Garden centre coffee shops - A touch of sparkle

Coffee shops will need to transform themselves to tempt customers in this Christmas, says Doug Stewart.

Perhaps it is easier for the other departments? The gift shop gets the lights, decorations, Santa's grotto and a forest of artificial trees, the planteria fills with the scent of freshly cut Christmas trees and the shelves in the farm shop start to sag under the weight of festive treats.

To keep the customer experience consistent, our coffee shops have to transform themselves this Christmas - offering turkey toasties or Christmas dinners is not enough. A total transformation of the coffee shop is called for.

First of all, what are your targets for the coffee shop? A 15 per cent increase in sales over last year could be achievable with a little planning, imagination - and, of course, Christmas magic and sparkle ...

Reindeer footprints could lead through the centre and into the coffee shop, which should be tastefully decorated and smell of Christmas - freshly cut pine trees and cinnamon.

Our customers want to feel they are going somewhere special, not just our normal coffee shop, so why not move the tables around to give the coffee shop a new look and feel?

How about putting in a huge advent calendar with a door-opening ceremony to tempt mums and children after school? The treasures behind the doors could even be shared with the assembled children to add to the experience.

The food offer for Christmas could be given a lift with "Santa's little helper" meal deals, along with healthy options such as Christmas milkshakes.

Give the regular food offer a festive makeover with a light dusting of icing sugar on scones, and festive garnishes.

Bake tiny Christmas cookies or petite madeleines and sell in small, attractively merchandised bags by the till with gift tags such as "for mummy at Christmas" to encourage sales.

Offer incentives, such as a free bottle of wine when four people enjoy a traditional Christmas dinner, or a free glass of wine for solo diners.

Partner with local companies such as the butcher or baker to offer a special item only available at your centre, such as a Christmas sausage.

Offer incentives to encourage additional visits. How about a collector card to be stamped during November and December encouraging children to collect the names of all nine of Santa's reindeer, with a treat in January as the reward to increase footfall after Christmas?

The list of possibilities is endless - Christmas cakes baked to order, children's choirs, suppers with Santa, special-order fruit tarts to name a few. Why not get your staff together for a brainstorming session to transform your Christmas offer this year?

Doug Stewart is a partner in Waring Stewart Associates, which provides business support, marketing and training solutions for the horticulture industry

STEWARTS COFFEE SHOP 'EDWARDS'

Location: Christchurch, Dorset. Overlooks the planteria, but more importantly for Stewarts, next to a retail park with a big Sainsbury's. Points of difference Live music on Thursday nights on the last Thursday of most months. Mike Botterill (jazz guitarist) is on 25 November.

History: Stewarts was founded in 1742 - enough said: it has plenty of history. The coffee shop is called "Edwards" after Edward Stewart, who opened the garden centre at Ferndown in 1955, claimed to be the UK's first. That centre included a coffee shop, which showed great foresight. The coffee shop at the new centre, with its Forest Room, Conservatory and Greenhouse areas recently reopened after an eight-month redevelopment.

Specialities: Late-night openings with dinner served every Thursday; opens late until 7.15pm in the coffee shops at both GardenLands and The Country Garden Centre between March and December. A classic garden-centre cafe menu but with a redesigned space that is well organised and uncluttered. Last year, reindeers were on show in the nearby grotto. There is no reindeer on the menu but Stewarts' farm does raise Dexter cattle. Gluten-free, diabetic, vegetarian and low-fat cakes, snacks and main meals.

Prices: Meat pie dish of the day, £6.80; Friday fish, £6.95; curry/roast, £7.75; jacket potato with butter, £3.75. Cakes from £1.20. Salad bar, £3.50/£4.50. Omelette with two fillings, £6; breakfast, £5.50.

There are "buy one get one free" offers on main dishes on late-night Thursday openings. The coffee shop also caters for a wide range of dietary needs.

HAYES FOUR SEASONS TERRACE CAFE

Location: Upstairs at one of the North's destination garden centres in the heart of the Lake District in Ambleside.

Specialities: Farrer's Lakeland Tea (£1.39 for one; £2.69 for two) and Hawkshead Brewery beer for sale, as well as English Lakes ices.

Points of difference: Amazing views over fells. Lovely balcony. Stained glass-effect windows inside. No toilets - you have to go downstairs and outside. A good rainy-day destination option, even if you don't like gardening - it rains a lot in the Lakes. Acamp furniture to sit on outside. Clean and efficient service, but staff were keen for us to leave late on Saturday afternoon. Laurus nobilis on display on the balcony. Five stars for food safety from South Lakeland District Council. Wine menu. Two separate counters - restaurant and hot drinks.

History: The Hayes were local gardeners (and neighbours of the poet, Wordsworth) in the 19th century, becoming Chelsea-exhibiting nurserymen in the 20th century. Site founded as a nursery in 1921, becoming a garden centre in the 1960s and seeing the "Crystal Palace" built in 1987. Currently undergoing a £5m redevelopment planned by Malcolm Scott Consultants.

Prices: Panini, £4.49; Christmas two-course menu, £10.99; three courses, £12.99 - features parsnip and apple soup, turkey and Christmas pudding plus alternatives. Jam portion, 54p; sandwiches from £3.29; tomato soup and wedge of bread, £4.29.


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