Be passionate about food and employ passionate people – two of the key points to come from the first day of the HTA Catering Conference, sponsored by Vision Commercial Kitchens, being held at The Belfry in West Midlands. With the overall increase in dining out in the UK only set to continue garden centre catering is in a prime position to benefit as long as the offer and the environment is right.
In the opening session, Chris Brown from Turpin Smale Consultancy illustrated how far garden centres have already come from cling filmed plates of cake to stunning inviting cakes displays helping people to buy with their eyes. He highlighted ambiance (quirky and weird is good), pop ups, special interest groups and technology as the key areas to focus on for the future.
Delegates heard from independent garden centres (Felicity Down from Cleeve Nursery and Tim Greenway from Highfield Garden World) and groups (Alan Roper from Blue Diamond and Jason Danciger from Wyevale Garden Centres). Despite the differences in the scale of operation, there were definite similarities in approach in terms of providing a passionate offer, great ambiance and individual character.
Garden centres are working hard to attract new audiences and there were plenty of examples of this peppered throughout the day from the soft play barn development at Hilltop Garden Centre was spoken about by Boyd Douglas-Davies to the regular programme of evening music events held at The Dutch Nursery, as described by Richard Henn.
This was also picked up in the panel session, which highlighted the importance of bringing new people in from dog walkers to cyclists. Creating dog friendly areas was a particularly hot topic. Bents having opened a pet café in their pet department complete with separate counters for hounds and humans! Ideally situated on the edge of their site right next to a footpath it is a great way of driving extra traffic and providing something different.
The interactive workshop sessions on managing people, costs and the environment provided delegates with further opportunities to hear from and contribute to discussion on key areas relating to running a garden centre-catering offer.
Food critic and MasterChef judge Charles Campion closed day one of the conference by providing his not too serious ‘rules to dine by’ which included ‘never eat anything bigger than your head’ and ‘you cannot have anything better than what you want’ and ‘whenever you see crossed chives you are in trouble’.
The inaugural HTA Catering Conference dinner, with wine kindly sponsored by Quinton Edwards, saw the presentation of The Greatest Catering Awards and an after dinner talk from chef, food entrepreneur and sustainable living expert James Strawbridge. Working closely with his father Dick on many initiatives James had great empathy for family businesses and highlighted many of the challenges that this brings. Now running The Posh Pasty Company and involved in new product development James encouraged all to keep ahead of the game by keeping an eye on what is happening in the wider food area and read food magazines.