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.

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.

Horticultural business consultant Neville Stein hosted the day and set the scene by reminding delegates of the importance of garden centre catering. Weather proofing a business, increased sales and improved cash flow were on the check list of what a catering offer should bring to a business.

Charlie Weller, from Space Catering discussed the considerations of 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. Charlie also stressed that a kitchen needs to keep food moving forward in the food preparation process to avoid cross contamination.

Paul Pleydell from Pleydell Smithyman outlined what needs to be considered in designing a service area and café space. His top tips included siting the café/restaurant in the back corner of the shop so customers must walk through the shop and pass tempting products to get there. If working out how big a seating area needs to be – use 1.45m2 per seat.

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. In the last 12 months the coffee shop turnover has gone up by 4% compared to the previous 12 months.

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. Simple tips included: The pot wash is a useful location to identify food that customers aren’t eating. Use jars instead of sauce sachets. Choose equipment with good energy ratings by Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS). Sell water in glass bottles or offer self-service free water.

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.

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?’

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. 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.

Sarah Willis, Restaurant Manager of Woody’s at Thurrock Garden Centre shared how they linked their ‘A Summer of Fun’ campaign to 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 and family themed events like ‘Glasto babies’ being introduced.

Visit www.hta.org.uk/cateringconference for a full write up on the day where you can also download 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

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