Help Improving Cafes and Restaurants in Smaller Venues – Catering Consultant Advice

“How difficult can it be, it’s just a few sticky buns and some coffee?” We’ve heard that and other similar comments over the years in relation to organisations and individuals looking to improve poor performing cafes and restaurants. Anyone involved in running a café, restaurant or other catering will know that the reality is quite different and that setting up, managing and developing a café, restaurant or catering business is a complex business.

What typical questions do we get asked as catering consultants?

  • How can I increase my café sales?
  • How do I make my café more profitable?
  • How do I attract more customers to my café?
  • Have I got the right restaurant concept for my venue?
  • Do we have the right menu for our audience?
  • What is the correct operating cost for my café?
  • How do you promote a café?
  • Help with staff restaurant costs and sales.
  • Should we run the catering ourselves / in house or find a catering partner to do it for us?

For many venues, theatres, art centres, galleries, parks, universities and offices with cafes, coffee bars, restaurants and the like, it may not necessarily be the café operator that is searching for these answers. There are many organisations that typically include food and beverage operations although it is often not their core business and as such the extent of catering expertise and sector specific catering management knowledge can typically be minimal or at a relatively junior level, often little more than day-to-day operational supervisory level.

Is catering in smaller venues more challenging?

There’s sometimes a further misconception that if a café or restaurant is small or included in a smaller venue then it must be easier to manage than say those in larger venues or sites. In reality it’s much more complex than this and it’s often not necessarily the size of the theatre, gallery, office, farm attraction, park etc. but about a series of interrelated elements including the extent of footfall / visitor numbers / on-site population / location (both of the café or restaurant and building / site) as well as relevance of food and drink offer and extent of external food and beverage competition.

However, as catering consultants and former catering operators working across multiple sectors as a general rule, we have found the smaller the venue, site and subsequent footfall / visitor numbers, the more challenging the catering operation can be to manage. Of course there are exceptions, particularly when there is a strong non-visitor or non-audience level of catering business and limited external competing cafes, restaurants and bars.

Large Scale Catering Operations

So why is a higher volume café, restaurant or bar operation or multi site catering operations ‘easier’ to manage than say a relatively smaller scale one?

  • Catering operations increasing in scale typically have ability to sustain higher level of food and beverage management cost, resulting in broader catering management structure, with multiple managers with specific disciplines.
  • Typically, a greater food and beverage workforce results in minimal impact if someone is absent, as self-cover is often more viable as a result of scale.
  • Economies of scale with purchasing and greater supplier flexibility for deliveries. Conversely smaller operations often struggle with attracting quality and relevant suppliers, with some more appropriate suppliers stipulating minimal drops that make it prohibitive to using them.
  • Any fixed operating cost from the catering operation is typically covered on a daily basis or for the majority of the operating period, if correctly set up and managed.

What should I consider when setting up a café, bar, restaurant or other catering operation within a smaller venue?

As catering consultants we work with all size of venues from larger through to medium and smaller venues. There are a number of strategies and operational considerations if you are setting up a catering operation in a smaller venue or are looking at improving your existing café, restaurant or catering operation.

  • Café or Restaurant Concept Style – is your existing or proposed café or restaurant concept style such that it not only appeals to your core visitors or audience but also, equally important, it is relatively uncomplicated and easy to operate? A table service bistro operation will typically require greater effort and skill than say a more basic coffee bar with a selection of hot and cold snacks and lighter meals. It may sound obvious but it is often the case that many venues could be operating simpler and more relevant visitor and audience catering facilities. As catering consultants we also find that new catering operations for venues can often be determined by a strong personal view of one or more of the organisation’s senior members of staff rather than a more market focused view to meet visitor or audiences core food and drink requirements.
  • Style of Food & Drink Offer – tied in with Café or Restaurant Concept Style, think carefully about the style of food and drink you are planning to provide as well as the extent of the menu. The more complex and the greater the choice on the menu, the more complex the catering operation can become, and it will most likely have a higher operating structure.
  • Food Production – do you intend to make all the food on site from fresh, will you buy it in pre prepared or will it be a combination of both? The approach you take will have an impact on your food cost / gross margin as well as your labour cost and the extent of skill you will require in the kitchen. If you are a smaller venue or have limited footfall it may be more cost effective to buy in pre prepared or part prepared good quality local products and produce for your café or restaurant.
  • Café or Restaurant Opening Times – to determine café and restaurant opening times, particularly in smaller venues, you will need to consider what are the typical busy periods when it will be profitable. These will be your core hours on which to develop you broader opening time for your restaurant, café or bars. Is there enough trade to open for breakfast? Could you make savings closing at 4pm rather than 5pm and how does it reflect on the wider venue? Also consider your objectives for your visitor catering. For many organisations the inclusion of visitor catering is not necessarily about the maximum profit but also about ensuring an element of animation within the building and providing a service. However, to what extent do you want to subsidise the quieter periods with the profits from the busy periods to provide a service or help animate your building during quieter times? Many commercial theatres just open when there is a performance, often meaning higher profit from audience cafes, restaurants and bars but at the same time there is little or nothing happening with the building outside performance periods. For many arts organisations, often run as charitable trusts and with strong interests in community, education programmes and wider outreach programmes, this approach would not be appropriate and there is a need to provide a consistent level of service to all patrons, visitors and participants. But it’s not likely to be at any cost!
  • Catering Staffing Availability – primarily it’s important to understand what the budget operating cost for the operation should be. Using broad industry benchmarks for determining the likes of catering labour costs generally does not work once the operations sales get below a specific threshold. Typically, labour cost as percentage of sales can be higher but there are still opportunities to make profit. Having determined affordability for staffing costs it’s important to understand the local labour market. What are the going rates and what will you need to pay to attract and retain the best for your venue’s catering? Can you afford and attract staff with the relevant skills for your catering operation? How will you retain café and restaurant staff?
  • Visitor and Audience Catering Location – will typically have a significant impact on both the sales potential and operating cost structure. Areas of higher footfall within smaller venues or any venue will typically result in greater conversion to catering. Is your catering clearly visible and correctly located? Similarly, does the design and location provide an opportunity to share job roles at quieter times that could be of benefit to your catering operation? For example, we have recently developed and implemented a catering strategy for a redeveloped café bar operation within a theatre resulting in a shared café / bar space and box office space, enabling one member of staff to operate all services during quieter times. Conversely when the box office closes prior to the interval it frees up the additional space for the busy interval bar service. We have also applied a similar approach to a farm attraction that we provide catering consultancy advice to.
  • Management Options – A catering Partner or Internally Operated Structure? – We’re often asked by smaller venues if they should manage their catering and bars themselves or appoint an external catering partner to operate the venue’s catering services. We have successfully introduced relevant catering partners to venues as well as looking at hybrid solutions. However, for some smaller operations the most viable solution is often an in house operation. These can be very successful if you are able to identify which is best for your venue as well as set up the appropriate support structures to further support the visitor catering or audience catering.

How can a catering consultant help me develop or improve my venue’s visitor catering / audience catering?

These are just some of the areas to be considered if introducing a new café, restaurant or bar within a smaller venue or reviewing how you could improve your existing food and beverage operations within your venues. Each situation is uniquely different and needs considering as such. If you would like to speak with a catering consultant to see how we could support you improve your café, restaurant or bars and advise you about new catering facilities do get in touch.

Sample theatres, museums, galleries, art centres and leisure organisations that we have supported in an independent catering consultant capacity include Contact, Manchester; CAST, Doncaster; Crofton Beam Engines; Clifton Park Museum; Octagon Theatre, Bolton; Stephen Joseph Theatre; Trinity Theatre & Arts Centre, Tunbridge Wells; Ludlow Assembly Rooms; The Point Theatre; The Berry Theatre; Brewery Arts Centre; Standalone Farm.

Posted on April 8th, 2019