Catering success questioned

Food service expert challenges apportion of blame for pubs' demise to garden centre catering.

Coolings: catering for local customers held up as the key to success - image: HW
Coolings: catering for local customers held up as the key to success - image: HW

A food consultant has challenged the idea that garden centres have taken the pub lunchtime food trade (HW, 25 July) - and said gastro pubs could become a threat.

With pubs shutting every day, often to be turned into mini-supermarkets, garden retailers say their safer, healthier environment is partly to blame for the demise of the pub.

But Blueberry Food Service Consultancy owner Salim Sajid said that is "an interesting observation but one I'm not entirely in agreement with", saying an over-supply of "mediocre" pubs is more to blame for their closure.

He added that smoking bans, cheaper alcohol, the "changing casual dining landscape", new coffee culture, voucher-led meals out and grazing and premium chilled meals from supermarkets have all taken away customers from pubs, which have failed to keep up.

Time-starved people prefer light, frequent snacks such as sandwiches, Subway, Costa and McDonalds, or "eater-tainment" such as visiting the cinema and a meal at Nandos or Prezzos, he said.

He added that "gastro" style pub food with a "more personable style of service which really engages with its customer and promotes real provenance around its beer, wines and spirits. I see these becoming a threat to garden centres in time."

Sajid said: "I do believe there is a model out there which combines casual dining cafes, an artisan wines and beer offer, local food and a market-style horticultural offer all set within a pub building. A sort of garden centre express if you will. I see them being targeted at a more time starved professional who drops in and impulse purchases but also uses it as their local meeting point. I can see many local villages supporting their pubs in this way to almost act as their community centres.

Garden Centre Association chief executive Iain Wylie said: "I'm not surprised that garden centres are seeing more lunchtime trade and this may be a factor in pubs closing but I'm sure there are many others - maybe beer at 50p a pint/can/bottle in supermarkets could be one. I guess that garden centres are now providing high quality meals in great, safe environments and the pubs seem to have stood still. It's interesting that garden centres are also more independently run too. And can cater better for their local customer."

Glendoick owner Ken Cox said: "There is no doubt that garden centre cafes have been the envy of other sectors as they keep growing while pubs are in decline. I think the family aspect is a help and (usually) the absence of alcohol and the variety of things to buy and do at garden centres. So this may well be true."

Safety factor

David Little, managing director, Poplars Garden Centre

"Our lunchtime customers are elderly and mothers with preschool children. They're not really the pub market and they're not looking for alcohol. If you arrive early at a garden centre it's a safe place to wait, there are no guys in hoodies and your car is going to be there when you go back for it."

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