Knowing they wanted to go into business "of some sort", 45 years ago a young Canterbury couple – David and Joan Ward, returned early from their honeymoon to purchase a small out-catering and retail bakery operation in North Canterbury.
And the rest, as they say, is history. David and Joan Ward took the fledgling business with four casual staff and put their heart and soul into it creating what is now the South Island's largest catering operation – Continental.
With 90 full-time staff and hundreds on a part-time basis, Continental (based in Rangiora just outside of Christchurch) has been a significant player in the catering business for many years.
The early decades saw a lot of involvement in special celebrations for the farming and high country communities all over the South Island, often in marquees on farms (it is not uncommon for Continental to now be doing second generation occasions for clients).
In more recent times as the tourism and conferencing industries have developed and expanded, so too has Continental's involvement in these sectors.
It is estimated that Continental has overseen some 21,000 events over the years including around 6,500 weddings.
Highlights have included:
As well as event catering, which includes weddings and corporate catering, and exclusive cuisine management of Christchurch venues Air Force Museum, Kate Sheppard House & Garden and the International Antarctic Centre, the company has several other divisions: a retail bakery, marquee hire and party equipment hire.
Vertical integration was an important business ingredient that the Wards understood well and attribute some of their success to – they purchased the trucks they needed, the production kitchen (now expanded), the operational premises, much of the equipment they use regularly – tables and chairs, crockery, cutlery, glassware and linens.
In 2010 Continental installed New Zealand's first dedicated marquee cleaning unit ensuring prestine presentation of their marquees. Today, as one of New Zealand's largest suppliers of marquees, Continental continues to invest in expanding the catalogue to all styles of units from 3m x 3m canapes, through to spectacular big-tops and the latest in Losberger marquees suitable for large events and exhibitions.
Over the years Continental has expanded its event catering business to also become one of New Zealand's largest quality marquee hire specialists with ancillary equipment for both indoor and outdoor event settings. We have grown from a small business with Christchurch catering to be a premier entity, respected for delivering experienced event organization support.
Innovation in the little things, as well as the big ideas, has also been a key success factor. In the late 1960s Continental produced red tablecloths during a time of traditional white – this proved to be a hugely successful, but simple idea which led to many bookings just on this basis.
Continental is believed to have been the first to serve seated, hot, full meals in an out-catering situation. And Continental was also the first to introduce silk linings in marquees in New Zealand, adding that all-important touch of romance and special occasion.
Son Greg took over as managing director of Continental several years ago and works with the team on its strategic direction and product development, building on the company's past successes.
"The high profile events and big numbers are exhausting, but are ultimately very satisfying" said Greg.
"But it is the human element of this service industry that has made the years so special for us all and have created some of the strongest, fondest memories."