Dobbies expects quick return on investment as it plans to extend catering offer with coffee from 7am

Dobbies is to be the first garden centre group to open from 7am selling takeaway coffee and offering table service into the evening.

The 34-garden centre chain's plans also include creation of dedicated children's play zones with butterfly farms and cafes.

Dobbies restaurants head Costas Constantinou has had a 30-year career in restaurants, including 12 in leading roles in garden centre restaurants and spoke to Horticulture Week's Matthew Appleby at the HTA Catering Conference at The Belfry on 13 June. 

The former head of restaurants at the Garden Centre Group (now Wyevale Garden Centres) said: "We don’t think our centres trade the full opportunity. Like most other garden centres we open the doors at 9am and close at 5.30pm. So we’re working on a coffee to go concept opening the centre at 7am to capture the takeaway market for people who want something more than M&S or Costa Coffee."

"There will be drinks and hot food to take away. The concept will be relatively low-cost as it only needs one or two staff and will have a quick return on investment. The first will open at Melville in the next few weeks.

Already, Constantinou said, there is a large footfall through the centres all day and the market is "ready to be tapped into" rather than just having a vending machine. The aim is to be "famous as a takeaway as well as an eat-in business". At least three catering offers will be available per centre.

When he was at Wyevale, Constantinou introduced indoor play areas and he wants to extend that at Dobbies by linking them to children’s cafes and butterfly farms. There is one butterfly farm, at Melville, but there are plans for more. "If you tie these three concepts together it becomes a destination point for the lower age bracket." There will also be party rooms to hire.

Dobbies also plans to open in the evenings and to introduce table service. "I think there’s a market there for people who want quick service and for people who want to tap into the social experience and instead of 45 minutes at the counter and table they spend one and a half or two hours having lunch with friends and family. At the moment we’re letting other people do that in the catering industry. We don’t tap into people who lunch, we tap into the John Lewis counter operation."

But he said there is "no way we would get rid of the counter operation because volumes are so huge. A table service operation couldn’t deal with those numbers. But we can go that extra mile in terms of the experience."

Dobbies will also redesign counters to help customer flow and queuing. Constaninou, former retail director at Druckers Vienna Patisserie, said the high street system was deemed perfect for garden centres but "they don’t have the volumes we deal with between 12 and 2. We think we have found the solution to address the bottlenecks."

On food trends, Constantinou said for Dobbies "about 95% of our business is very much traditional.

"I don’t think there’s anyone out there on the high street who offers our traditional fresh-cooked, fresh-baked food. Everyone else seems to have gone down the line of buying in bags and microwaving or completing products by finishing them. We’ll be making everything fresh and buying British, so if that’s a trend, we’re going to support it."

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