Cater Plus founder and chief executive Paul Hodge was named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2023 New Year’s Honours List for services to hospitality. The Cater Plus Foundation is a testament to his commitment to helping staff reach their full potential, including during times of stress and hardship…

In 2012, on a typically busy weekday morning, Cater Plus chief executive Paul Hodge took a call from a staff member employed as a chef at Cambridge’s Resthaven, the Waikato town’s largest aged care facility. Cater Plus prepares all meals fresh onsite at Resthaven. The woman said she needed to resign immediately. She was reluctant to say more. When Paul dug further, she admitted with embarrassment that her car had broken down and she couldn’t afford to repair it, which meant she had no means of getting to work. The woman had worked for Cater Plus for two years.

Paul regarded her as an excellent employee and knew it would have taken courage to admit why she had to resign. “I can lend you the money,” he said.

At the time, he says, he didn’t think much beyond solving an immediate problem. If the woman had resigned, he would have had to drive from Cater Plus Support Office in Hamilton to Cambridge to cover for her, taking him away from running the business.

“Honestly, it was a no brainer. She had a $750 problem. I could solve it. It was a win-win.” He offered her an interest-free loan. The car was repaired, and the woman returned to her job.” She was shocked when I offered her the money. She didn’t expect that was an option. It was very foreign to her. The only other option was to borrow money from a loan shark. She would rather have given up her job than do that.”

For Paul, it was the beginning of something much larger. “I started thinking there may be many others like her. People who are talented, hard-working and reliable. I wanted to retain and show we value them.

I’ve always wanted to make a difference. It made him think what else Cater Plus could do.
The result was the Cater Plus Foundation, formed with a philanthropic purpose to help staff in times of need and stress.

The money is held in a Charitable Trust and used to fund a range of activities that benefit staff, including interest-free loans. The loans may be to: buy a car, fix a hot water cylinder, travel overseas to a funeral, pay medical bills, school fees, or rent arrears, and are generally paid back over a year.

Craighead School. Left: Carolyn Sanderson
Right: Selina Wilson

“We are not a bank,” Paul says. “We are not making a profit. The Foundation is there for the purpose of helping people when there is a need. Everyone’s needs are different.”

Budgeting is part of the arrangement. “Some people may have other things coming out of their pay, so we set up repayments with that in mind. We are changing our staff’s understanding of loans. For some, going to a community-based loan shark was the only option they had. I was concerned that they’ll be charged significant interest with often unrealistic repayment terms which causes a cycle of debt and stress. The Foundation is designed to provide a better option.” Trust is the basis of the arrangement. “In 10 years, we have had only two people who have left with outstanding debt.”

Cater Saver: “Our focus in 2023 is to encourage more staff to save”

Like many New Zealanders, a lot of Cater Plus staff operate on tight budgets. So, five years ago, Cater Saver was established. Staff can choose to have an amount deducted from their wages, to encourage a culture of saving. For the first $1000 saved, they receive $100 from the Foundation. Around $200,000 is paid out annually. Paul said, “Our goal for 2023 is to achieve $250,000 in staff savings.”

Sponsorships and Culinary Fare

Since 2004, Wintec in partnership with Cater Plus has hosted the Waikato Culinary Fare. The Fare is designed to showcase the talents of emerging hospitality stars. Paul, as a founding member, believes the opportunity to compete in competition supports the development of valuable skills, provides experience, and showcases talent which creates future pathways into the industry. The Waikato Culinary Fare has grown to be the largest regional competition of its type in New Zealand.

Left to right: Ahmad Azemad, Matt Shuker (coach) and Megan Brennan.
Category: Mystery Box

The Foundation also supports charities, especially lesser-known organisations like Sands (Stillbirth and Neo-natal Death Society) and Melville Women’s Rugby Club. The women’s rugby club sponsorship came out of a conversation when Paul learned the women had to practice in a carpark because the rugby grounds did not have women’s changing rooms.

For three years the Foundation has also hosted a golf day from which proceeds are donated to Sands, in 2022 the Foundation also sponsored a cupcake sale which raised both awareness and funds for Sands.

Sara Lane from Sands at the Golf Tournament with Cater Plus cupcakes.

Friday Night Meals

Cater Plus staff preparing and receiving Friday Night Meals.

When Covid began to impact businesses in New Zealand, the Foundation brainstormed ideas to help out. Originally, Cater Plus had thought of ways to help New Zealanders who were struggling. They were already helping families in South Auckland through Otara Kai Kitchen but they realised there was a need closer to home. “We had 20 staff in Auckland without work,” says Paul. “Through the Cater Plus Foundation we funded them to cook food for our own people. Every Friday night, everyone was provided with enough food for their family. If someone had six family members, they could book those meals and pick them up from a central location.”