A straw poll of garden centre businesses about the re-opening of their restaurants and coffee shops has revealed that half are planning to partly re-open after lockdown restrictions are relaxed on Saturday July 4th, only a few are planning a full re-opening and a third are not intending to re-open their catering operations at all for the time being.
As part of the GTN Xtra Straw Poll we asked for comments about their plans and concerns. Here they are, starting with the businesses that said they would be re-opening fully on July 4th:
Gerald Ingram at Planters said: "We are reopening on the 4th and will try to keep our offer as close to what it was before. Looking at our Garden Centre takings I'm expecting demand for catering to be as high if not higher than last year.
"We are now building a second covered outdoor coffee shop to help take the pressure off indoors. Indoors you will be met at the doors and taken to a table, when its quiet one member of the party may be able to order at the till point otherwise orders will be taken at the table and then as usual food delivered to a table adjacent to the one the customers are sat at.
"We will remove all self service elements in the first week or so. Having said that the rest of the store and supermarkets are self service so why should restaurants be different . The most important issue is making sure movement within the restaurant is one way and minimised.
"Although ppe will be provided we have found staff in the Garden Centre don’t want to wear it and don’t see the need . Like the Garden Centre the pay point/till will be behind Perspex.
"The cooked food menu will be restricted but the deli will be much the same. I think Cake sales will suffer as they are normally self service/buy with your eyes.
"Our mission is to keep all our staff employed and therefore we need to make sure we can deliver a similar turnover to last year. Clearly this will be more staff intensive so we may have to lift some prices to compensate.
"We will be lifting the cap on the number allowed in the garden centre from 120 to nearly 300. But the important issue will be the feel of the centre rather than the number.
"It's one thing getting the restaurant open but its important it remains profitable. At both our sites the restaurant is the most profitable part of the business."
Tim Goold at Henry Street: told GTN Xtra: "It is probably going to be a bit like when we re-opened the garden centre, we will play it a bit by ear as to how busy we are and where problems occur.
"Our initial plans are to re-open on Sat 4th. We are planning to run along the lines of how we originally operated but with only 1 counter and a socially distanced queue. We will continue to limit the number of customers into the whole site although we will up the total number as we have more room now. We are planning to space tables well apart so keeping the 2m rule and also we are going to take some of the plant area adjacent to restaurant to give us more room.
"We are planning a one way system in and out and also for food service keeping staff 2m apart from each other as well as screen to separate counter staff from customers. We will run a reduced menu to start with. Again this means the kitchen staff can be 2m apart from each other
"Having had the experience of running the garden centre for 6 weeks now we think we can cope and that our customers are now used to one way systems / queuing etc. The difficulty will be a new group of staff coming in who are not used to it.
"It will be a case of see how it goes and tweak things where problems arise. Oh joy another weekend at work!
"I think as an industry we have managed to adapt pretty quickly and have weathered the storm, however it is hard to gauge what the long term impact is going to be. Will people / government have run out of money by Christmas?"
James Debbage at Green Pastures in Norfolk reported: "We will be opening our restaurant from 4th July on a full table service basis.
"We will of course be distancing our internal seating but we are now extending our outdoor seating area out into the planteria canopy, creating a mixture of dining and outdoor plant displays which we are hoping will give it more of a unique and relaxed feel compared to the other local dining establishments. We will be heavily pushing alfresco dining over the next few weeks!
"We will be encouraging all diners to book in advance but we want try and still be flexible to allow casual coffee and cake visits if we can. We are now installing public WIFI at long last so we can run an app which will allow diners to order and pay online to reduce contact with waiting staff.
"Our breakfast menu remains the same but we have revised our lunchtime menus; partly to fit our revised staff structure but also so we can explore some new ideas that we’ve been wanting to try!"
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the centres who've told us they are not re-opening for the time being:
Neil Gow at Fresh@Burcot stated: "We will not be re-opening Cafe Fresh on the 4th July. Given the size and nature of our operation we do not see it would be economically viable to trade.
"The guidance/rules for ‘safe’ trading would mean we would have so few covers we could operate, even on a decent day of weather when we could use The Lawn, that we could not take enough to justify costs.
"The increased overheads of additional staff and implementation of safety methods would add to the non profit trading situation. We do not see how we could make sufficient alterations to the kitchen and prep areas for ‘safe’ working within the guidelines without such radical change to our menu that the success of Cafe Fresh would be compromised.
"Then while we know customers want Cafe Fresh back, are they really going to use it? Do people really want to come out and socialise, yes, but do they want to sit in an environment with others around them even at social distance? Can we afford to have two customers taking up a table and chairs for two hours while they catch up on their lives of the past 15 weeks over two cups of tea and a slice of cake spending less than £10?
"It does not make economic sense for the moment, even given the extra draw to the site we know catering is to a garden centre and the resultant retail spend."
Andy Bunker at Altons told us: "I can answer in one simple word that’s NO – not in any way shape of form will be offering catering at present.
"Reasons being all the time we are running with restrictions on customer numbers coming in it does not make any sense at all to have a good percentage just sitting in the restaurant, especially during summer where many customers want to rest from the heat.
"In fairness our catering is not as big as some of our fellow Tillington members and I can understand their desperation to get catering going asap. Even then I would still question potential restaurant customers against potential big ticket sales of furniture, BBQ's and plants versus parking spaces.
"With sales of all the above still very strong we are channeling all of our efforts in to these areas and will be for the foreseeable future.
"All of our staff have been informed of this and been told this will be reviewed in August."
Caroline Owen at Scotsdales, also a Tillington member, said: "Currently we are not planning on opening our cafes on the 4th July or within the next couple of weeks.
"We will of course keep this under review and watch with interest how the High Street, the pubs and other garden centres are working before we reopen.
"This is partly because we do not have a catering manager to run the café at Shelford at the current time."
And in Sheffield, Neil Grant at Ferndale Garden Centre reports that they also won't be rushing into re-opening their restaurant: "We are planning the reopening now but will not be opening on the 4th & probably for some days afterwards.
"With spacing we will have cut down the covers and expect to only start with a fraction, possibly about 25% of our normal 190 indoor covers. We will be using outside and considering taking over a section of the plant area to put more covers outside. Not sure about table booking yet.
"We really feel we want to get the hang of a few before adding more covers. Even though our kitchen is bigger than most moving around it has other spacing issues like people crossing over.
"Queuing is another issue we haven’t bottomed yet either.
"We are reducing the menu offer to the most popular lines and the simplest to do to reduce the numbers in thee kitchen. This is going to be harder than opening the garden centre as there are so many balls to keep up in the air at the same time. Overall we won’t be rushing."
The majority of garden centre businesses we contacted are however planning to partly re-open their catering operations, on or near July 4th.
Alan Roper says that Blue Diamond will be: "Opening 12 of the 42 restaurants in week one then the rest over the following 2 weeks. If the opening weekend goes well in terms of staff coping with the new full table service system and the customers flocking back in then we will accelerate the rollout. We will be operating inside and out.
"It’s a full table service that people can book but no pre-booking required. Customers can pay and order from their mobile devices at the table if they wish."
British Garden Centres are also re-opening some of their restaurants to test the water before rolling out across the group.
Dobbies will be making an official statement on July 1st but in the meantime a Dobbies spokesperson said: "“We are currently working on our plans to reopen our restaurants in Northern Ireland (3 July), England (4 July) and Wales (13 July) which will include dining in our indoor and outdoor seating areas. In Scotland, our outdoor seating areas will open on 6 July, with full opening planned for 15 July.
“Social distancing measures will be in place and we will be following guidelines outlined by Government.”
David Yardley at Klondyke Strikes told GTN Xtra: "We have had lots of discussions around the reopening of restaurants and given the different sizes of operations we have there is probably not going to be a one size fits all solution for this.
"We are going to re-open one site at High Legh the week of the 6th July and test out our systems there before rolling this out to the other centres.
"It will be a table service option we go with as we do call to order service at the moment anyway. Once we are open we will then review what has worked and what hasn’t and be able to adjust as necessary. There isn’t the same urgency to get restaurants open as there was with retail but we do see it as being important to do so."
At Baytree Garden Centre they have erected a marquee outside the restaurant and will be offering an outside table service experience to start with.
Tam Woodhouse at Millbrook is also focussing on outside catering to start with: "We are not opening whole operation straight away.
We will focus on outside barista and burger bar first. Then on inside. We are a counter operation and I am loathe to completely change this to table service so working on how this system will work.
We're aiming for outside from 6th or 8th July and then will see how it goes. Staplehurst will follow and who knows when Crowborough will be able to operate as the space is so small."
Paul Cooling at Coolings Green & Pleasant is also re-opening their Nature Trail alongside a modified cafe service: "At Coolings Green & Pleasant, we will be re-opening the Nature Trail on Saturday to annual pass holders only as a “trial run” to a limit of just 100 people during the day. We normally expect 3-400 at this time of year.
"We will also be opening Blueberry Café with a greeter who will take people to their numbered table and explain the process. On the recently cleaned table there will be a reduced selection, cold food only, on an A4 paper menu and a disposable pencil for marking the choices on the paper, which is then taken to the, socially distanced, till point for ordering and payment. The order will then be brought to the table.
"Tables have been spaced but we can still accommodate 50 inside and 44 outside, less than half the usual capacity.
"We believe this to be the most efficient process for our situation and realise that we will most likely need to adapt at the end of the day and the following day and the day after that.
"I do not believe we will make any money during the first week but should at least cover our costs. Onwards and upwards!"
At Perrywood, Simon Bourne reports: "Yes, we are opening from Monday 6th. Booking only and lunch time only for at least the first week. Everything will be table service and we have reduced the menu to make it easier in the kitchen with social distancing. I am expecting a big demand!
"In the first week we will be open for lunch service only, and all customers will have to book in advance. The booking system is not up and running just yet, so please don’t contact us to try and book.
"After the first week we aim to begin to scale up operations and add in other dining opportunities such as breakfast and of course our much loved Coffee & Cake, or Scone!.
"We are busy working out many of the finer details, which are focused on team and customer safety, as well as ensuring that everyone has a great experience. This is similar to the approach we took in reopening the garden centre, which worked really well.
"Once the Restaurant is open, we will continue to offer a takeaway service, cake and scones only from the marquee in the car park. We will remove the pre-order options.
"The Perrywood Sudbury Coffee Shop will open again in mid-August.
"Garden Centre trade continues to be very strong. I still have no idea how long it can continue."
Mike Burks at The Gardens Group where garden centre sales are still very buoyant is planning to re-open restaurants but in a limited way from the 6th. "We need to find out how to do it before we get into a season where the outdoor space can't be relied on.
We are using a different space at Castle Gardens because the small rooms of the existing restaurant aren't great with social distancing. We'll be starting with coffees, teas, cakes, cold drinks, ice creams etc and then making sure the systems work before we introduce lunches and breakfasts.
We'll have limited indoor space and expanded outdoor space. There will be booking at Brimsmore and Poundbury and for the inside spaces at Castle."
Finally we received some comment from garden centres in Wales who are still awaiting news of when they can plan for re-opening of their restaurants:
Martin Davies at Raglan told us: "No news on our restaurant opening here in Wales, we are certainly behind the curve when it comes to the hospitality sector. Just waiting for a green light.
"Trade despite the rain squalls was good today as it has been since re-opening. Even though this is the first weekend for town centre shops to perhaps take some trade away from us, customers numbers were well up."
And in North Wales, Justin Williams at Fron Goch said: "Wales has not announced any dates or criteria yet so we are in the dark a bit but will watch others eagerly. We do hope to continue with self service though but yet to discuss with our local authority."
Yesterday, Charlie Groves from Groves in Bridport told GTN Xtra: "Up until now the increased retail sales have been making up for the catering sales so I haven’t been desperate to open from a financial point of view however as gardening has now slowed the need to get the restaurant reopened has become more apparent.
"We have quite a lot of work to do to get Ivy House back open for catering. We have been using it as a garden furniture showroom so we now have to get all of the furniture back into our shop.
"To give us a bit of extra time and a softer opening we have decided to open on Monday the 13th.
"We have ample outdoor space and we are intending on using this to our full advantage. We will be changing to full table service. This will stop queues at the counter and allow us to control where customers sit to improve social distancing. We will also be opening a standalone coffee and snack shed that will offer the customer an opportunity to get quick bites without having to use the full table service. This will be entirely outdoor seating so will be very weather dependant.
"We are hoping that the large amount of outdoor seating and the spacious, airy interior of Ivy House will give people the confidence to return and give us an advantage over a lot of the local, smaller establishments."
Would you like to add to our Catering Re-Opening Straw Poll? Are you planning to fully re-open catering, partly re-open catering or not at all for the time being? If you are re-opening, will that be inside or outside? Will you be running a table booking system to allow you to manage customer flow more easily?
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