Where next for cafés?

It has taken a French pastry chef to show UK garden centres what they are missing

It occurred to me the other day as I was tucking into another "home-baked" scone in my local garden centre's coffee shop that I could, in fact, be anywhere.

Garden centres' food offer, it has to be said, has become both predictable and bland. Which to a certain extent is fine; our customers are, after all, creatures of habit who know what they like and like what they know.

Our customers expect their cakes to be freshly baked and their sausage and mash to be made from locally produced, high-welfare pigs - after all, everyone is doing that now.

We need to find the next big thing, the next "local" idea that can do to our coffee shops what grow-your-own has done to our planterias.

I believe that next big thing can be found well-hidden down a side street in the tiny East Yorkshire market town of Beverley, where Thierry Condette has opened a Salon de The and patisserie in a failed coffee shop.

First of all, the obvious: if we are a nation of tea drinkers then why do most garden centres (and other catering establishments) have coffee shops rather than tea rooms that celebrate our national and much-loved drink? So should we be considering rebranding our coffee shops into tea rooms?

Then there is the patisserie part of the business, where the cakes are made and displayed with the skills of a true artist. Every cake at Condette's patisserie is an individual work of art and is served on a plate decorated with an image of a flower painted in chocolate and fruit coulis. After all, it is a widely accepted truth that we buy with our eyes, so where are our presentation skills?

Even the formidable Yorkshire "ladies that lunch" are deserting their usual haunts to enjoy simple, authentic, beautifully presented, artisan-produced food. Would our menus measure up to that description?

So the biggest question of all in garden centre catering is not where to go next to differentiate ourselves, it is why - when our planterias are filled with colour and our coffee shops are filled with flower-loving tea drinkers - it takes a French pastry chef in a small East Yorkshire market town to point out the obvious.

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

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