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  • Charlie McVeigh

I Got Culture-Slammed by Breakfast Club

Updated: Sep 26

Good culture is an amazing thing. This week I went to my first Breakfast Club Summer Slam, an all-day sports competition where the business closes for a day allowing the sites (and ‘Eggquarters’) to be pitted against each other in a series of increasingly bizarre games from 5-a-side football to egg-throwing to Donkey Kong.


The event was led and compered by Jonathan Arana-Morton (founder) and Operations Director Colin Doyle – the latter having clearly missed a career opportunity in light entertainment. Each phase was stage-managed to perfection and as an investor-NED at times you could perhaps be forgiven for questioning the expense and effort expended as the business emerges from the Covid debacle. But as the day progressed the counter to old-school cynicism was obvious. Each site came dressed as a video game. Huge effort had also gone into co-ordinated Frogger, Tetris or Call of Duty outfits. The day was fiercely competitive but wonderfully good-humoured. The turn-out was large. Back-of-house was as committed as front. Across the board, engagement was total, from Jonathan’s introductory speech where we all found ourselves chanting the legendary Friday Night Lights motto ‘Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose’ to the closing dance party.


Dressed as a Candy Crush fruit I attempted vainly to explain to many what a Chairman actually does. Ultimately, bonds were formed between team members and between sites. New staff and old got a total cultural baptism in competitiveness, generosity of spirit and Breakfast Club’s trademark friendly cheerfulness.


During the Pandemic, like many, Breakfast Club has had to slay a few sacred cows to survive. Work that had already started to bring an appreciation of efficiency into the existing culture has been accelerated. Naturally, there is always a bass note of unease that somehow the sense of common mission which has caused customers to queue at site after site over the last 16 years could be damaged. On the evidence of what I saw on Tuesday, the reverse was true. Forged in the fire of a modern-day plague, the team experienced a deep communal moment, one they are unlikely to forget.


At one point late afternoon in a conversation with Steve Locke, Be At One founder and newly-appointed Managing Director at Breakfast Club, I found myself moved to unburden myself of mine and Draft House’s greatest cultural fail. We had had a lacklustre December with Christmas trading behind budget. The team was looking forward, notwithstanding, to the January Xmas party. In my wisdom, I felt that this was moment to make a point, and cancelled it with the proviso that if we beat the budget for January – March it would be re-instated as a summer party. We didn’t beat our targets, but the Summer Party happened anyway because the cancelling of Christmas had such a demoralising effect on the team that we found ourselves on the back foot with our people for the rest of the year.


Every company has a culture. Some are, let’s face it, party-led, others more Jesuitical. Draft House was definitely the former, so the Grinch-manoeuvre had a disproportionate effect, it was a sledgehammer to crack a chestnut. And culture is a living breathing thing. It changes and mutates and if you are not careful it can metastasise. We more or less pulled it back, but a scary authority gap opened up for a spell as the team (probably rightly) questioned whether we (I) really understood what made people turn up in the morning.


None of this has ever been more relevant or challenging than now as we all try to coax people back to work, to persuade chefs not to become lorry drivers, to stop once-loyal team-members from abandoning ship for an extra £1 an hour. More existentially, as we attempt to understand what a 10% or 20% increase in hourly pay means for the economy and for the fundamental viability of our businesses.


It’s one of the great platitudes of our sector that people are the heart of our businesses. Clearly some of those people, coming out of a period where they have experienced another way of living, don’t feel the same way. For the moment, with the VAT and rates holiday, many operations are making money despite having to increase pay, in some cases dramatically. However, with balance sheets burdened by debt and the tax burden set to return many face a difficult 2022.


Good culture and the resilience it brings will be crucial as teams are asked to take leap after leap of faith while their employers stabilise in the next 18-24 months. This is at least in part because while we may have to ask for greater sacrifice, we also have to return to growth. Because without growth the best people will leave.