This year’s HTA Catering Conference was once again a great success, with lots of positive feedback from the event and our delegates taking away some valuable insights from our fantastic speakers.

Neville Stein kicked off the conference with Martin Simmons, commenting on how garden centre offerings have developed to be the powerhouse that they are today. Day one focussed on Strategy and Operations, and Dave Denny, HTA Marketing and Insights Manager, discussed how you should ensure you are part of your customer's self-image - what do they want to say and feel about themselves? Ensure you cater to all egos as well as your customer's stomach.

Martin Christian Kent, People1st, showed ways to try and combat the current chef shortage, and how you need to focus on first line management. Ensure your managers have a broader skills base so that they have the right people skills as well culinary skills. Millennials have a strong desire to work for a company with an ethos they can relate to, so ensure you adopt this approach within your business.  

Our Keynote Speaker for day one was Peter Avis, UK Restaurant Manager of the Year. He shared his inspirational story of how he went from a dishwasher to Restaurant Manager at the prestigious Babylon Rooftop Gardens. Through being encouraged by his managers at the beginning of his career, he was able to see how that company culture helps to empower staff and make them feel like they can achieve, and this is something that he has ensured he has continued with his staff today. “Be open to feedback, don’t just give it. Don’t just be the boss, be the leader. “Listen to all levels of staff and their ideas, because you never know where a great idea may come from. Invest time in your people, especially the young ones, because they’re the future of your business.

We’ve also heard some great case studies from Chief Executive David Yardley and Keren Feeney, Group Catering Manager from Klondyke Group, and also Salim Sajid, Rosebourne Garden Centre, about how they have developed their garden centres and catering offerings into the success that they are today.

Russell Scanlon, Director of Business Development at headline partner Compass Group UK & Ireland gave an overview of Compass Group and aimed to combat some of the myths of working with an outsourced catering provider. He also highlighted the benefits such a partnership can bring to your business. 

Our afternoon of workshops offered our delegates a chance to get their questions answered on a range of catering topics. Neville Stein and Dwayne Ross, Head of IT and Marketing, Coolings Garden Centre, discussed wage cost versus food costs. Getting the balance right can result in making great profits whilst delivering on quality and service, but this can be a tricky balance to find.

Brian O’Hagan and Ben Minter from Matthew Algie discussed the additional confidence that a well-trained barista can give to your customers. By having the expertise and confidence themselves, they can advise your customer on the best options for them, and also add in some additional sales by advising them what food may compliment their option. Also make sure that you are using the best mugs and take away cups. They can have a massive effect on the feeling that your customer has when drinking their coffee. Give them a small, plan white mug and it can be quite a sterile experience, but give them a big, earthy coloured mug and it can have a warming, calming effect. If you offer take away options, ensure your cups are well branded, and think about what additional information you can put on them to give added value to the customer.

The third workshop of the afternoon was a panel session hosted by Simon O’Shea from Compass Group. He was joined by Ben Thompson from Garsons, Sharon Baker from Compass Group, Simon Durnford from IFSE and Michelle Allen from Allen Creatives. They shared with the group their experiences on developing catering offerings from their individual areas of expertise, and answered questions that delegates had on the processes that they used along the way.

Our final session of the day was an interview session from Matthew Appleby, Horticulture Week, talking to Dobbies head of restaurants, Costas Constaninou. Talking about the new initiatives and team at Dobbies, he discussed improving quality in catering offerings and increasing prices to fit your customer profile. They also discussed the plans for Dobbies for the future, including extending their catering offering hours to attract the business commuter.

The evening played host to our annual HTA Catering Conference dinner where we were graced with the presence of 2016 MasterChef Winner, Jane Devonshire. Jane shared with us her down to earth and inspirational story of how her son convinced her to apply for MasterChef, and how no matter what the competition threw at her, she enjoyed every minute. By cooking dishes from her childhood and family favourites throughout the show, it echoed the sentiment highlighted by many speakers at the conference, that the atmosphere and feelings that you are able to create in your cafes and restaurants and the food you serve are just as important as the food itself. The dinner was followed by the Greatest Catering Awards, presented by Trevor Pfeiffer from Garden Trade News.

We continued on day two with a Focus on Food. Pippa McKean got the day started and introduced Professor Charles Spence, Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Oxford University. Professor Spence shared with us insights in his book around the new science of eating. In the world of Instagram and Twitter that we now live in, ensuring that the food that you create has such an impact on the consumer that they want to share it is something to strive for. It is important to sometimes take a step back and think ‘what small changes can we make to make this dish more attractive’? Can you rename it to make it seem more appealing? Is there a way you can change the presentation to make it seem more extravagant? Is there a way you can change the mood in your café or restaurant through different music or place settings? Small changes can have a large impact and potentially increase profits.

Caroline Benjamin from Food Allergy Aware Ltd and Dominic Teague, Chef at One Aldwych, London, highlighted the importance of having a sufficient offering to your gluten/dairy/lactose free customers. Those suffering from an allergy or intolerance don’t want to feel like an inconvenience or constantly have a limited offering. Make them feel valued and important as customers. Make sure your staff have training on the freefrom menu so that they can answer any potential questions that may be asked of them. Dairy allergies are more common than gluten allergies, but are often not catered for as much, so think about what you can offer to them as well.

Over the past few years the National Trust has rejuvenated their cafes and restaurants, and Matt Drew, Head of Food and Beverage, talked us through the strategies that they used. When they first started to look at the redevelopment plans, the first point of call was the menu. They discovered there were 40,000 recipes in use throughout the business, so they narrowed this down to a range of central recipes that individual outlets can choose from to suit their customers. The ingredients that each outlet choose to use for these recipes though is not prescriptive as they are encouraged to use local produce where possible. They also looked at partnerships that they could make with the tenant farmers that they had, and implemented new systems in order to streamline processes. They then standardised pricing so that people knew what to expect no matter which outlet they were visiting, and are now in the process of marketing their offering, which also includes cookbooks and recipe cards so that customers can bake what they have tried at home.

Following on from The Greatest Catering Awards which were presented after dinner on the Tuesday evening, Trevor Pfeiffer from Garden Trade News gave us an insight into the reasons the winners of the Greatest Catering Award took home the prizes, giving examples of award winning catering ideas and approaches from across the industry.

James Debbage, Green Pastures, then gave us a guided tour of his award-winning Gardeners Kitchen Restaurant at Green Pastures, Norwich, which first opened in May 2015. James, who runs Green Pastures with his wife Michelle, were keen to bring their customers the true taste of seasonal ‘garden fresh’ food in a relaxed atmosphere. Known for their fresh salads and afternoon teas presented in a trug, James spoke about the approach that has been key to their success.

Watch a summary video of James in action (see right)

One year on from when they spoke at HTA Catering Conference last year, Tong Garden Centre co-owner Mark Farnsworth, Commercial Manager Sharon McNair and Cath Westmoreland gave a report on the progress made following the developments made. This included renovating the furniture and restaurant decoration, ensuring they had the right catering equipment for the job, and investing in new technologies to ensure all processes are as streamlined as possible. Initial results have been very encouraging, but not ones to rest of their laurels they still have plenty they want to do!

The final panel session, chaired by Pippa McKean, saw panellists Trevor Pfeiffer from Garden Trade News, Mark Farnsworth from Tong Garden Centre, Paul Weston from Frobishers and Rob Owen from Creed Food Service debate what the future holds for garden centre catering. The underlying message was that you shouldn’t be afraid to try new things but you should introduce what is right for your customers at a pace to suit your businesses. Opportunities include an extension of the brunch offer, both earlier and later opening times to capitalise on passing traffic, after school initiatives, Al Fresco living and BBQ demonstrations.

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