I attended the HTA Catering conference at The Belfry earlier this month as part of the panel of experts. As usual, the event was full of new ideas that I was keen to pick up on.

Our team has an excellent reputation across the UK and beyond for creative design and planning for retail at nurseries and garden centres, and we pride ourselves on gaining a clear understanding of our customers’ mind-set and industry developments to enable us to offer the best possible design and planning advice to them strengthen their businesses.

Garden centres are big retail business, positioning themselves as destination attractions with award-winning restaurants and coffee bars, children’s facilities and even spas to keep their customer base on site and spending for the day, so this conference offered new insights into what makes a trip to a garden centre a family day out.

Children as a rule aren’t terribly interested in shopping or gardens, so a dedicated area for youngsters is a savvy investment. Mark Farnsworth, one of the owners of Tong Garden Centre in Yorkshire, was quick to recognise that and instructed Malcolm Scott Consultants to submit plans for a covered play area at his garden centre. Once approved, he explained to delegates, it became a hugely important part of the centre’s offering. The Grasshoppers play area has led to increased visits from new and existing customers and broadened the appeal to a younger age group, setting it apart from regional rivals.

The food offering is paramount, Catering in garden centres is big business – accounting for between 20 and 30 per cent of some centre’s sales.  Having a reputable restaurant is a key way of weather-proofing a centre, gaining repeat custom and a way of overcoming the seasonal ups and downs of the market.  In some cases, it is done so well that these restaurants and catering offers drive customer sales to the garden centre, rather than being a bonus feature to those customers visiting the site. As such, we should probably view it as part of the hospitality industry rather than the garden centre industry.

For example, Fron Goch Garden Centre restaurant now contributes an astonishing 32 per cent of sales of the centre itself, thanks to its focus on superb customer service and continuous training of staff by management, while Anthony Hester, Head of Restaurants at Dobbies Garden Centres states that “a restaurant is like running a beast”.  Dobbies tea rooms are hugely successful and he sees more mileage in the afternoon tea as a special event to attract customers.

Caroline Palmer and Martine Holland, of Palmers Garden Centre, explained how their obsession with providing the highest standards of home cooking had created a huge following from discerning diners – and how their cakes and their Pudding Club in particular had appealed to a faithful following of clientele.
For those recognising the importance of catering within the garden centre industry, it is invaluable to take guidance from successful restaurant owners and managers, and guests at the conference were treated to some of the best from Henry Doubleday, the founder of the hugely popular Leon restaurant chain. Henry put forward the view of a garden centres as a place for the community to meet – he referred to Starbucks founder Howard Schultz’ comment that his coffee chain was ‘the third place’ when it came to places to meet for business or pleasure, with home and work being in first and second place: Henry is of the firm belief that garden centres are just as good a, if not a better, destination for a meeting, with much more to offer than coffee and snacks.

Henry went on to plant a seed in delegates’ minds when it came to creating a point of difference and a reason to return, suggesting that they keep stalwart customers with long standing tastes along with attracting a new audience by taking traditional favourite dishes and being uncompromising on quality ingredients and sources to turn them into signature dishes that they became renowned for, gradually introducing new dishes to the menu to keep it fresh and appealing.

And the one sentence that every business, be it a restaurant, a coffee shop, a garden centre or otherwise should take away with them? The straight-forward advice from Fred Siriex General Manager at the Michelin starred restaurant at Galvin at Windows. Quite simply, he said: “Service is a religion”.  The guest is king.  It is customers who pay our wages and management simply handles the money – and everyone working within a business would do well to remember that.

The investment of money and time that owners have put into garden centres is now increasingly dependent on the successful revenue from catering, giftware and other non-traditional gardening lines.

Good design and planning are essential parts in bringing such a success story about, but can be stressful operations, and are best left to the professionals who oversee such matters regularly. This allows the owner to concentrate on the running of a centre, staff training and ensuring a high quality service offering, which are the crucial factors to a business’ sustained success.

By Malcolm Scott, planning consultant