Visiting a garden centre is part of everyday life for the British. Once there, they can not only buy flowers and other horticultural products, but find a wide traditional range of cooked food. For the centre oper-ators, a restaurant is much more than a supplementary service: it is a marketing tool, attracting visitors also outside the normally busy months of spring and autumn; an unusual event location, which satisfies the longing of many town-dwellers for the countryside; and, last but not least, a profit centre to cushion sales fluctuations in the horticultural business due to the seasons and state of the economy. Gradually the word is going round in other parts of Europe that a professionally run restaurant in a garden centre provides additional value – for both -customers and operators. Our pan-European survey
It is estimated that there are around 3,000 garden centres in the UK, and recent figures from the Horticultural Trade Association (HTA) put the value of the UK Garden Retail Market at £4.6 bn a year and growing. Visitor numbers are also on the rise, with research showing that in 2011,
65% of adults in the UK claimed to have visited a garden centre in the last year, compared to 52% in 2006.
Part of this growth can be attributed to the rising importance of garden centre restaurants and cafés. According to the latest HTA figures, garden centre catering continues to be a fast growing market with a 47% increase in the number of visits over three years. In addition, half of HTA member garden centres now offer a catering facility, compared with just 40% in 2008.
In the year to June 2011 there were around 54.5 m visits to garden centre food establishments, compared with 36 m in the year to February 2008. The value of the garden centre catering market was estimated at £213 m in 2011.
While the majority of the larger garden centre chains, such as Dobbies and -Garden & Leisure offer catering facilities, many independent garden centres now also provide either a café or restaurant on-site for customers to visit. These are largely operated by the company’s own catering teams, and as such, branding reflects the personality, values and offering of the garden centre. The format tends to be self-service, although sites such as Haskins occasionally offer fullservice for pre-booked private functions and events.
Much of the food available reflects the British heritage of the garden centre, with traditionally popular dishes such as fish and chips and Sunday roast dinners, as well as lighter options including sandwiches, cakes and soup. However, some garden centres are incorporating international flavours into their menus; for example, Dobbies offers generously spiced curries and chillies, while the Deli Bar at Bents often features dishes such as Moroccan pancakes and Greek salad.
A huge trend for garden centre restaur-ants is provenance. Peter Burks, Chairman of the Garden Centre Association, comments: “The industry is moving towards using locally sourced produce – some ingredients are likely to have been grown at the garden centre itself before being incorporated into meals. This trend for local and home grown produce is being seen across all industries, but particularly garden centres.”
Monkton Elm Garden & Pet Centre, a member of the Garden Centre Association, based in Somerset, currently offers its customers two catering establishments to enjoy, the Four Seasons Restaurant, which opened in 1993, and the Pondside Café which was launched in June 2011. It places a real emphasis on locally produced food cooked daily on-site. Mike Lind, Managing Director, explains: “We use fresh, locally-grown produce where possible in the restaurant. Many of our meals are served with fresh, seasonal vegetables and this is often linked to ‘Grow Your Own’ campaigns that are run through the garden centre. Customers are inspired by the food they eat in the restaurant and encouraged to grow and cook their own at home!” www.monktonelmgardencentre.co.uk
Another popular choice for customers at garden centres is a traditional afternoon tea. Dobbies, which has 32 stores across the UK and welcomes over 16 m customers annually, offers a selection of afternoon teas, from a traditional cream tea with freshly baked scones, to a Prosecco tea, which includes a selection of mini cream cakes, chocolate dipped strawberries and a glass of Italian Prosecco. Prices start from £8 for two people.www.dobbies.com
Furthermore, the quality of food offered at garden centres has improved, as companies aim to make restaurants and cafés a destination in themselves. Burks states: “Traditionally, garden centres are busy during planting season, but the rest of the year no one would visit. Therefore, as an industry we’ve tried to create lots of different reasons for people to come, and a good restaurant is the most important of these.
“The quality of the food and drink avail-able has improved dramatically over the last few years, and garden centres have gone from having a café that just offers coffee, to restaurants that feature a fine dining experience – the industry has really developed.”
The increased attention paid by garden centres to the catering they offer customers has led to these restaurants becoming a destination in themselves. According to the HTA, in 2011, 29% of garden centre visitors were likely to visit the garden centre specifically to visit the café.
Lind explains: “The Four Seasons Restaurant is definitely a destination in itself. People travel from across the county to visit Monkton Elm Garden & Pet Centre where they know they can get food that is good quality and freshly cooked on-site. Our carvery is particularly popular and we have increased footfall on Wednesdays and Sundays as a result.”
Currently, this restaurant caters for nearly 400 people per day, and contributes to approximately 18% of the overall garden centre turnover. Indeed, the Four Seasons Restaurant has proved so popular that it is undergoing a £1.5 m refurbishment and extension in summer 2014, to include a new kitchen facility which will have the ability to cater for 350 visitors. This will make it one of the biggest catering investment projects in Somerset.
Restaurants can be a hugely beneficial addition to a garden centre, thanks to the opportunities for increased revenue they provide. Helen Joyce, co-owner of Thirsk Garden Centre in Yorkshire, saw catering sales improve by 12% in 2013. She comments: “We provide a place for the local community to come – everyone from groups and clubs to young mums – we have groups in most days. Ambience is the biggest driver – we are warm and welcoming and understand how to create a comfortable haven for visitors. We use products from around the garden centre to create an inviting, interesting restaurant space.”
Burks adds: “Restaurants are a useful extension to a garden centre for two reasons. One, it appeals to a completely different type of customer, and two, some people will come almost every week, which brings great repeat business.”
As restaurants look set to continue to be an important part of a garden centre’s offering, the latest HTA research shows that of those who offer catering, 55% were planning to use it as a ‘promotional hook’ to draw consumers into store, and around a quarter to a third were planning to upgrade or improve their facil-ities. www.thirskgardencentre.co.uk
Bents, in Glazebury, Cheshire, currently has an annual turnover of over £13 m, making it one of the country’s top garden centres. Its ‘Fresh Approach’ restaurant seats 900 covers and sells a vast array of soups, sandwiches, salads and hot dishes – all of which are freshly made on the premises. Visitors to Fresh Approach spend an average of £10.20, a figure that surpasses most city centre cafés and restaurants. Annually, Fresh Approach produces 206,236 hot main courses and 206,457 desserts and patisserie items. Bents was awarded the national title of best catering outlet from the Garden Centre Association in 2002, 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. www.bents.co.uk
Haskins is a chain of four garden centres in Dorset, Hampshire and West Sussex. 20% of its £31 m turnover is generated through catering. Its Southampton restaur-ant received a £2.3 m investment in 2011, and now serves over 200,000 teas and coffees, together with 160,000 hot and cold meals each year. It features a traditional stone hearth pizza oven, a daily carvery and wide selection of freshly baked produce with one of the most extensive cake counters in the region. Haskins recently became the first Garden Centre Group to offer a choice of loose leaf teas from London based specialists, ‘We Are Tea’. The range includes exotic varieties including Moroccan Mint, Super Berry, Gunpowder Supreme and more trad-itional choices. www.haskins.co.uk
The people of the Netherlands have increasingly come to see a visit to a garden centre as a day out indoors. Market leader Intratuin (brand awareness almost 100%) with 54 locations in the Netherlands and 5 in Belgium, is actively tapping into this development with new product groups and attractions, alongside the focal activity of selling flowers, plants and gardening articles. An attractive garden café/restaurant named ‘Het goede leven’ (‘The Good Life’) is part of this, forming ‘an oasis of peace and flavour’.
Intratuin is a franchise formula. Of the 59 locations 52 have extensive catering facilities, in most cases under company management. Four are still rented, but in the next five years these are also expected to become in-house oper-ations. Catering is too important to the formula to contract out. Intratuin supervises catering according to the formula and supports entrepreneurs with help from real foodservice professionals, in everything from concept development to composing menus, preparation methods, training and communal resource purchasing, etc.
Generally a counter distribution system is used. Elements of house style, such as the stylized Intratuin flower, green and yellow colour scheme, and natural materials, are used in all the garden cafés. Fresh herbs sold in the Kweken & Oogsten (Grow & Harvest) department, are used in smoothies and sandwiches. There are many more opportunities for coupling sales with products from the shop, and steps will be taken soon to make the most of these.
The franchise is tapping into customer health awareness with the concept of ‘Natural Enjoyment’. Healthy, natural, organic food is indispensable to this theme. Intratuin takes a socially respon-sible approach, expressed in the materials and fresh ingredients of the food and drinks. Passers-by as well as visitors to the garden centre are welcome to come in and enjoy coffee or a good lunch. There is increasing space for regional products in the product range. Intratuin also allows small-scale street trading (market stalls with seasonal fruit among other things) at the entrance.
GroenRijk is the Netherlands’ second garden centre chain, with 45 locations. This is a close collaboration between independent businesses profiting from communal purchasing, advertising, and market approach, including an active website. They are GroenRijk’s only shareholders.
The shared shop formula and house style allow sufficient freedom for personal local interpretation. The shops call themselves ‘local heroes’ operating though a national formula. GroenRijk attracts local customers, people looking for specific gardening articles, flowers and plants, rather than shopping for fun. They do not spend longer than necessary at the greenhouses and outdoor garden, so catering facilities are not directly necessary. A self-service coffee corner is sufficient to meet the needs of most locations. Just two locations have catering under glass roofing: Velsenbroek and Nieuw Vennep, near Schiphol. These function as pilot stores, test locations for the ‘Proeftuin’ (‘Tasting Garden’) concept, which may be rolled out next year to other XL GroenRijk locations, as they realise that there is still room for growth in turn-over in catering activities. www.GroenRijk.nl
The French are well acquainted with -restaurants in hotels but garden centres have them too. It was in imitation of -English garden centres that the Delbard -garden centre in Chartres incorporated an area for a restaurant when it was extended in 1999. “At the beginning, it was more a self-service operation, serving -bruschettas, but the results were rather disappointing,” says David Gommier, the brand’s franchisee.
So they decided to offer a more traditional form of catering. As well as the à la carte menu, there is also a daily set menu with a choice of two starters, two main courses and dessert board. This costs £12.30 and the average bill for customers eating à la carte is not more than £15. Customers are mainly employees from businesses nearby. “It’s another side to the business, serving customers from outside the garden centre,” the boss explains. “The garden centre customers don’t necessarily have the money to have lunch as well as shop in the store; they might have a drink or stop for tea.”
The restaurant can also count on the visitors who come to the animal park that belongs to the centre, which is another string to David Gommier’s bow. “It took us some time to get the restaur-ant known, as you have to go through the garden centre to get to it,” he adds. The sit-down restaurant records between 35 and 45 covers for lunch during the week. As far as plans are concerned, the franchisee wants to re-decorate his restaurant to make it more attractive and create a cosier environment by introducing more screening to divide up the space.
Right at the top of their game when it comes to their core business (sale of plants, flowers, garden tools) and much rated by their customers, garden centre brands seem a bit less at ease when it comes to catering, which has its own -vagaries and peculiarities that they soon discover once they start to offer it. -Botanic has given up on its ‘Cafés Philos’ which were positioned to offer top-of-the-range, organic catering, developed initially to back up what the shop offers. “We just didn’t manage to provide organic, flavoursome food in line with the expectations of our customers,” explains Philippe Poniewira, Market Manager at Botanic.
It is only the Miwam, the fast-food concept in the Botanic store at Villeurbanne, open since 2007, that has been able to make a go of it. Botanic invited Sébastien Desbos to take on the catering, partnered by Sébastien Bras (Head of Maison Bras) and Jérôme Celle (Director of Celnat, a manufacturer of 100% organic cereals). They introduced their own fast-food concept, which they had created a year earlier. There is just one basic product, a fat-free waffle (the ’miwam’) made from 100% organic whole-grain cereals, accompanied by a cooked savoury (vege-tables, meat or fish) or sweet filling. “What we offer contains ingredients that come from organic farmers and from suppliers to the organic market, such as Celnat,” adds Philippe Poniewira. The restaurant has capacity for 50 diners.
A second Miwam outlet, located in the new library at Lyon Part Dieu, is supplied by the one in the garden centre. “The fillings change every day, as do the soups,” emphasises Sébastien Desbos. “Our vege-tables and desserts are based on sea-sonal produce.” There are three formulas available from £6 to £12 and the average bill comes to £8.50. Following Miwam’s success in this commercial environment, Sébastien Desbos says that he is ready to consider franchising. And why not in other Botanic stores? www.miwam.fr
So far, there have been few ex-amples of creative professional -catering in Switzerland’s garden centres. Since 2011, there has been one in the Gartencenter Meier in Dürnten, south-east of Zurich. Here, under the same brand, food&drive GmbH runs a multi-level restaurant that includes a cafeteria, a self-service restaurant, a fullservice restaurant and terrace.
Covering a total of 1,000 sq m, food&drive offers something to suit the tastes of every guest: in the self-service restaurant (80 places), it is usually the salad buffet and soups that are favoured by a mainly older clientele. “Things have to be inexpensive here; you can eat your fill for less than CHF20,” managing director Robert Holdegger explains. Variety is provided by a menu that changes every week. Recently he incorpor-ated an open patisserie into the self-service café (80 places), where all the confectionery is prepared before the eyes of the guests. The fullservice restaurant (60 places) offers large helpings of Swiss cuisine with a high meat-based content and seasonally inspired accents. The main course comes to around CHF30. The average check is between CHF40 and CHF50. “Actually, it should be higher,” says Holdegger. “We sell too few desserts and still not enough wine.” Yet the wine list is certainly impressive: there are more than 20 varieties on offer, either by the glass or by the bottle.
In view of the opening hours kept by the garden centre it is difficult to increase the sale of wines: “We close at 6.30 pm. In the daytime, many of our guests go back to work after lunch. On Sundays we are closed completely. Apart from that, many of the customers come by car,” says
The Gartencenter Meier is deliberately positioned as a destination for excursions. It includes an extensive garden world, roofed-in car-park, butterfly house, crèche and gardening classes. “Some customers spend the whole day here,” says Holdegger. “We see them up to three times in the catering section for breakfast, lunch and the coffee break.”
This form of cooperation, says Holdegger, is a win-win situation for the centre and the catering business. The restaurant functions not only as a service offer for the customers but also as a showcase for the family business’s floral products. Ingredients such as pumpkins or apples come from their own gardens. “Right next to the terrace we have a large herb garden, which we naturally harvest to great public effect. That’s a big selling point!” says Holdegger delightedly. Meier’s staff, around 200 strong, use food&drive as their canteen, and this is where the management serve their guests. On peak days, Holdegger has around 1,000 guests a day, with the annual average being around 300.
As is the case with the garden centre, the number of guests at food&drive is subject to considerable fluctuation. The peak times are spring, with up to 4,000 customers a day, and autumn. Then there is the Christmas show, which attracts up to 2,000 customers a day. In the less good months, on the other hand, supplying a school and other canteens ensures that there is a fairly stable demand.
The second major mainstay after the restaurants is the event business, which is enjoying an ever-growing demand. The green setting is a great favourite for bookings, especially for weddings and birthdays – there are larger events approximately once a month and smaller ones around twice a week. In addition to this, the sale of food such as honey, syrup or juices also accounts for a good part of turnover, which comes to around CHF2.5 m net per annum. www.fooddrive.ch
A further example of an ambitious catering programme in a garden centre can be found not far from the German border: Attached to the Gartencenter Hauenstein in Rafz, which is approximately 15 km from Zurich airport, the Restaurant Botanica, with seating for 100 guests, has been managed for the last year or so by its lessee Rolf Sallenbach. “Originally the centre’s operators were looking for a more attractive setting for the many horticultural training courses, which until then were always held in the basement. A trip to England opened up our eyes to the possibilities that foodservice can offer for garden centres,” Sallenbach recounts.
Even if he estimates that 7 out of 10 guests come primarily on account of the plants and garden accessories, the full-service concept, which includes a bar (15 places), attracts around 90% of Hauenstein’s customers. “At some time or other, all of the visitors will come across the restaurant and most of them can’t resist the temptation” – even if it is only for a small caffeine boost. “In the first year we sold 70,000 servings of coffee!” Sallenbach announces. This is mainly in the afternoon. “In the morning, business is still somewhat slow,” the entrepreneur admits. At midday, he reckons on between 50 and 100 meals. Every day, there is a choice of five menus at around CHF18-25. After the peak time for afternoon coffee he also sees a great deal of potential for the evening. “Unfortunately, many of the customers still don’t realise that we are open after 6 o’clock in the evening.” The evening menu offers Swiss favourites with regional ingredients and freshness appeal from around CHF26. “You can’t cook with convenience products in a garden centre,” the restaurateur emphasises. At CHF1.3 m, Botanica’s revenues were twice as high in the first year as the (cautious) estimates actually put them. Even so, the most profitable side for Sallenbach is the event business. There are up to 90 places available in the training rooms for conferences as well as for festive occasions. There is an especially large demand for weddings set amidst the greenery: “We do one every weekend. The photo motifs provided by our show garden are simply wonderful.” Once the wedding season is over, the Christmas celebrations begin. Prices here start at around CHF85 per person.
The Sunflower Garden Centre in the north of Frankfurt am Main aims to be “more than a garden centre”, and has indeed made this into its advertising slogan. For 25 years the family firm founded by Viktor Märcz has grown continuously and blossomed into a popular day-trip destination, with a catchment area of 50 km and beyond.
Catering is a part of this ‘added value.’ “We aim to be a ‘cultural centre’ for the region. And that includes the culture of good cuisine,” emphasises Märcz. The Sunflower Café and Restaurant is home to events all the year round, attended by up to 160 guests – from opera evenings, to boogie-woogie and jazz nights, to Christmas concerts featuring top international artistes. The surroundings, charmingly decorated to harmonise with the seasons, looking out on the centre’s splendid array of plants and flowers, is also popular for events such as weddings and birthday parties.
The target group for the centre’s catering is mainly that of senior citizens and families, some of whom spend the whole day in the extensive facilities. In the morning they can enjoy a breakfast platter (from £8.90), and on Saturdays and Sundays also a plentiful buffet for £12 (excluding drinks). For lunch the menu, both standard and changing, offers both a lighter and a more substantial meal, with a focus on plain German fare and light, Mediterranean cuisine. Prices for the main course range from £10 and £20. In their afternoon coffee break visitors can enjoy a range of cakes by selected bakers from the region. A second restaurant, with seating for around 50, features a TV screen, on which games from the local football team, Eintracht Frankfurt, are relayed on Saturdays – mainly for male guests, whose wives are busy in the horticultural department.
Three chefs are in charge of the fresh cuisine; of the 93 staff at Sunflower, nine full-time and three casual employees work in the catering department. Between 200 and 600 guests come to the 160-seat restaurant daily; the average bill is about £13. “Annual catering sales are above £1 m – and, mind you, that is excluding evening business,” emphasises restaur-ant manager Vincenzo Piana. Opening times are the same as the garden centre (8.30 am to 7.00 (8.00) pm, Saturdays to 6.00 pm, Sundays to 12.30 midday).
The high quality of the ingredients used in the restaurant and their origin from the region are underlined by a fresh-food market in the entrance hall to the centre, featuring a large selection of fruit and vegetables. “Many customers buy their weekly fresh food there,” explains Viktor Märcz. The retail-food business is supplemented by a bakery, a fish, cheese and antipasti counter, and a delicatessen department. A wine cellar provides more than 80 wines from Germany, Europe and overseas, plus champagne and fruit liqueurs; tastings are also held here. Because such a variety of products is available, it is easy to satisfy any individual preferences that guests may have in the restaurant.
“In future no garden centre will be able to survive just by selling greenery,” Märcz is convinced, and on regional radio he makes great play of the additional attractions at Sunflower, including trips to the finest gardens in Europe, grilling seminars and fashion shows. The out-and-out entrepreneur looks on catering as a vital marketing tool with which to attract visitors also outside the season, which is in spring and winter, in ever new ways. Through his approach he has created a unique selling point in the German garden-centre scene, from which competitors both in Germany and abroad are keen to learn. “People are talking about us!” www.sunflower-gartencenter.de
Capoverde, in Milan, is small garden centre, flower shop, restaurant, cocktail bar and herbalist shop. It opened in 1999 in a renovated old greenhouse with a small courtyard. From the beginning, all aspects of the business were fully integrated: the tables of the restaurant are spread among the shelves displaying plants and flowers, both indoor and outdoor. The original aim was to make Capoverde a green destin-ation in a highly urbanized environment, where both shoppers and restaurant goers could find natural products for their homes, for their health and beauty and for their food. The restaurant menu is rich in vegetarian, vegan and organic choices, though not exclusively so. However, attention to the clients’ wellbeing is apparent, for instance in the special menu for people suffering from celiac disease.
Capoverde has been very popular for years as a cocktail (aperitifs) destination and its drinks list has a wide offer of organic beers, wines and juices. The restaurant is open both for lunch and dinner, outside shop hours. Its unusual space is also popular as an event and party venue.
Viridea is a chain of seven garden centres in Northern Italy. In most of them there is only a basic provision for clients: a room with some tables and seatings and a couple of vending machines selling drinks and snacks. In the Viridea Torri di Quartesolo, near Vicenza, though, Viridea teamed up with Old Wild West, a tex-mex chain with about 100 outlets in all of Italy: in December 2012 a restaurant opened on the site of Viridea, and it is wholly operated by an Old Wild West franchisee. So far, it is a one-shot collaboration: “Old Wild West was looking for a suitable site near Vicen-za and we took the opportunity of offering our clients an additional service,” they say at Viridea, though they confirm that they are working at a long term F&B project for Viridea’s clients.www.viridea.it, www.oldwildwest.it
The Peraga Garden Center in Mercenasco, north of Turin, opened in 1991. Inspired by garden centre models of Northern European countries, Peraga has been developed along eco-friendly lines since its opening. Above all, its owners have tried to create an overall shopping destin-ation, very different from a traditional supermarket experience: Peraga wants to be a place to go to and enjoy in the free time. With this aim, in 2001 Peraga opened a self-service restaurant and coffee shop as an additional service to customers, along with ever-growing array of departments (for instance, the herbalist and natural cosmetic shop, the organic food shop).
The restaurant offers a menu based, as far as possible, on locally sourced produce and on organic products sold in the garden centre food department. The restaurant is placed after the checkout tills, so that most customers leaving the premises are encouraged to stop. It is open for lunch only, seats 80 people and serves about 600-700 lunches during the average week, with a peak during weekends. In the Christmas season they serve about 1,000-1,200 meals per week. These numbers do not include the coffee shop tickets. The restaurant accounts for 5% of total turnover.