Last year saw a rebound in sales in outdoor categories at garden centres, many of which had looked to non-gardening categories over the previous couple of years of economic and weather difficulties. But catering, which has seen strong increases every year for decades, still rose solidly in 2014.
Catering has risen by more than 50 per cent over the past six years. Annual garden centre catering turnover is now £200m, up from £130m in 2007-08, with catering now making up 15-20 per cent of overall sales.
In 2013, catering increased by 4.3 per cent, compared with an overall garden centre sales rise of 3.7 per cent. Catering was eight per cent up in 2012 on 2011, while overall sales fell.
According to latest Garden Centre Association figures, catering was up by 4.95 per cent in December 2014 and 8.7 per cent overall, almost exactly mirroring the rise in sales at garden centres this year. Meanwhile, the food hall/farm shop catgeory increased by 6.8 per cent in 2014.
Newly installed or upgraded catering in garden centres fared best. At Highfield Garden World in Gloucestershire, the restaurant turnover in 2014 compared with 2013 was up by 75 per cent in the restaurant. Highfield opened its new restaurant at the end of 2013. The customer number increase for the restaurant was 45 per cent, showing average spend increased considerably.
Turnover in the rest of the garden centre (excluding the restaurant) at Highfield in 2014 compared with 2013 was up by 16 per cent, as was the number of customers/till movements.
Powys-based Old Railway Line Garden Centre expanded its restaurant in September 2012. Shop manager Katie Eckley says: "Catering is getting stronger and stronger and the restaurant team were busy every day of the week during December, not just weekends. Sales were up by more than 16 per cent compared to last year."
While garden centre cafés continue to hold their own against local competition, Turpin Smale catering consultant Chris Brown, who is helping Planters with a restaurant expansion, warns against complacency. "Catering can be up to 25 per cent of garden centre turnover but garden centre caterers have to watch out because the rest of the catering industry is fed up with garden centres taking them on," he warns. "They’ve got to keep innovative. That’s their challenge over the next few years. A lot of garden centres don’t know their margins and costs. It’s very common for garden centres to not know how well their catering is doing."
Belton Garden Centre in Lincolnshire says competition has not damaged trade. "Given that there are more than 3,000 potential coffee shop seats within a two mile radius of the centre including motorway services, driving customer footfall with great home-cooked food, superb friendly service and using locally grown and sourced produce has been the winning formula that’s driven such impressive profit growth in such a short space of time," says a representative.
The newly built coffee shop at the centre has increased 263 per cent since replacing old facilities. Belton puts its success down to home cooking, local sourcing and its "warm, friendly staff" as well as their attention to detail.
At Perrywood in Essex, the begining of 2014 saw the completion of the coffee shop refit and refurbishment, increasing covers from 160 to 240. Perrywood changed from serving hot food from counters to ordering food at counters with waitress service to tables and introduced a second counter to reduce queues at peak times.
Owner Alan Bourne was on hand in the coffee shop to explain the changes when they launched. New staff enabled the garden centre to introduce afternoon tea for the first time. Sales increased by 24 per cent from summer 2013 to summer 2014.
Customers at Blackbrooks in East Sussex say service makes the experience, with customer comments including "nothing too much trouble", "always friendly and helpful", "polite and efficient" and "service with a smile".
At Mains of Drum in Aberdeenshire, working more closely with local suppliers "has been the key to putting together the new menu because it means our staff now have the knowledge to know exactly where the food is coming from". Stornoway black pudding is an example of the 60 per cent locally sourced menu, inspired by Scotland Food & Drink’s "Seasonality Calendar", which saw a 13 per cent increase in catering sales on the previous year.
Loyalty cards have helped drive up business at Creative Gardens Donagadee in Northern Ireland. Club members, who represent half the turnover, get free tea and coffee coupons. In 2014, owners the Gass family sent out almost 500,000 coupons to the 15,000 Donaghadee club members and on average 41 per cent of them took up the offer, with 91 per cent of them spending an average of £3.10 on food to go with their drink.
In 2014, Coolings increased the focus of its Arthurs restaurant in social media and till coupons, also launching a loyalty card for a free drink after nine café visits. In one month, 1,250 customers redeemed the Arthurs breakfast "buy one get one free" promotion, leading to a rise in net profit for the month of 544 per cent on the previous year and 9am-11am turnover being up by 66 per cent.
Peak capacity led to Coolings buying a portable catering unit in November last year for use in its gardens, adding a further 50 covers, showing that demand for garden centre catering continues to increase whatever the weather.
Wyevale Garden Centres is launching a new concept across its 100 restaurants and cafés. The 144-centre chain now has three catering brands — Botanic Kitchen, a "brand new restaurant offering the garden on a plate" launching in early 2015, as well as Coffee Ground "micro-roasting artisan coffee shops" and Garden Kitchen Restaurants "bringing a sparkle".
It has opened two Coffee Grounds, at its Endsleigh and Hemel Hempstead garden centres, with another in Beaconsfield opening this week and more due to follow later this year.
The company has completed Garden Kitchen makeovers in 15 centres including Brighton, Syon Park, Nailsworth, Leicester Rowena, Stratford-upon-Avon and Enfield, with others to follow next year. Costa Coffee concessions have opened at Melbicks, Cadbury, Dorking, Hungerford and
Wyevale food and beverage director Jason Danciger says: "There is a revolution afoot in garden centres across the country as food, service and environments take a leap forward."
Inside track on latest garden centre catering trends
Creed Foodservice wholesales into garden centres. Sales and marketing director Andrew Stedman says: "In both food and beverage offerings, Creed is seeing sales in garden centre coffee shops mirroring trends from the high street as consumers seek interesting new concepts. As the key springtime selling season starts we have seen increased interest in coconut water as a popular and health-conscious cold beverage choice, as well as retro Coke flavours such as cherry and vanilla.
"Adding variety to your coffee service by offering syrups not only reflects trends in high street coffee chains but also gives caterers the opportunity to upsell. Tea is also having a makeover, with consumers demanding more choice than traditional English breakfast with flavoured teas and different types of blends, so giving caterers the opportunity to widen their tea offering.
"On the food side, garden centre caterers can maximise sales by expanding menus to meet the needs of customers with food intolerances, such as gluten-free ranges. Sidoli chocolate brownies, New York cheesecake, traditional chocolate cake and carrot cake have been modified to cater for the gluten-intolerant diner. Peck & Strong’s chocolate brownie with walnuts offers customers a high-end gluten-free snacking option, while a trusted name with an established retail presence, Almondy’s range of desserts includes a Daim bar tart, Toblerone tart and a peanut and caramel tart, all as a gluten-free option.
"Caterers can also capitalise on consumer interest in food provenance by offering homemade cakes and pastries, either baked or finished on site. Easy-to-use frozen pastry mixes and sponge cake mixes, for example, save time and do not require specialist bakery skills.
Caterers can really go to town with creating their own signature cakes and pastries too but using a mix as a base.
"Display is also key to driving sales as customers buy with their eyes. A nod to nostalgia is very on-trend — tray bakes displayed on wooden boards, cakes served on vintage china and muffins even served in their baking trays. This all adds to the appeal of your garden centre coffee shop, tempting customers to trade up on spend.
"We also see customers using their café as an extension of the shop floor to cross-sell their core business. For instance, some of our customers bake their daily bread in small terracotta plant pots. Others are ensuring that outdoor café areas are available and are including a barbecue in their offering, which only takes one member of staff to man and provides theatre to the outdoor space as well as being proven to have a massive positive effect on barbecue sales."