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Cafes and Catering

On 28 January 2015, 40 delegates from around the UK gathered at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for the latest in the Oxford ASPIRE:  Commercial Enterprise events series: Good Enough to Eat. The day of case studies and discussion looked at how museums and other arts and cultural venues can make money out of food and drink, in a way that enhances their visitor experience and contributes to their organisation’s overall mission, as well as their bottom line.

From Pop-Up Cafes and Pubs to Fine Dining

The first speaker of the day was Wendy Shepherd, Administrator at the Museum of Natural History who was tasked with establishing a café for the museum after 154 ‘hungry years’. 

Visitor feedback consistently indicated a desire for a café, and the closest public café facility to the museum was at least a 5 minute walk away, so the potential appeared significant. The museum decided to test the water by bringing in a trial café for a number of months in 2012 – before the museum closed for 14 months for repairs to its historic roof – to provide much needed data on which to base their decision.  The trial was undertaken by one of their recommended caterers who operatedt the café on a low risk basis to the Museum , allowing the service provider to keep all the profit, but gaining valuable data for the summer term, key tourist season and half term.

On the basis of what they learnt, the museum designed a wish list of requirements for their idea café, which they turned into a robust tender. Their requirements included:

  • Cold lunches prepared off site (the museum has no kitchen facilities) available for quick and easy consumption to encourage fast table turn around
  • A child friendly healthy options themed to the museumAn efficient friendly service
  • Environmentally friendly to match the Museum ethos, including using locally sources and fair-trade and ethically sourced ingredients as suitable
  • A high quality speciality tea and coffee offer
  • Ability to adapt to fluctuating customer numbers, both during the day and throughout the year.

Following a rigorous tender process the museum established a relationship with Mortons, an established  local sandwich and café business that could prepare their food in their central base in Oxford city centre and cycle it to the museum. The contract was non-exclusive, allowing the museum to utilise other caterers for special events when preferable. A key part of the tender process was involving representatives from all departments of the museum in reviewing the tenders and feeding back on the decision so that there was a sense of ownership across the museum.

Following a hectic start, with unexpectedly high visitor numbers in the weeks following the museum’s reopening and café launch, the café will shortly celebrate its first anniversary and a year of success. Over the year they have expanded their offer with   an ice-cream cart on the front lawn in the summer and a take away option to allow visitors to picnic on the Museum lawn.

Creating the Perfect Retreat: sustainable, seasonal and unique

Next Lizzie Arber, the Café manager and Chef at the Garden Museum, shared her experience of running a very successful in-house museum café. The café operates with a sustainable, seasonal and unique ethos, offering a small menu of vegetarian food all made on site and sourced as much as possible from local producers. A large proportion of food waste and packaging is recycled as compost or reused.

Managed in house, Lizzie is both head Chef and Café Manager, responsible for menu planning and execution, purchasing and cost management, staffing, event planning, social media and more. She is supported by about 10 front of house staff who manage customer service, and who are managed by a head of operations. As well as the regular café service, the small team often caters events, including sit down meals and canapés from their very modestly sized kitchen.

Lizzie believes that the key to the café’s success is its strong brand and unique offer. The Garden Museum Café may be more well-known in London than the museum it supports having been rated one of the 10 best museum eating experiences in the world.

Thanks to HLF funding the museum will be redeveloping its site, including the café, for reopening in 2015 on a much larger scale. 

From the High Street to the Museum

Before lunch delegates were offered a different perspective with a case study from Mike Earp, a general manager for the catering company Benugo. Benugo is one of the big catering companies in the museum industry, managing cafes and restaurants at the British Museum, V&A, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Museum of London, and both the Ashmolean Museum and Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. Mike highlighted that the success of the company hinges on Benugo’s ability to offer both a consistent, quality café service that meets museum visitor expectation, as well as bespoke flexible options, such as the rooftop Dining Room at the Ashmolean and the Shake Bar at the Science Museum.

Mike emphasised that the key to a successful service within a museum was building good relationships with museum colleagues. Open lines of communication means that the café and restaurants can tie in with the museum’s programming and marketing, and that they can negotiate to explore new opportunities within in the peculiar museum environment.

More than a lovely place for a picnic: cafes, restaurants and gin tastings

Getting stuck in after lunch, Steven Parissien, Director of Compton Verney, shared how they use food to make the most of their venue offer, which is extremely varied as the site includes incredible gardens, the historic house and wonderful collections. Steven shared some of the challenges that Compton Verney has faced since moving from in-house catering to a franchise in 2009.

As a smaller venue in a rural location, Compton Verney struggled to establish a good relationship with some of the bigger catering companies, which they felt were too big and too London-centric to deliver on the bespoke requirements of the unique site, which can be viewed as peripheral to their core business. Consequently they were not able to capitalise on opportunities like linking the menu to the programming, and suffered from regular upheaval as the company struggled to retain catering managers for the site.

Recently Compton Verney has re-evaluated how best to manage their catering offer and hope to enter into new partnership with a local caterer in 2015 to ensure Compton Verney is their main focus and guarantee a catering offer tailored to the site.

Steven also shared his experience of more experimental ways that cultural venues can capitalise on food. Steven was involved with the Foundling Museum, offering a lecture on gin combined with a tasting linked to a key item in the museum’s collection. This was successful both commercially, with the museum able to purchase the product relatively cheaply and charge a premium for the experience, and attract a new audience who may not otherwise have engaged with the museum. Based on this success the Foundling Museum has offered similar events based around beer, rum, punch and chocolate. Steven highlighted that the key to success, and engaging the audience, is to ensure that the themes is closely tied to the museum and its collection.

Creating welcoming, friendly places that people really want to eat in

The final speaker for the day was Sophie Serraris from iMuseum Consultancy, who is also actively involved in Kids in Museums, with a very practical and visitor-based approach to museum cafes - bringing her European work on making museum cafes more family friendly to the UK.

Family friendly museum cafes are an important item on the Kids in Museums Manifesto. Sophie gave a list of 7 key considerations that can help bring the museum’s family friendly ethos into the café:

  1. Price setting: families can be reluctant to pay more than average, especially if they have already paid to enter the museum; for free museums a key strategy is to highlight that café purchases support the museum and help keep the doors open.
  2. Service and staff: often café staff can be the only members of staff (whether they are specifically a museum member of staff or work for a franchise) that visitors interact with, so it is important that they are aware of family friendly principles, and perhaps attend the same briefings as gallery staff so they can engage with visitors and answer their questions.
  3. Food and drink offer: families ask for appropriate and also healthy food options for children, their content should be transparent, and there should be unlimited free tap water!
  4. Facilities: Cafes don’t need to look like fun parks to be family friendly, they do need to provide key facilities such as high chairs, places to park buggies, changing facilities, kids’ cutlery, etc.
  5. Links with Collections/Exhibits: kids in particular appreciate fun meal themes that link into what they have experienced at the museum; developing fun names for common foods is a start; coming up with fully bespoke menus or snacks that relate to the museum’s collection and exhibition is a great way to create a total museum experience for visitors – also interesting from a commercial point of view.
  6. Communications and Promotion: utilise clear signage out the front of the museum and inside to help families find their way, and consider cross-overs like family oriented incentives and inclusion on the family section of your website. 
  7. Café/Food as source of creativity: have fun with your café and integrate food into workshops and events to make subjects more accessible and appealing – also interesting for museums that don't have a café or restaurant.

Sophie’s talk provoked much discussion on prioritising resources to meet the needs of both families, and non-family visitors in the same space. Also the important question of whether café tables should be round to be more ‘social’ and prevent knocks and bumps, or square to be easily moved together and repurposed was debated. We came down on square…

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