Show the owner's personality in the restaurant, cut down on meat and concessions and grow your own were the big messages from the HTA Catering Conference in Coventry (12 February).
Inspiring stories of local sourcing and organically built enterprises came from Timmermans Garden Centre, Plantation, Coletta & Tyson and Fairweather's Garden Centre. New Forest-based Patrick Fairweather said his 1980 cafe became Steff's Kitchen in 2008-09.
The nearby Patrick's Patch supplies fresh produce for salads, soups and pickles. Primary schoolchildren pay £1 each to visit and 70 pre-booked diners pay £35 a time. The centre has even sold a £100 bottle of wine.
"People love the story of the garden," said Fairweather. It costs £25,000 a year to run but as a "cross-selling visitor attraction" has increased catering turnover from £280,000 to £680,000 in three years with a 72-78 per cent rise in gross margin.
Wages are 32 per cent and average spend is £9. Fairweather added: "Gardens are a great resource - an opportunity, not a burden."
Greg and Sophie Timmermans from Nottinghamshire-based Timmermans said their Belle & Joe's Kitchen has doubled in two years and gross margin has increased from 61 to 73 per cent.
The key lesson is to "attract new high-spend customers and still win over Margaret and Doris who want a pot of tea for one and two cups", they added. A cafe bus has ended queuing problems.
Consultant Salim Sajid said: "Dobbies and The Garden Centre Group are going to fundamentally change garden centre mainstream retailing and leave a huge vacuum for independents to differentiate their offer."
Garden centres must find younger customers, he added, but older ones must not be dismissed because they watch food television and use Twitter.
He advised retailers to verify local sourcing and traceability and to source regionally - within 50 miles - if local is mediocre. The National Trust gains 79 per cent gross profit in its 109 cafes by using "flour and water" staples - coffee, soup and scones - he added.
Sajid said supermarkets sell cheap, poor meat and customers are moving to eating less, better meat and seasonal salad - an opportunity for garden centres to source their own and make more money.
"I can see a time when meat is less than 10 per cent of the menu," he predicted. "Garden centre customers want to engage with the owner. If independents lose that they're dead in the water. Personality is the difference."
Sajid said Fairweather's grows 47 varieties of tomato and writes them into the menu. But he added that food-service providers are acceptable for staples such as flour "but not 42 per cent pork sausages. Use your local butcher. Show provenance on things that matter."
Lauren Cocks, marketing manager, Coletta & Tyson:
- Increased cafe size from 60 to 192 covers.
- Old bought-in cake was 69p - homemade is 23p with 84 per cent margin.
- Turnover has increased from £157,000 to £458,000 - a rise of 192 per cent.