to entertaining the Queen and Prince Philip at Government House, Perth caterer Peter Hickson has cooked his way to the top of the industry.

In March 1971, Mr Hickson oiled up the hotplate inside his Kwik Snax van for the first time, providing hamburgers, hotdogs, hot chips and other fast foods for a boisterous WAFL crowd at East Perth Oval.

Now, almost four decades later, Mr Hickson is the owner and managing director of Spices Catering, a superpower in Western Australia's catering industry which provides food and facilities for more than 3,500 events and feeds over 1.5 million hungry mouths each year.

Last week, Mr Hickson became the first caterer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Restaurant and Caterers Industry Awards.

"It's a great honour, I think there are 13 people in there and I'm the first caterer who has been inducted," Mr Hickson says.

"To be recognised as being able to keep the business profitable, to make a lot of our employees wealthy, and to have great friends, for a group of your peers to say 'hey you're doing a good job', those things are quite rewarding."

Mr Hickson says one reason for Spices' success is the division of the company into separate entities.

"We have competitors for our fast food business, there are competitors for our venue business and then there are competitors for our wedding business but they're all different groups of people," Mr Hickson told WA Business News.

"There's not one main competitor for our whole business."

A faded, yellowing photograph of the original red van still hangs in Mr Hickson's office, a dusty reminder of his start in the industry.

"I went into the catering business at 21," he says. "My father mentored me for a number of years until I went into opposition with him, but it was a friendly opposition.

"That's where it started."

The business quickly took off, with Mr Hickson securing contracts at the Perth Royal Show in 1972 and Barbagallo Raceway in 1973, while maintaining a foothold at most of Perth's suburban football grounds.

He was soon able to branch out of the fast food market, and establish Spices Catering as a leader in corporate entertainment and function organisation.

"It evolved, it just evolved," Mr Hickson says.

"If you do fast food catering then people want you to do corporate catering, if you do corporate catering they want you to do function catering.

"If you take [Gloucester Park], it has a range of liquor, fast food, restaurants, members' restaurants, committee rooms and then because it's empty five days a week, it has the rooms to do weddings, functions, and those sorts of things.

"So it was a natural evolution to go from at-venue catering to use the facilities to do functions."

Mr Hickson's fast food vision has transformed into a mobile food service industry all of its own, a division under the Spices umbrella known as Snax Catering.

If it's a mobile food van in Perth, it's likely to be run by Snax, with the Harvey Beef burger van, Chicken Treat mobile catering vans, Kebabs/Wraps to Go vans and Bean A Round coffee vans among the stable mates.

Over the years, Mr Hickson has seen many companies try to break into the catering and functions arena, without the success he's enjoyed at the helm of Spices.

"There are very few catering companies that are WA owned that have survived over the period of time," he says.

"You have to be passionate about making sure the food is fantastic and that it's profitable.

"There are people who are excellent at fantastic food and there are people who are excellent in profit, but neither of those things by itself works.

"So we're not trying to be a person that does five different sorts of industries; we pick a person for that part of the business and he stays in that part of the business.

"I employ the people who are passionate about the food and passionate about the profit, and work them together.

"That's the secret, you can't do it yourself."

Mr Hickson's other strategy is to reward his staff handsomely for their efforts.

Those working at Spices not only gain an opportunity to manage their own ingredient in the Spices soup, but also take home a healthy chunk of the profits.

"If you work for us you run your own business under our structure, under our quality guidelines and under our financial guidelines," Mr Hickson says.

"Every senior staff member, the ones who have been here 37 years, 25 years, that sort of thing, the majority of their income, probably 75 per cent, comes from profit share.

"We give you a business model that we know is successful to run a business, and usually people are very happy with that.

"That's why people have stayed so long."

At 59, Mr Hickson shows no signs of slowing down, while the Spices brand continues to grow, most notably with the 2005 acquisition of the Mulberry on Swan reception centre in the Swan Valley.

Plans are in place for a $14 million redevelopment at Mulberry on Swan, incorporating the famed Peter Briggs Motoring Museum and providing all new function facilities.

Mr Hickson has welcomed daughter Melina on board to manage the site, making Spices Catering a third generation, truly Western Australian family firm.


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