Planters is a 25-year-old garden centre built on a green field site near Tamworth in Staffordshire. Owner Gerald Ingram is a farmer's son who began the business in 1990 and has expanded it to become a £5m-turnover operation, with an aim to double that figure. There is a sister site is at Bretby. Recent developments include a restaurant redevelopment. A covered planteria and car park extension are planned.
How has the new restaurant gone?
Ingram The restaurant reopened in April 2015 and has gone really well. We set a target of £1.2m for the first year and will do £1.17m. We're pleased because it's much closer to the target than I thought a few months ago.
Twenty years ago we had a concession. I called it a chalet, customers remember the shed. Then we moved to self-service in 2000 so the old was restaurant 15 years old. It took £700,000 but was beginning to look a bit tired, though probably better than some centres.
Consultants didn't come back with what we wanted but food service firm IFSE understood and were really good. A novel feature is a farmhouse kitchen where people can have a meal with their dog. That is the most talked about aspect of the restaurant.
We have table tracker, which shows how many people sit in each area. We steer clear of a barista-style offer because of the time it takes to do that but anyone who knows much about cafes can go to the coffee shop with barista-style coffee and it's cosy with its wood-burning stove.
We have an open kitchen for theatre but we see more customers using self-service than service - it's 70/30. We've introduced a pizza oven. Again, it's a bit of theatre attracting younger customers.
Ten years ago our customer base was young. Tamworth is a young town but our audience was getting older. We'd lost younger people to retail parks.
How is the restaurant growing the business?
Manager Stuart Gooden A year on and our restaurant has its own clientele, and we're seeing growth across the whole business. We had nine per cent growth last year in the garden centre without the restaurant. We're 25 years old, which is giving us growth pains, so we have car park issues.
The restaurant re-ignited us as a business. Now we're working on the next 10 years. We have electronic point of sale in catering but not in the garden centre - a CSY system with a view to pushing it through the rest of the business. We want to get to £2m in the restaurant. We have 350 internal seats but 500 in the summer with outside seating so could cover the terrace.
What special offers do you run?
Gooden We have 14,000 members for our 10 per cent discount Wednesdays for over 60s. It's £1m turnover and makes another "Sunday" for us, which is good because following the normal pattern of garden centre visits we wouldn't have coped at weekends - and we can sell add-ons such as £100,000 worth of coach trips.
The 10 per cent off is just in the garden centre and not in the restaurant. You can be busy fools, which we don't want to be.
What economic issues is the business facing?
Ingram The major issue for us is the National Living Wage. Wages to sales was 13-14 per cent but is now 18 per cent so we can only afford the living wage by looking at margins and price points. We've been price comparing.
Gooden Initial findings were not shocking at all. We undervalue our plants. You can spend £5.99 on a bouquet from a supermarket but could have a plant for 10 years' enjoyment. Undercharging for plants is an as industry-wide thing. Customers want more and better Wi-Fi. In the countryside it's an issue. At Bretby we're putting in satellite to get broadband on site and here we're looking at a cable that could be four miles long.
What are you doing to bring in new customers?
Ingram We've generally identified we've got to be in the entertainment, experience business. Skytrail opened four years ago and adds to trade at weekends and school holidays. In summer it's a massive draw. We have a beach adjacent to it that proves really popular and appeals to toddlers to teens, though adults can go on as well.
We have a new Pooch Parlour. People see dogs as members of the family now. People can bring dogs into the farmhouse kitchen. So we cater for dog grooming and in the future there might even be a vets and hydrotherapy. It's all about providing entertainment. If young children feel comfortable about visiting garden centres they are more likely to come to garden centres when they are adults rather than go to B&Q.
What are big new areas of growth?
Ingram Probably in pets. It's £500,000 in its own right now, although it's a low-margin category. We have live animals and fresh pet food delivered twice a week.
Gooden Petface gets you to a level and then you need to move on. To do pets credibly you need to source lots of suppliers to get a range. Gardening is still our biggest department. Sundries will grow. We're looking at changing the floor space.
Ingram We're adding to the car park in six-to-12 months and planning to cover the planteria in a Rivero-style structure. We've already used one at Bretby and the advantage is you can open and close the roof. When we had a wet spring Bretby plant sales held up better than other centres, and we can hold more events such as ice rinks and craft fairs. It makes the planteria more usable.
Gooden This Christmas we had a Ruxley Manor-style grotto five-room activity so people were in there for an hour taking a train to the North Pole and making food in Mrs Claus' kitchen. It cost £50,000 to develop. Photo gift sales were a surprisingly good thing. If we want to be a £10m garden centre, and that's the target, we're looking at what we need to get to £10m from our space.
Ingram Health is looking big in the next few years. We've always been in grow your own, but healthy foods and clinic-type things are ideas.
Gooden Staff went on Liz Hutson training and talked about "earthing yourself" in the garden away from electric circuits and Wi-Fi.
Ingram This pushes on the younger demographic and links gardening with schools. The outdoor classroom under the Rivero will help. We're already building on our locally-produced focus. Because we're from a farming background we're supplied a lot by friends.
What is your background?
Ingram My parents run a dairy farm. I didn't fancy milking 300 cows. I've always been people-friendly and always enjoyed gardening, and this industry brings together the two. This was a green field in 1990. In 1985 I finished a business studies degree and decided the corporate environment wasn't for me so I set up a nursery and sold plants from the farm. In 1989 I got planning for a 2,000sq ft glasshouse and built up Planters from there.
What is Planters' competition?
Ingram Mainly the high street more than garden centres - John Lewis, Marks & Spencer. People are looking for something to do. We have two Wyevales nearby and a big Dobbies. They all spent a load of money when they bought them 10 years ago and our turnover went up. To me, as long as you're doing your job there's room for everybody. Increasingly competition is not from garden centres, but we have to differentiate ourselves from Wyevale by not having a lot of concessions on site.
Gooden We're more earthy and family friendly.
Will Dobbies' sale impact on you?
Ingram I don't think it will make much difference. I think there are enough customers for both of us.
What about the uncertainty over glyphosate?
Ingram We generally wouldn't take a stance. It's safe to use until told otherwise.
Gooden The change is led by the customer asking "is this safe?" and the rest is from the EU.
Ingram When we tried environmentally friendly gardening as a promotion it wasn't particularly well picked up, but we are doing well with Neudorff because the rest of the range is getting smaller and their range looks bigger. The real danger is we lose all products because gardening is sidelined by chemical companies.
What is your view on the EU?
Ingram I'm for out. It gives us more freedom to do our own thing. But we need strong government to negotiate a deal. A lot of our product is from Europe, though we don't buy a lot of Dutch plants. We know the EU has added to the cost base of our business and we're not anticipating it getting any greater if we're out of Europe. For instance, the Working Time Directive our Government makes even more onerous than the EU. A lot of directives are coming out of Europe. We're a small voice in Europe. Out of Europe the Government could have more money to spend and cut taxes. Growers might be nervous because of the immediate source of foreign labour, but it might just mean we decide who comes in.