What is the next step for garden centre catering?

It is no longer enough for garden centres to simply offer a catering service - the standards of catering are at an all-time high and now retailers need to have a wow-factor to stand out.

Upgrading the quality of the food, rather than blindly following trends is what is important to customers, says Hillier managing director Chris Francis, who is leading a roll-out of restaurant upgrades at Hillier’s 12 gardening centres, which started at Newbury in 2016. He says: "It’s about better quality food. We still do ham, egg and chips, but now it’s ham carved from the bone and free range egg."

The move away from microwave-style food does not mean going as far as brining in sharing plates and tacos, but it could mean re-understanding local produce, introducing pop-up catering locations and staying open later, say catering consultants. And forget baked potatoes at your peril, say garden centre chiefs.

More than three million UK adults have visited a garden centre restaurant in the last three months and this trend shows no signs of slowing. The market, worth £200 million when valued in 2011 by HTA, is continuing to grow by around 10% each year.

Belle and Joe’s Kitchen at Timmermans Garden Centre makes over a quarter of the company’s annual turnover, according to a review of its accounts in March.

Greg Timmerman-Delves, co-director of Timmermans with wife Sophie Timmerman, says: "The restaurant accounts for 26% of our annual turnover, and we make 73% gross profit on it."

With more than 1,400 garden centres now offering catering facilities, experts in the field say garden centres need to do more to move forward and stand out in the industry.

Doug Stewart, director and founder of retail consultancy firm Doug Stewart, says: "[Garden centre catering] is about being ethical, green, and really understanding what is means to be local. A line at the bottom of the menu stating the food is grown locally doesn’t cut it anymore."

Neville Stein, director at Ovation Business Coaching and Consultancy, says: "There is now an emphasis on fresh, seasonal and local produce. There is an opportunity for caterers to create more exciting menus which are different for the customer." 

Stewart adds: "Garden centres should partner with local food suppliers and create real regional dishes. They really have to re-understand what is meant by local."

Green Pastures garden centre has stormed to the top of the market on this trend. The Garden Kitchen Restaurant was built in 2015 after the company saw an opportunity to branch into catering.

The Norfolk-based garden centre was named winner of the Catering Excellence Award at Horticulture Week’s  Garden Retail Awards in February. The restaurant redefines the meaning of local by using produce grown in the farm house located on the property.

James Debbage, director of Green Pastures, says: "We have a strong ethic of fresh and local produce which we have extended from the farm to into the restaurant."

He adds: "The customer can come into the centre and see [the produce] growing, and see us harvesting it…the produce picked that morning will be in the kitchen ready for the lunch menu.

"We are different to the norm because we grow our own salads from late spring, summer and autumn. We grow 50-60 different lines and in the height of the season there are 40 different ingredients in our salads."

Garden centres can increase profit by creating more exciting and different menus with local produce. Stewart says: "If you can create truly exciting menus, then you can raise the price and increase profit."

Neville adds: "Retailers must make sure the details are right to ensure its catering service is profitable, this lies in making sure the menu is most profitable and bringing something different to a variety of demographics.

Garden centres are introducing secondary catering locations to manage customer flow. A cost- effective approach to this issue are mobile catering facilities or pop-ups.

Tim Stainton, director of Future Thinking Retail, showcases mobile catering units from food service provider Compass Group. He said: "Food-to-go is expected to go up by 3.8% in 2017. This includes anything in an unexpected location which has a theme or unique menu." 

Stainton adds pop ups can charge more for its food because "75%t of consumers say it is worth paying more money for the experience." The statistics are based from data conducted by Compass Insight Company.

Stein says: "Secondary locations will help gardens centres manage demand. It enables centres to stop lost sales opportunities. I have seen an increase in pop-up catering services and I can see a massive opportunity for this to grow. If they are funky, fun and different they will attract different demographics to the centre."

Stainton says pop ups "add theatre to the environment while giving garden centres additional capacity. They are perfect for covering peak months and it is a cheap solution."

Although it is important to welcome different demographics, garden centres should not introduce unique pop ups at the expense of loyal customers. Stainton says: "There needs to be a balance of menu types. Garden centres should stick to the core elements but they can play around at the edges. Especially in London or high-end garden centres because the menu can be more creative."

Stewart believes pop-up are only success if they are done correctly. He says: "Pop ups should bewheeled in and wheeled away for key retailing periods. True pop-ups show no sign of being there. If there is evidence of a pop up which is closed customers will feel short changed."

Retailers do not need to spend money on creating its own pop-up catering service but can still generate a profit and manage demand. Stein says: "Garden centres can outsource and get a rental income from a portable caterer which can easily set up in the car park."

Timmermans Garden Centre saw an alternative opportunity to manage customer demand without the addition of a second location. The Timmermans sold their popular marketing-tool, an old route-master bus, in favour of an extension to Belle and Joe’s Kitchen.

The extension, which has an estimated budget of £75,000-100,000 will increase seat covers by 50%. The route-master bus has partially funded the project.

Timmerman-Delves says: "Currently we have 102 seats which gets very busy. Last year we got planning permission to extend. We want to add another 50 covers to cater for larger parties and busier periods."

Timmerman-Delves believes that an extension is the right decision for the garden centre to manage consumer demand because the restaurant is so popular. He says: "Since the restaurant opened we have gone from four to seven members of staff not including the chef. It is important to have loyal staff who will stay with you through the changes."

Stein says: "Secondary locations will help gardens centres manage demand. Usually the second catering location is more simple. It enables centres to stop lost sales opportunities.

"I have seen an increase in pop-up catering services and I can see a massive opportunity for this to grow. If they are funky, fun and different they will attract different demographics to the centre."

Stewart believes pop-up are only success if they are done right. He says: "Pop ups should be wheeled in and wheeled away for key retailing periods. True pop-ups show no sign of being there. If there is evidence of a pop-up which is closed customers will feel short changed."

Retailers do not need to spend money on creating its own pop-up catering service but can still generate a profit and manage demand. Stein says: "Garden centres can outsource and get a rental income from a portable caterer which can easily set up in the car park."

To yield the most profit from the restaurants gardens should consider extending the hours of the restaurant beyond the opening times of the garden centre if it is plausible.

Stein says: "There is a missed opportunity to open catering services at night, you wouldn’t see a high-street restaurant open for eight hours a day, so why would a garden centre restaurant close early? Of course, it all depends on the internal logistics of the centre but if it allows it than it’s a great opportunity."

The Gardeners Kitchen has experimented with opening later with monthly themed evening dinners. These fine dining evenings attract diners and include entertainment such as Radio Norfolk Gardeners Question Time.

Debbage says: "We get requests for private events. A church group has evening meetings in the restaurant and it encourages people who wouldn’t normally shop in garden centres come back and spend money."

For Gardeners Kitchen to turn a profit for the evening events it has to establish a breakeven number of booking guests. Debbage adds: "We have to pay for added labour so we need to make sure that we have enough guests to justify it."

Stewart believes there is huge potential for garden centre restaurants to stay open later, but only if restaurant commit to opening throughout the week. "The staff work hard during the day and now you would be asking them to stay into the evening. For one off occasions, it is more trouble and more disruptive than the benefits.

"On the other hand, it costs so much to build kitchens and facilities that it seems a waste to not put it to use more. It would only be worth it if you opened the restaurant up seven days a week."

The morning and lunch-time rush is something that all catering services can understand. These are the key periods where the garden centre is most busy. Catering services can help regulate visiting times by presents unbeatable offers to the customer.

Stewart says: "Retailers need to create unbeatable offers and marketing. I’ve seen offers, particularly in hotels, with offers like a free scone with a cup of coffee in the morning to get people in before 11 o’clock. Scones do not have a huge effect on the margin."

Green Pastures have introduced a gardener’s afternoon tea which is served in a wooden garden trug. The garden-themed catering service allows customers to have a different experience and it boosts the afternoon trade between 2:30-4:30pm.

Garden centre catering can increase profits by making the menu more efficient. Stein argues this is the first thing a retailer should do to make a bigger profit. He encourages caterers to search for the same quality produce but do the research and find it cheaper. This could include negotiating lower prices with suppliers.

This year’s Garden Retail Catering Excellence Award winner was Green Pastures in Norfolk. Their Gardeners Kitchen Restaurant only opened in 2015 but has already won a host of local and national prizes.

Novel ideas include Head Gardeners Breakfast and Muddy Boot Chocolate Sundae, served in a glass wellington boot. Gardener s Afternoon Tea, served in a wooden trug is also a big talking point.

The new timber-framed building has underfloor heating and doors open onto a patio in the garden centre.

More than 40 varieties of herbs and salads are grown onsite as is asparagus, squashes, leeks, beetroot, beans, brassicas and rhubarb.

The restaurant has 70 local suppliers.  Home-made pies and cakes are specialities.


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