HTA Catering Conference 2019

It’s a chaotic yet profitable recipe for garden centre catering

Balancing staffing levels through the day, having too many customers at peak times, needing more kitchen space, having a full car park but a quiet location, and managing layout and workflow, all make for a chaotic yet profitable recipe for the garden centre catering arena.

Garden centre catering is in good condition right now. Turnover is a good and significant part of business. On average garden centre cafes and restaurants contribute to 15-20% of a garden centre’s turnover.

Both those looking to develop their catering outlet and those introducing catering for the first time, came together at The HTA Catering conference to find out how they could get ‘A slice of the pie’. Sponsored by Frobishers, the popular one-day event took place on 3 July at Horticulture House in Oxfordshire, and was packed full of top tips and practical advice.

Why catering?
Horticultural business consultant Neville Stein hosted the day and set the scene by reminding delegates of the importance of garden centre catering.

Here’s a check list of what your catering offer should have done for your business…

  • Weather proofed your business - Market as a separate entity.
  • Increased sales – Measure items per customer.
  • Improved your cash flow – Increased cash flow can help fund the rest of the garden centre.
  • Improved your profits – What % of your total sales will come from catering?
  • Increased your customer experience - How do you measure happiness?
  • Increased brand loyalty - What tools can you use to improve loyalty?
  • Increased dwell time - Get customers to shop the whole store.

Your prep area
Charlie Weller, from Space Catering discussed the considerations you should make before planning for or redesigning a food preparation area. He explained that you need to really understand your food offer so you can have the right equipment for your needs. He used the humble ham sandwich to show how the execution of items on a menu determine the design of the prep area. If you want to offer exclusively homemade produce you should expect to need space for extra prep stages and equipment.

Charlie spoke about the right interior finishes for good hygiene and functional use from the floor and wall surface, to the ceiling, overhead fixtures and lighting. He emphasised that materials need to be non-porous and easy to clean. Layout considerations for safe practice and good hygiene included the distance between benches and having separate raw and cooked food areas. Charlie stressed that the aim is to maintain good food flow and keep food moving forward in the food preparation process to avoid cross contamination; a under bench fridge is handy is storage.

Planning your space
Paul Pleydell from Pleydell Smithyman outlined what you need to consider in designing your service area and café space.

His top tips included:

  • Site the café/restaurant in the back corner of your shop so customers must walk through the shop and pass tempting products to get there.
  • Have a separate location for food deliveries.
  • Consider evening access for after-hours dining.
  • Divide your total catering area as 20% kitchen, 20% servery and 60% seating.
  • If working out how big your seating area needs to be – use 1.45m2 per seat.
  • Counter service faster and the most efficient. It helps to turn tables around quickly and adds a bit of theatre.
  • Table service is seeing a higher spend per customer, but you do need to balance that with staff time and car park occupancy.
  • Keep the restaurant sophisticated by providing separate areas for diners with children and for coffee and snacks.
  • Square and rectangle tables for two people are more practical as they can be put together for bigger groups. Make the table big enough for the style of your food offering.
  • Choose simple wipe clean seats with soft bases. People love booths too.
  • Planning permission, pre-application, building regulations, fire safety and environmental health – are a must!

Less is more.
Case study – Thirsk Garden Centre

Helen Joyce from Thirsk Garden Centre told delegates how they solved the problem of being a victim of their own success. Turning long queues, a shortage of tables, irate customers, stressed staff and organised chaos in general into a £2 million turnover attributing 38% to the coffee shop. They increased their offering by in fact decreasing it. After a thorough review of the catering offer, Thirsk recognised that their menu was too wide with too many complicated dishes. To speed up service and maintain quality, they removed bottle neck items and specials from the menu and become predominately bread based. Hot drinks and cakes are best sellers and loose leaved teas are also very popular. They now buy in local produce, use table trackers for table service, proportion items and have a state-of-the-art high speed oven, and actually close slightly earlier and for eight days over Christmas. Since making these major changes Thirsk has also reduced staff and trained them to be able to take on multiple roles. In the last 12 months the coffee shop turnover has gone up by 4% compared to the previous 12 months. Labour costs are at 32-34% and food costs are at 22% of turnover. Thirsk now feels in control of the business. The chaos has been replaced with a relaxed atmosphere and service is better all-round making both staff and customers are happier. Using its new business catering model, Thirsk now plans to expand the coffee shop with a story barn-like extension.

Embracing sustainability
Sustainability was the theme for an open forum focussing on managing food waste, sustainable practice and managing without plastic. We are witnessing a cultural shift, not a mere trend. Marginal gains are to be had from a sustainable kitchen. Here are some useful tips:

  • The pot wash is a useful location to identify food that customers aren’t eating.
  • Give used coffee grounds to customers for the garden.
  • Separate food, glass, paper and plastic for recycling and to identify what waste you produce the most of.
  • Look at a de-waterer which can reduce food waste leaving the premises.
  • A good oil filtration system can save on oil costs.
  • Use jars instead of sauce sachets.
  • Use plant produce from the garden centre that has gone over but is still fresh.
  • Take advantage of renewable heat incentives.
  • Choose equipment with good energy ratings by Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS).
  • Use energy management systems for clever ways to divide energy.
  • Put refrigeration on a pack system. Consider a walk-in fridge or freezer.
  • Do an end of day power check and switch off anything that doesn’t need to be on.

  • Sell water in glass bottles or offer self-service free water.

But first, coffee!
A coffee related panel session featuring representatives David Blair from Beanworks and David Beattie from Rounton Coffee spoke about the craft movement surrounding coffee today. Smaller sized, but better-quality coffee and dairy free alternatives. As well as a move toward traceability from farm to cup where everyone in the supply chain receives a profit are integral to a good cup of coffee. An interesting point was made regarding filter coffee which has received a bad press of late. Our coffee experts believe filter coffee to be a beautiful and better alternative to the americano which they don’t rate highly at all. Made right, filter coffee may be a queue buster and maintain consistency. It can be charged at the same price as an americano and can be changed occasionally to create a story. Our experts also encouraged delegates to invest in their baristas. Have a head barista with fantastic coffee knowledge and skill that can train others to be fast and efficient. They also suggested creating coffee themed summer drinks – a simple iced latte with caramel syrup works a treat.

Considering customers’ diets
Caroline Benjamin from Food Allergy Aware looked at customers’ diets from allergies and intolerances to lifestyle choices like vegetarianism and veganism. A key takeaway was that you should treat all your free from customers the same and follow the same process regardless of whether they are allergic, intolerant or free from for environmental or religious reasons. No more asking ‘are you allergic?’

Other important points included:

  • Don’t make the free from option the dish without half the dish.
  • If people have an intolerance, they know how much they can tolerate.
  • Clean areas with soap and water, not just antibacterial spray, to remove the allergenics.
  • Have separate equipment, preparation and storage areas for free from dishes.
  • Don’t serve allergy customers on wooden boards, use non-porous plates.
  • Train your staff and make your allergy information available to both staff and customers.
  • Takeaway food needs a full allergen label.
  • Record near misses and look for patterns to spot potential issues.

Menu planning
James Debbage from Green Pastures, a family run garden centre and farm shop based in Norfolk, shared his menu tips encouraging delegates to have something for everyone. According to James, mums with babies are looking for seating with a play area where they can have a rest and catch up. They also want a kid’s menu with spotlessly clean highchairs and changing areas. Ladies who lunch like a little ambience and finer food. Families visiting for special occasions need food that suits all the generations and perhaps alcoholic drink options.  Business lunches are looking for fast service, good coffee, light options and possibly a good local produce story. The biggest group, people of leisure and retirees, love a good home bake.

James’ menu included classic choices like cooked breakfast, jams and toast, acai bowls, jacket potatoes, quiche, soup, burgers, ploughmans, roasts and allotments salads. All made with luxurious ingredients and beautifully served.

Case study – Thurrock Garden Centre
Sarah Willis, Restaurant Manager of Woody’s at Thurrock Garden Centre shared how they linked their ‘A Summer of Fun’ campaign into their catering offer.

Great for young families, Woody’s has a soft play and sandpit, and during ‘a summer of fun' they added Disney princesses into the mix. Throughout the summer families could buy tickets for a Disney princess to visit their table followed by a dance performance at the front of the café. The princesses were a huge hit with the children and led onto further characters being introduced. This year Paw Patrol and Buzz Lightyear and Woody from The Toy Story are booked in.
To keep the family fun activities going Thurrock also held a ‘festival of fun’ – Glasto babies present Glasto kids show! This included face painting, balloon modelling, alpaca and goat handling along with a bbq and DJ. All events sold out and were successful, with social media being a great way to promote the activities. For the more mature generation Thurrock hosts tribute acts which also sell out.

Visit for a free catering report.

Many thanks to our sponsors:

Headline Partner – Frobisher’s

Exhibitor Partners – Beanworks, Change Tea, CPL Online, Dawn Foods, illy, Meiko UK, Organix, Pleydell Smithyman, Rounton Coffee and Space Group



Deborah Gould, Catering Manager, Ferndale Garden Centre

“The HTA Catering Conference makes you think about ways to improve."

Melanie Sewell, Catering Director and Co-owner, Fron Goch Garden Centre

"Discussing with others about specific issues and getting ideas on how to improve was most useful. I also found the wage versus food costs helpful and interesting.”

Claire Martinsen, Founder & Owner, Breckland Orchard

“A perfect opportunity to network with key contacts from the sector."

Caroline Long, Personnel and Training Manager, Associated Independent Stores Ltd

“I found this event a fantastic source of information, really insightful and inspirational.”


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