A catering market in bloom

After more than 30 years of successful trading, Squire’s Garden Centre at Shepperton in West London — one of 14 in the group — recently got the bulldozer treatment in order to be replaced by a light, airy building that provides a relaxed, convivial atmosphere for consumers to browse plants, shop for flowers and, of course, settle their rumbling stomachs.

Whereas people once went to garden centres in search of something to brighten the front room or plant in the garden, they’re now just as likely to spend the bulk of their visit relaxing in the on-site cafe with a cup of coffee and a hot snack.

And that is certainly something that Squire’s would appear to be encouraging after commissioning International Food Service Equipment (IFSE) to install a large restaurant and cafe area within its Shepperton branch.

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“The food operation is crucial to the success of modern garden centres not just for the revenue that it generates but also for the overall customer experience, which plays a key part in determining whether they visit again,” points out Mark Hardy, catering manager at Squire’s Group. “To that end we were desperate to avoid any queues or bottlenecks and so it was vital that IFSE created a lay-out that combined visual impact with a logical flow in order to give us the ability to serve customers both quickly and efficiently.”

The cafe area installed at the Squire’s branch is also designed to account for the fact that a wide variety of food options are offered, recognising that while one customer might want nothing more than a fizzy drink to quench their thirst another will fancy a three-course meal.

“We also wanted to be able to offer immediate service rather than have customers sitting at a table waiting for their order to be delivered,” continues Hardy. “Add in the requirement to simultaneously serve those customers who just want a cake and a coffee as well as those looking for a more substantial meal and it’s easy to see why getting the lay-out right was so important.”

Andrew Fordyce, director at IFSE, says the secret to the lay-out — which was overseen by Plum Architects and Designers — was that sufficient space was allowed for the servery counters.

“That is important for three reasons,” he notes. “Firstly, it ensures that there is enough room for us to incorporate all the necessary elements — including hot, refrigerated and ambient sections. Secondly, it means that even during the busiest periods there is good access for customers. And lastly, it means that there is sufficient space behind the counters for Squire’s to be able to deploy extra staff during those busy periods without them getting in the way of each other.”

IFSE was created in 1992 and since then it has completed more than £80m worth of catering fit-out projects, specialising in the design and supply of commercial catering facilities. As well as garden centres, it has managed projects with customers from sectors such as business, education and healthcare.

To cope with the different requirements of the customers, IFSE also made tea, coffee and other beverages available at numerous points along both counters so that those wanting a snack and a hot drink don’t have to queue behind those buying a main meal.

“Together, these key design criteria speed up the transaction process which is completed at tills that have been purposely sited away from the servery area in order to prevent the dreaded queues,” adds Fordyce.

Squire’s insists that so far the revised lay-out has worked as well as it could have hoped, with restaurant sales quadrupling since it was re-opened.

IFSE — which supplied a range of Electrolux kit for the project — had previously worked alongside Squire’s catering chief Hardy on projects that he was involved with before joining the garden centre, meaning they had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve.

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However, Fordyce insists the company also brought its own expertise to the table. “For example, although the servery area is pretty much as laid out in the original plans, we completely revamped the lay-out of the kitchen because we felt it just wouldn’t work as it was,” he explains. “Ultimately, what I think we’ve delivered here is a higher quality end product than Squire’s were expecting in a tender situation and one that is considerably ahead of what you would see in other garden centres.”

With the kitchen open from 9am to 5pm on Monday to Saturdays, and 10am to 4.30pm on Sundays, the equipment at the Shepperton operation gets very little relief. But with the centre offering everything from freshly filled baguettes to made to order crepes and a gelateria, it wouldn’t have it any other way.

“All in all there really is no comparison to what was available in the old cafe which, aside from being smaller, was situated in a separate building, thus making it less accessible, especially during the notoriously unpredictable English weather!” says Hardy.

Shepperton, meanwhile, isn’t the only Squire’s branch to overhaul its catering operation in the past 12 months. The company’s store in Badshot Lea, Surrey has also unveiled an expanded restaurant as part of a £1m investment in a new state-of-the-art kitchen, additional dining areas and an outdoor terrace.

With such large sums now being spent on professional catering upgrades, you get the feeling that garden centres are starting to realise they are onto a good thing — and that can only be positive news for dealers supplying the sector.

See pictures of the project at Squire’s in our exclusive photo gallery here.

Garden party

Kitchen houses looking to tap a growing market sector this year might just want to keep an eye on what’s happening in the garden centre catering space after new research revealed a huge spike in visitor numbers to such venues.

According to the latest ‘KeyPoints’ report from the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), the number of visits to garden centre cafes has increased 51% over the last three years, reiterating why many operators from this sector are paying renewed attention to their food service operations.

Half of specialist garden retailers now possess equipment to provide a catering offering compared with 40% back in 2008. In 2011 there were around 55 million visits to garden centre cafes — more than 19 million more than three years ago. The report said average transaction values have remained similar over this period, although the increasing provision of catering combined with more adults visiting garden centres has led to garden centre catering sales roughly doubling over the last five years.

The report also shows that customers aged below 45 are less satisfied with garden centre catering than over-45s, indicating a need for the sector to ensure it has the right equipment and menu to sustain its performance.

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