By Scott Wright

IT spent the early months of the pandemic fighting to keep its brand name alive. Now Hickory is back operating at full tilt as weddings postponed during lockdown are once more in the diary, and the corporate events market roars back into life.

Stephanie Stubbs, managing director of the Edinburgh-based catering specialist, was busy planning for a bumper programme of events when she spoke to The Herald recently.

After a hugely challenging period for the events sector, Hickory will be running the bars at the Scottish Open golf championship at The Renaissance Club and at Fringe by the Sea in North Berwick this summer, as well as catering to the Borders Book Festival in Melrose.

These events are merely the highlights in a hectic schedule for the company, which is just as busy with private functions now that the bulk of Covid restrictions have eased.

But it wasn’t that long ago that Hickory was forced into an abrupt change of direction. Lockdown hit the company hard and it was forced to move sharply into home deliveries to keep its brand visible as the events sector ground to a halt. It also worked with the local community to provide essential food services.

Staff rotas were juggled to ensure colleagues could continue to be involved, and the furlough scheme was utilised to help the firm mitigate the loss of business. But even that could not prevent the firm from having to make redundancies.

Now, more than two years into the pandemic, Hickory is revving up again. Events are back and the company is running flat out to cater for weddings and functions that were postponed and subsequently rescheduled, so much so that it is recruiting staff again.

Recent hires have taken its headcount to around 80 people, and the firm hopes to double turnover to £4.5 million this year.

“We did have to restructure, which did save the business in the long term, and we are now able to re-look at the team,” Ms Stubbs said, who studied hospitality and tourism at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh.

“We have brought in and attracted some incredible talent, which is supporting us with our growth plans and helping with the strong levels of business. We do have such a fantastic team that are really well recognised in the sector.”

With corporate players once again having event budgets to spend, Ms Stubbs said enquiry levels are currently “unprecedented”.

Hickory works with such prestigious venues as the Assembly Rooms and the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and owns the Eskmills Venue that is based next to its main production facility in Musselburgh.

“I think there is just an opportunity for Hickory in the market at the moment,” Ms Stubbs said. “We are definitely accelerating into the corporate market and outdoor large festival and events business. There is definitely a demand and an opportunity for a premier company like ours [working] with seasonal Scottish producers on both the food and the beverage side. Sustainability messaging is really important to us. A lot of corporate buyers and festival and event organisers are looking to work with local and independently owned [companies]… They do really offer value around sustainability.”

Asked if demand for events is stronger now than it was before the pandemic, Ms Stubbs added: “I would say so. People have been locked down and are looking to fulfil their plans and to celebrate, to take part in events and reconnect with colleagues, families, friends. There is definitely demand for outdoor and sporting events. People are so excited to be able to get back out.”

But even though demand is resurgent, there are other challenges to deal with. The company expected that it would encounter difficulty recruiting staff after Brexit, and put in place measures to boost its reputation as a fair and respectful place to work. That included becoming a Living Wage Employer. Those measures helped, but as Ms Stubbs notes recruitment is an ongoing issue.

“We were really fortunate that we were able to build a steady team, but the events industry is quite difficult and challenging because we have really high peak seasons,” Ms Stubbs said. “[In] June, July and August, the demand is really high and we have to recruit 200 to 300 additional team members for a short space of time. That can be quite challenging because we don’t use agency staff. We recruit and train all of her teams in house.”

Inflation is another big challenge for Hickory, as the cost of food and drink, fuel, and linen-cleaning services continues to soar. In a low-margin sector such as catering, Ms Stubbs admits that such costs are “hard to manage”. The company has had to put price increases through this year, but Ms Stubbs said: “We have tried to keep them really marginal”.

“We are doing our best to manage it where we can,” she added, noting that the company has absorbed the greater element of the cost rises.

Hickory is also dealing with shorter lead times from clients, whom Ms Stubbs said are still wary of Covid and the risks of having to cancel events at the eleventh hour.

“Events organisers are watching [Covid] very closely and having to make quite quick decisions,” she said.

While it is positive to see the corporate business coming back, Ms Stubbs noted that having less time to prepare “does also put pressures on the teams”.

“We would normally have a lot longer to plan, order deliveries and earmark all the equipment we need,” Ms Stubbs added.

Six Questions

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

Skiing in Lake Tahoe California, for the finest powder and most beautiful scenery. Mauritius for absolute escapism, stunning beaches and snorkelling.
When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal? 
I grew up with a very entrepreneurial father and from a young age I enjoyed earning and having my own money, so I worked hard at every job I had. From the age of 13 I worked in cafes and restaurants and learned customer service, negotiation skills, and many more transferable skills. 
What was your biggest break in business? 
The day I met my mentor and now business partner, Susan Ireland. She has been instrumental in my career and development for over the last 15 years. 
What was your worst moment in business?
Allowing myself to be treated badly by a more senior manager. But the positives you take from these experiences guide you to always respect and treat others how you want to be treated. 
Who do you most admire and why?
I’ve been doing a lot of research recently for a project and hugely admire Elsie Maud Ingles – she was of the first women to graduate from the University of Edinburgh. Born in 1864 she was founder of Scottish Women’s Suffrage Federation and Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Oh and I couldn’t not mention how much I admire my mum and all the strong ladies in my family. 
What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? 
I tend to have a few books on the go but I’m most enjoying Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? Every Day Tools for Life’s Up’s and Downs by Dr Julie Smith – it’s got lots of amazing nuggets to help you navigate and manage emotions. 
I have an eclectic taste in music but currently have Foo Fighters on repeat following the sad news about Taylor Hawkins death – one of the all-time greatest bands in my opinion.