Time for garden-centre managers to assess their catering staff

As the season starts, it is time to assess the performance of your customer-facing staff, says Doug Stewart.

Blue Diamond Festival Garden Centre
Blue Diamond Festival Garden Centre

I wonder if we consultants have got it all wrong. We talk about queue-busting strategies, the importance of controlling food costs, and minimum price points. Are in danger of losing sight of what really matters? That is, the customer experience. After all, it is the total customer experience that keeps people coming back, or not.

As things gear up for the new season it is time to focus on your staff. They are your greatest resource, but are you extracting every bit of potential? So, take a few minutes and observe. Are your staff:

  • relaxed efficient and productive? Are they aware of what is going on around them so they can pre-empt any problems and keep things running smoothly.
  • helping customers who are struggling either with children, shopping or helping elderly customers carry their trays?
  • on top of their game, clearing tables within three minutes of people leaving, and do they stop and chat to customers who are waiting?
  • just as adept at getting out of conversations with attention-seeking customers so they can be friendly while still being productive?
  • bright eyed and full of energy, immaculately presented and have they always got a smile on their faces?
  • recommending their favourites rather than just trying to up-sell a scone with every coffee?
  • congratulating customers on their menu choices?
  • working as part of a well-honed team? One that is outward looking and performs, rather than one that has become inward looking.
  • proud to be serving locally produced food? Are they telling customers it is produced locally, or proudly declaring it's all baked "here in our kitchens"?
  • do they know your ethical and fair-trade policies? Are they raging evangelists about your values?

If the answer to all those questions is yes, then carry on with all that staff training, it is paying dividends. However, if the answer is no, well I am sure that you can guess what you need to do.


Location: A part of the Van Hage's garden centre at the new £25m Garden Park Investments' site at Peterborough. Not much ruralness going on. Lyons Sleeman Hoare designed the site, HPW designed the garden centre and Barnwoods built the shopfittings. Modern and classy - far from rustic and with a slightly generic appeal for the mass market.

Locality: Uses Rutland-based Hambletons butchers and deli. "Wherever possible we have sourced local products so helping to cut down the environmental impact of long delivery journeys," says Van Hage.

Points of difference: Great selection of products - but at 380sq m, it's not the biggest farmshop owing to planning constraints.

History: Van Hage was founded in 1953 and operates from three sites at Great Amwell, Chenies and now Peterborough.

Specialities for sale: Olive oil tapped from the vat; Lincolnshire honey from Brian Halsey's bees; home-made, award-winning jam from Jenny @ Jenny's Jam in Lincolnshire; Suffolk-brewed lager from Calvors; Tom's Cakes from Cambridgeshire; local beer from Potbelly Brewery in Kettering; still and sparkling water by Acwellsyke; fruit drinks by Belvoir Fruit Farm; and; plum loaf bread from Welbourne's Bakery.


Atmosphere: Businesslike and very much part of the whole garden centre.

Location: Carved out of the newish centre and surrounded by partitioning but big and bustling. 7/10

Queues: None at 11.30am but by mid-day was seriously busy.

Clear tables: Yes. 9/10

Prices: Reasonable: tea pot for one £1.25; panini £3.85; baguette £3.50-£3.96; carvery roast £7.95. 8/10

Staff: Both staff who served me called me darling, which was sweet. 9/10

Layout: The flow of the store is a bit odd. There are two main entrances - one from the car park that goes round the side of restaurant. An automatic sliding door to the planteria opens when people walk past provoking an icy blast. There are sofas and a children's play area. And for adults, there are newspapers on sticks. 7/10

Overall: The place quickly filled up by 12.30pm. It was well stocked with food and staff. Not branded as Blue Diamond except on back of receipts. During a cold wintry day, this cafe was the busiest place in the area. The venue is functional and popular. Perhaps surprisingly this restaurant wasn't really themed or even sectioned off from the rest of the garden centre. But that did not seem to make a difference to the customers, who enjoyed everything from the kids' play area to the pensioners' specials. 8/10

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