Garden Centre and Farm Shop Restaurants and Café Challenges

Garden centre and farm shop restaurants and cafés have faced new and ongoing challenges in 2020; from the temporary closure of the catering departments earlier this year to the continued and ongoing uncertainty that’s being caused by local lockdowns across the UK.

Many businesses have struggled in this ever-changing world,  but others have faced the challenge head on with fresh, innovative ideas and a commitment to their customers ensuring that they not only meet their expectations, but also deliver more than ever before.

We have seen garden centre and farm shop restaurants and cafés take a number of routes to adapt to survive the coronavirus crisis, and wanted to focus on some of the more stand-out actions to inspire others.

Pic: iStock/andresr

Diversify your proposition

Most importantly, it comes down to understanding customer expectations and connecting with customers to meet their needs.

Move with the times

Recent articles have stated that Covid-19 has triggered five years-worth of digital change in a matter of months.  This has been seen in our catering businesses, by way of online bookings, menu apps and service technology,  all developing significantly throughout 2020. 

Hospitality across the UK has driven service processes quickly over the course of the year and customers are becoming used to ordering food and drinks via smartphones, or having waiting staff take their order via a tablet.  This will only continue to grow and develop as more customers get used to this as the norm 

A restaurant or café really needs to consider whether counter service is a necessity – with impulse -buy sales such as cakes and drinks being a significant consideration. While cafes across the garden centre and farm shop sectors can take a strong percentage of catering sales, a business under development may factor such issues into their layout decisions to determine if this supports their service methods. 

When building business models for a new catering outlet, given the choice of spending £20,000 on IT or a servery, which would you choose?  There’s not a definitive answer at this point, with owners needing to do what is right for their vision, but as the world develops, we may see the restaurant model change too.

Engage with your customers

One of the best advantages that independent garden centres and farm shops have over larger corporate retailers and caterers is their ability to engage with customers on an emotional level and by accommodating their needs.  Independents often engage with their customers more thoroughly than a corporate with a head office 200 miles away, and as a result, the community often feels part of the business.

Whether it’s safety in shopping, product range, opening hours, or a simple case of welcoming visitor feedback, asking customers for input and communicating with them makes them feel valued and in turn makes them appreciate you more – which leads to real customer loyalty.

So many customers care about local community – now more than ever before – and research shows that people are more inclined to go for the locals than large, global chains.  A survey published by Allegra World Coffee Portal found that UK cafés were more popular than pubs, bars and restaurants, with 55 per cent of respondents saying that they had visited a café after the national lockdown eased in July, with the environments offered within garden centres and farm shops being the key attraction.

During the Covid pandemic, businesses must remember that their customers are also going through an uncertain time; many have changed or lost their jobs, and some have had their own or the health of their families at risk.  Having a sense of empathy, and a ‘we’re in this together’ ethos is really very important and builds that sense of community that every business envies.

Remember where you came from

Ensuring that you keep your unique ambience and high standards in place is essential. Food and coffee quality is essential to ensure that customers continue to see their trip to the café or restaurant as a treat.  Many customers expect to pay a bit more at local cafes and restaurants and we have seen average transaction value increase despite income being squeezed for many. 

Cafes also create a destination for customers to visit, for the simple reason that it gets them away from their homes for a short time – with many working at home, the location and environment that a garden centre or farm shop café creates is one of relaxation and ease.  This isn’t a new concept, but one that can be focused and improved on to increase regular visits.

In short it is ‘back to basics’ methods that go a long way in making sure that customers have no reason to go elsewhere.

Our cafes and restaurants are destinations in their own right – we know this by how much people missed them for the weeks that they were closed.  They often have a loyal customer base and are part of the local community. 

While businesses continue to face many challenges, cafes and restaurants do have a future and an edge on many of their competitors, but they can’t afford to stand still. Focusing on what they are good at and how they can step things up in the future could just be the difference for them!