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As Eat To The Beat celebrates 40 remarkable years catering for everyone from Slipknot to the Pope, we speak to its managers and customers about Tony Laurenson’s impressive legacy.

Eat To The Beat has come a very long way since 7 February 1984, when Tony Laurenson set up shop in his parents’ garage with one flight case for company. With experience of catering in the Merchant Navy, his inspiration for the new business came after hearing that musicians on tour were not being properly catered for.

During Eat To The Beat’s first year in operation Laurenson took that flight case on the road for tours with Joe Jackson and Iron Maiden, the latter remaining a client of Eat To The Beat to this day.

Says David Shackleton, MD of Iron Maiden’s management company Phantom Music Management, “Tony was a huge Maiden fan, and it was the legend that is [tour manager] Dickie Bell who brought in Eat To The Beat all those years ago. I remember them being on the road when I first toured with them as a journalist back on the No Prayer tour in 1990. For me, there has only ever been one name that you associate with tour catering – Eat To The Beat.”

“For me, there has only ever been one name that you associate with tour catering.”

Now a multi-faceted catering operation that has fed everyone from Slipknot to the Dali Lama, and the Rolling Stones to the Pope, the business operates out of a state-of-the-art, 84,000 sq ft, facility in Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, while also having bases in the US, Middle East and China.

In 1991, Eat To The Beat expanded to become the Global Infusion Group, encompassing GIG, the catering and hospitality division that Eat To The Beat is part of, sister company Bonnie May Food & Events and brand logistics business e2b.

Over the past 40 years, Eat To The Beat has worked on a jaw-dropping array of milestone events, including Roger Waters’ Berlin Wall Concert, Live Aid, Live 8, Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday Tribute Concert, the Queen’s 90th Birthday, the Papal visit in 2010, London 2012 Olympics, Frank Sinatra’s final tour and the Coronation of King Charles III.

Among the company’s many longstanding clients are bands including The Rolling Stones and Coldplay, festivals such as BST presents Hyde Park, Isle of Wight and Glastonbury, sports events including the Olympics, Ryder Cup and Porsche Carrera Cup, Cirque du Soleil, and multiple TV shows such as the National Television Awards.

Over the years the company has won more than 60 awards including the Queen’s Business Award for Enterprise in International Trade in 2014 and 2017. The group now employs 130 fulltime staff worldwide and is supported by up to 3,000 freelancers.

On 19 January 2021, Laurenson’s tragic death sent shockwaves around the industry, not least the business that he had founded and grown so impressively. Having been with Eat To The Beat for more than 30 years, Laurenson’s wife, Bonnie May is now CEO of the company working alongside business director Mary Shelley-Smith – who joined in February 1990.

Both May and Shelley-Smith (pictured) recently won the AAA Legend Award at the Event Production Awards, sparking passionate praise from industry peers.

Food for thought

“Tour catering used to consist of people getting fed by wives and girlfriends or at service stations,” says May. “Tony’s offering was a whole new concept, and very quickly he realised there was good money to be made from it.”

Eat To The Beat swiftly gathered momentum and was soon out on the road with acts such as The Cure, Cliff Richard, Van Morrison and Joe Cocker.

Says May, “When I first met him, Tony was running the business out his home office in Rickmansworth – his neighbours must have been beside themselves because 52-foot trucks would regularly arrive at this rather nice little housing estate to pick up all the gear to go on tour.”

With the business expanding rapidly, Laurenson bought a 3,000 square foot unit in Watford and it wasn’t long before the business grew to take over the adjacent unit next door.

Home from home

While the length of time spent on tours has been reduced over the years, with artists tending to play fewer but larger shows, Shelley-Smith says another major change has been the increased availability of food types to satisfy artists’ appetites.

“I first went out on tour in 1990, and there was a thing called guacamole on the rider. I’d never heard of it. I had to go and buy a Mexican cookbook and get a recipe. In Europe you couldn’t get avocados, so I hadn’t any experience with them. I remember grating an avocado and putting it in the poor band’s room. They must have been horrified.”

May says the team has worked hard to meet artists’ ­­­demands over the years, and the aim has always been to make people feel relaxed and looked after: “As Tony said from early on, it’s about creating a home from home on the road. When people are away touring for three months, just having that one room where you’re going to see familiar faces and you know you’re going to be looked after – that was key in the early days and that’s continued, even now we get clients asking for specific people.”

Eat To The Beat has been catering at the Royal Albert Hall for decades and CEO James Ainscough OBE says it is an integral part of the team there: “We trust them implicitly – they never let us down and they really care, not just about the quality of their food and service but also their impact on the environment and the Hall. Our longstanding event manager Mo Crowe says they cater for the stars and the crew with the same love and care. Those are the values we look for in all our partners, and that’s why we love it when Eat To The Beat are in the building.”

Serving success

In the past 40 years there has been no shortage of landmark moments for the Eat To The Beat bosses. Shelley-Smith has presented a birthday cake on stage to the Dali Lama at Glastonbury, met the Queen on her 90th Birthday, made her mum’s soup for Barry Manilow and baked scones for the Pope. When asked, the first highlight that comes to mind is Roger Waters’ Berlin Wall Concert in 1990: “It was the first job I did abroad, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life. It was a massive spectacle; I was so privileged to be there. That experience has really stayed with me.”

May at the ETTB team at No.10

For May, who has worked on events around the world, from Outer Mongolia to Korea, one of the most momentous events of her career was the 2012 Olympics. “I can remember exactly where we were in 2005 when they announced that London had won the bid. That was massive for us; Tony was absolutely adamant we were going to be part of it. That was a very strategic piece for us; to really look at the sporting world, grow the business, and move premisses.”

Every job comes with its own challenges but among those that May will never forget was the Spice Girls first gig in Istanbul in October 1997: “There were hundreds of people landing in the city to do the show, and shopping for them in Istanbul was a major challenge. They didn’t have supermarkets, so I had to shop in markets and take two burly security guards with me because at the time we had to carry cash and so we were walking around with tens of thousands of pounds on us, going to market stalls and buying up all their produce.

“The rain in Istanbul was torrential and the traffic was gridlocked, so it took us ages to get anywhere. When we finally got back with the van, we were busy arranging all the food when the nearby riverbank broke and the whole lot got washed away. You couldn’t make it up!”

Clearly every territory and customer has its idiosyncrasies but overall the duo has, thankfully, seen the food acquisition process change dramatically for the better. Shelley-Smith recalls a show by Black Sabbath in Moscow in the late 1980s, for which the caterer had to purchase lettuce by the leaf and whole animals that had to cut up later.

It’s all a long way from the ultra-efficient global business the duo oversees today, not least the new HQ with its state-of-the-art Central Production Unit, kitchen, and vast multi-tier racking system that enables the company to service all its brand logistics clients including Red Bull.

While there is much to look back on and be proud of, the bosses are clearly set on driving Eat To The Beat forward and expanding it yet further in the US, Middle East and closer to home.

Says May, “We have the ability within the structure to grow the business, particularly the sporting piece and e2b logistics – this building gives us the ability to grow that business by 100%.”

Despite the hugely positive momentum, the duo is quick to point out that Tony Laurenson remains hugely missed, and his influence lives on.

“Mary and I have worked for such a long time together, and so well together with different skill sets, but Tony’s energy was of a scale that I don’t think, even combined, we can achieve,” says May.

Smiling in agreement, Shelley-Smith reflects, “I remember Tony met some guys on a plane once that was stuck on a runway. By the time the plane got fixed, he had secured a massive contract for the company.”