Better environments, menus and staff are the driving force behind Britain's best garden centre restaurants. From quirky cafes in buses to roll-outs of coffee shops within large chains, there is a growing range of food and drink options available in garden centres.
Cafe sales are growing by almost 10 per cent a year on average and latest HTA figures show more than half of specialist garden retailers have catering available, up from 40 per cent in 2008.
Catering was up 8.7 per cent in 2014 and 9.27 per cent to the end of November 2015 on 2014, according to Garden Centre Association figures. This makes up almost 20 per cent of members' sales. This means many centres are eager to expand the size of their offer. Otherwise, upping transaction values or building new second coffee shops are the methods many are using to increase sales.
Reaping the rewards
Two previously retail nurseries have got into catering in a big way recently and reaped the rewards. Perrywood Garden Centre & Nurseries in Essex says it is still seeing the benefits of investing in its coffee shop, completed in January 2014, "but investment in buildings is not enough on its own".
"We have had to work extremely hard to recruit and retain good staff at a time when unemployment is low and we are competing with many new restaurants in the surrounding area to find staff. Despite this we have built up the team with the skills needed to operate at a very high level. We have focused on attention to detail and it has brought us success, with a significant sales increase. There is no such thing as a quiet day in the Perrywood Coffee Shop."
In 2014, Highfield Garden World in Gloucestershire launched a new 450-cover restaurant as part of a £2.5m redevelopment project. A year after launch, turnover in the restaurant has soared thanks to "high-quality food and drink, outstanding ambience and excellent staff".
A decade ago, in 2006, an HTA garden centre catering report found one in eight centre visitors came specifically to make use of its cafe or restaurant. By 2008, garden centre catering sales were £132m, up 24 per cent in three years.
Cafe visits on the up
In 2011, the HTA reported a 51 per cent increase in the number of visits to garden centre cafes over the previous three years. There were around 55 million visits, compared with 36 million in 2008. Getting cafe customers to spend in the rest of the centre is another big goal.
Coffee Ground, Wyevale Garden Centres' coffee shops, add footfall and dwell time. Unique selling points include micro roasting of 1kg batches of beans and recycling used grounds. The concept is modular, meaning it can be built off-site, allowing for build time on-site to be one-to-two weeks against a classic high street coffee shop taking five to six weeks.
Within independents, Belle & Joe's Kitchen at Timmermans Garden Centre was conceived as a "restaurant within a garden centre", delivering restaurant-quality food at garden centre prices to complement and add to the plant offer. Belle & Joe's Bus, a converted 1961 Routemaster, takes its catering to the road and has "proved to be a brilliant marketing tool".
At Mains of Drum in Aberdeenshire, local sourcing is the focus, with the aim to source at least 60 per cent of its menu locally. The restaurant will expand in 2016 with an extension to accommodate a further 150 seats, including a function suite.
Local sourcing is also important at Duchy of Cornwall Nursery. Local fish brought in from day boats in Looe and fresh meat from the butcher who farms on the cliffs above Fowey. Head chef Richard Du Pille's signature dish is smoked haddock and prawn chowder. Other favourites include eggs Benedict, Cornish blue cheese souffle, croque-monsieur and the posh venison burger - venison shot on the estate.
Reflecting sector trends
At Whitehall Garden Centre in Wiltshire, the catering has taken in many of the trends in the sector. The Orangery Restaurant has seating for more than 200 people from a typical garden centre visitor range, with plenty of families. The food offered is traditional English cuisine, salads, world dishes, meals to order and homemade cream cakes.
For families, Whitehall has introduced a wider selection of organic pasta meals, traditional hot meals and children's sandwiches. Whitehall also recently introduced a healthy "pic n mix" lunch box bar for children. Gluten-free and allergy-aware products are also promoted.
To cope with the high demand of customers, the Orangery also introduced a second serving counter in 2010. In 2014 it underwent refurbishment with a new Illy Coffee station, a wider selection of hot beverages including fruit and herbal teas and a larger range of homemade cakes. This improved restaurant flow and helped to ease queuing times during busy periods.
By introducing two new Illy Coffee stations, Whitehall aimed to compete with high-end coffee bars. In 2015 it introduced an ice cream and milkshake/smoothie parlour.
Whitehall's Lavender Lodge tea room and bistro provides table service for 100 customers and is targeted more at individuals, couples and mature clientele who would like a light lunch, cakes and luxury high tea, including Valentines, festive and Wimbledon-themed versions - in a quiet atmosphere.
Lavender Lodge underwent further refurbishment in 2015 with an expanded kitchen and serving area as well as an increase in the number of seated areas. Customer numbers and average spend were both up last year as a result of the latest development.
The nuts and bolts of garden centre catering has been important to Glendoick Garden Centre in Perthshire. Moves have included efforts to rationalise and renegotiate contracts with suppliers, tightening margins by counting the cost of everything used and introducing costing sheets with target margins for every menu item.
The centre also measures wastage and staff food on a daily basis, has introduced new menu items to drive up average transaction values, performs monthly stocktakes to guard against over-ordering and monitors hourly sales to staffing levels to keep a grip of staff hours.
Malcolm Scott, Malcolm Scott Consultants
"Garden centres had a good year last year. They sold a wider range of products than ever before and catered successfully to many happy customers. We back this trend and can see why garden centres have to weatherproof sales by diversifying into new product areas and becoming more sophisticated in their retail marketing and displays. But we also recognise that what makes them successful is their individuality. In an age of increasing blandness in the high street and retail parks, what makes them attractive to customers is their own individual style and form. Projects we have designed in 2015 are all in garden centres that are different and uniquely fit each individual centre's site and character. No customer going to these centres will confuse their visit with one to a chain store restaurant."
- Projects include Carr Farm Garden Centre, Garsons Garden Centre, Groves Nurseries, Highfield Garden World, Knights Garden Centre Chelsham and Monkton Elm Garden Centre.
Case study: Garsons Garden Centre in Esher, Surrey
The new restaurant at Garsons Garden Centre is in an octagonal glass atrium built on a steel frame. Compass Instore, which runs the catering at Garsons, expects the restaurant to turnover in excess of £1.5m per year.
The scheme is part of a £4.3m investment in Garsons' retail areas. The restaurant has up to 450 covers - 300 inside and 150 on the outside terrace, overlooking the fields.
Garsons director Ben Thompson says: "With the design, while looking ahead, we also aimed to reflect on our history, when trading at London's Borough Market. This is echoed in the steelwork and timber cladding. The business's origins are also featured pictorially on the internal low-height walls."
The kitchen and restaurant were designed and installed by Croydon-based International Food Service Equipment (IFSE). Project manager Anne Peacock says: "Space planning in a scheme like this is paramount. Our redesign provided an additional 30 seats for Garsons, giving them very significant potential for extra revenue."
Compass Instore regional manager Helen Cotter explains: "Garsons' aim was to set the bar very high. This is as good as any in-store retail catering offering anywhere in the UK. Garsons has established a new benchmark in garden centre restaurants."
Head chef Melvyn Redding says: "It's a really good size and works well. It's been ergonomically designed and, critically, it's future-proofed."
Peacock adds: "Both the kitchen and the servery area are set up for expansion. For example, there are services in the kitchen for an extra three combi steamers and a pot washer, and in the servery area for an extra multi-deck food display counter."
The restaurant and kitchen are built around the concept of seasonality, linking the menu directly to produce from Garsons' 60ha pick your own fields. Meat is sourced from the on-site butcher. Meals include Cumberland curl with kale mash and rich onion gravy along with chicken supreme with Brie, bacon and creamed savoy cabbage. Triple-cooked chips are also a speciality.
The kitchen features Winterhalter warewashers, with cooking equipment and refrigeration facilities supplied by Electrolux. There are also three Rational combi steamers. The restaurant furniture was supplied by Abbey Leisure Furnishings. IFSE's Table Tracker replaces numbered wooden spoons. The creme patisserie room in the kitchen has a viewing window and customers can see the chefs in action too. Hodges was the builder.