Catering sales continued to rise in 2013, up by 4.3 per cent, which is more than the overall rise of 3.68 per cent according to Garden Centre Association figures. But how long can catering continue to be the riring star of garden retail? Are garden centres cultivating good taste in food or simply catering for a captive audience?
The HTA is hoping that its fifth catering conference (Hilton Hotel, Coventry, 12 February) will provide an opportunity to reflect on how far garden centre catering has come, tackle key areas of operational interest, identify ways in which catering operations can stand out and discover new trends and future developments. All of this will keep the category fresh for the future, say the organisers.
Catering can provide some garden centres with up to 35 per cent of their turnover. But in others, such as the big destination store Scotsdales Garden Centre, catering is just 11 per cent. HTA 2012 research shows that 50 per cent of garden retailers provide catering in their outlets and an estimated 50 million British adults visit garden centre cafés every year, with 29 per cent of them visiting the garden centre specifically to use the café.
Latest 2013 research shows 10 per cent of all adults over 15 years old visit a garden centre coffee shop each year. Typical garden centre catering sales average 15-20 per cent of overall sales, according to the HTA.
Pleydell Smithyman director Paul Pleydell, who was on the steering committee behind the conference and is chairing a session, says pop-up facilities are increasingly important to some garden centres in dealing with peaks in footfall.
He explains that garden centres are "extremely good" at dealing with big numbers. For instance, Haskins has a couple of 600-seaters, while Bents has 750 covers. "They have some of the largest restaurants in the country. Where else apart from food courts in shopping centres and airports, although they are more fragmented now by concessions, do you have retail catering on high volumes like that?"
But on the downside, Pleydell says garden centres can "do better" by making sure their offering is distinctive. "There’s a lot of competition with food and restaurants so you need to be the best," he adds. "Do something that stands out and is different, distinctive and memorable."
He says garden centres are at different stages in their catering "sophistication" and the conference aims to cater for all. Another big issue Pleydell points to is staffing and how to cut wage costs while keeping food and service standards high. He says pop-up cafés dealing with extra customers during events such as Christmas or for ice rinks help remove peaks and ultimately may cut overall costs.
Van Hage managing director Chris Roberts will will speak about the opportunities pop-up cafés can offer to cope with peaks in demand, including in the run-up to Christmas, without impacting on sales at the main café.
Organiser Sam Gunston says the HTA has talked a lot about the restaurant and sandwich side of catering in the past but this year wants to look at the bakery element, linked to the popularly of hit BBC television show The Great British Bake Off.
The 2011 winner, Jo Wheatley, will talk about trends in baking, while Jemma Swallow, owner of The Tea Box in Richmond-upon-Thames, will discuss the trend for better teas to be served.
"With speciality teas forming the fastest-growing area within the tea industry, wise café owners around the world are now capitalising on this new trend to get one step ahead of the competition," she says. "Instant coffee in catering establishments is no longer acceptable for consumers so why compromise the quality of our great national beverage — tea? Selling loose-leaf tea not only boosts your sales revenue but can also enhance your reputation."
Blue Diamond managing director Alan Roper will discuss the pros and cons of waitress service at the event. At Blue Diamond’s rebuilt Redfields centre in Hampshire the chefs are on view, tea and coffee are served in pots and the cups are eclectic. Roper says: "We have jars of tea and coffee on display and you can touch and feel the Basilur tea. I’m fed up with milky lattes. You make more money if the coffee has less milk in it."
Roper has strong views on garden centre catering and maintains that using non-commercial equipment in kitchens will give a point of difference from garden centres that are looking at Costa Coffee-style solutions.
The Garden Centre Group has a long-held ambition to make catering one-third of the business, alongside gardening and concessions. Recent ideas include linking the concession and catering side with more branded Costa Coffee outlets and a new look at catering. Addressing that issue, "Differentiating from the High Street" will be food and beverage director Jason Danciger’s topic.
Danciger was previously head of hospitality and fresh counters at Marks & Spencer for five years, with responsibility for the high street chain’s restaurants, espresso bars and cafés, and will offer tips on how garden centres can set themselves apart from the high street. n