Make garden centre catering special

Traditional comfort food remains popular, but some customers want something special, says Doug Stewart.

Garden retailers will focus on providing a local feel to produce and services this year, taking customer satisfaction to a whole new level ...

1. In times of increasing uncertainty, traditional dishes will continue to be popular with our customers. Childhood favourites and comfort food will rise in popularity - but only if given a modern, contemporary twist. Our customers want old-fashioned comfort food to be lighter and fresher.

2. Many garden retailers have struggled to offer good breakfasts, but the most important meal of the day is proving to be a hit with many consumers. Greggs reports strong sales of its breakfast offer, and even the pub chain Wetherspoons is cashing in on this trend by opening many of its pubs at 7am, with an interesting contemporary menu.

3. Local will continue to be king in 2011. However, this trend will expand to include local and regional recipes, rather than just being limited to procurement policies.

4. Salads are already experiencing a makeover, with variants such as warm salads of smoked duck with honey and hazelnut dressing finding favour with customers.

5. Individuality is on the increase; this will manifest itself in one-off 'cooked just for me' dishes such as pies and pasta dishes.

6. Another feature of such dishes will be the offer of 'all the trimmings', to add a greater air of authenticity.

7. Has the chip had its day? If we are talking greasy, soggy and lukewarm, then yes. The new 2011 chip is hand-cut from a named variety of potato, or will be replaced with light, crisp, freshly cooked French fries.

8. Assiettes (plated, bite-sized servings of several desserts or starters) are proving increasingly popular in high-quality coffee shops and restaurants. Garden retailers will ignore this trend at their peril.

9. One of the ways garden retailers will be able to differentiate their food offer in 2011 is through their ethical promises. Increasingly our more affluent customers are looking for traditionally reared, British produce. After all, how does a Thai chicken curry tie in with our local food commitment?

10. The key trend for 2011 will be the effort to make our catering offer special, so that it makes our customers feel special - so the one thing that will not change this year is the importance of presentation and good, old-fashioned customer service.

SQUIRE'S TWICKENHAM SEASONS

Location: In affluent Twickenham in the Squire's centre. Close to Hampton Court Palace, Bushy Park and the Thames. Close to Fulwell train station.

Points of difference: Managing director Dennis Espley cites catering as a potential area of growth, with the introduction of former PizzaExpress, Whitbread, Cafe Zest and French boulangerie Paul caterer Mark Hardy as catering manager in November 2009. In catering, Espley says examples such as better coffee and salads with baguettes show how food is improving at Squire's, with associated turnover gains. That is why Badshot Lea and, from next summer, Twickenham, are getting new restaurants. Espley says "the social side" is becoming more and more important in garden centres. Qype customer review: "If it were a restaurant it would have three Michelin stars - worth a long journey to visit."

History: Squire's opened its first garden centre in Twickenham in 1964. The business was founded by DJ Squire; after the head groundsman and gardener at the local Police Orphanage was made redundant, he set up his own landscaping business.

Specialities: Welsh rarebit, coffee; all hot and cold snacks served with a salad garnish.

Prices: Seasons breakfast (five items), £2.95; Breakfast roll, £2.75; Brunch breakfast (choice of eight items), £4.60; Jacket potato and cheese, £4.85; Chicken Caesar salad, £6.95; Coronation Chicken sandwich, £4.45; Welsh rarebit, £4.25; Twinings Tea pot, £1.30; Single espresso, £1.35.

RHS WISLEY: THE CONSERVATORY DINING ROOM

Location: In the heart of the RHS's flagship garden in Surrey.

Points of difference: Wisley's top-end catering establishment. Waitered, cool decor.

History: Wisley is visited by more than 700,000 people a year. The garden's origins date back to 1878, when RHS member George Ferguson established the Oakwood Experimental Garden on the site. Sir Thomas Hanbury bought the site in the early 20th Century and gave the garden to the RHS. It now covers around 100ha and includes catering at the Conservatory Cafe and Dining Room and Glasshouse Cafe.

Specialities: Freshly baked bread, freerange chicken, Roskilly's organic ice cream, Fair Trade Union coffee, afternoon teas, waitered service, children's menus, views of the garden.

The kitchens use produce from the model vegetable garden. A good example of the top food offering at a garden, Wisley has a range of options.

Prices Starters: freshly baked bread and butter, 95p; roasted courgette and Sister Sarah cheese soup with bread, £4.90; hot smoked salmon salad with broad bean, pea and mint, £6.70. Mains: pork, ginger and onion sausages with beetroot chutney, £8.95; grilled chicken breast and pesto dressing, £10.50; pea, lettuce and mint tart served with Milford Surrey mixed leaves, £8.95. Desserts: strawberry trifle, £4.60; Roskilly's organic ice cream, £2.80. Two courses, £18; three courses, £24. Prosecco, £24; Brut Majeur Ayala, £40. For younger diners, sausages and macaroni, £4. Sunday group booking menu (example, potted shrimps and melba toast; roast lamb and redcurrant gravy; sticky toffee pudding), £24.50.


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