Little shop of horrors

08 March 2004 by
Little shop of horrors

It was never going to be easy to feed the 750,000 visitors who come to see the gruesome attractions of the London Dungeon each year - but someone's got to do it.

Heading the team of five catering assistants who do just that is Shola Thompson, 29. It's her role to ensure not only that visitors are fed and watered swiftly and efficiently but, as the last point of contact for the attraction, to make sure that everybody leaves smiling.

"It's really quite scary in the dungeons, so sometimes we have to deal with tears or comfort quite traumatised visitors," she says. "It's definitely fun working here although, even for me, it can still be scary sometimes - especially when you walk around a corner and one of the actors jumps out at you."

The major challenge for feeding customers at the Blood and Guts caf‚, however, is dealing with the high volume and the restrictions on space. "We have a high turnover of people here - during [school] half-term we could have 1,500 customers in one day - and we don't have enough seating to accommodate them all at the same time," Thompson says. "In order to deal with the volume, we only serve fast food, particularly things people can eat while standing, or take out of the restaurant with them."

While the average number of customers in the caf‚ ranges from 200 to 300 on a normal day, the real challenge for the London Dungeon's catering team comes in the school holidays. "Our suppliers are really good and send me letters warning me to order in more supplies for the holidays," Thompson says.

Predictably, at an attraction that receives about twice as many children as adults, chips, pizzas and hotdogs remain best sellers all year round. "We serve child-friendly food," Thompson says, "but it's also good because it's internationally recognised and liked, which means it appeals to all the different nationalities who come here."

Also on the relatively static menu are sandwiches, yogurts and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. "We used to serve burgers, but they took quite a lot of time and skill to prepare, and fell in popularity following the BSE scare, so we dropped them," Thompson says.

Despite the Blood and Guts caf‚'s rather grisly name, Thompson says she avoids giving the menu itself any kind of theme. "The dungeon is really quite dark and smelly," she says, "so we've got to make sure the caf‚ always looks as clean and fresh as possible, so people feel like eating there."

Also key to the success of the caf‚ is pricing. "London is an expensive place, so we need to stay affordable," Thompson says. And, with a family of two adults and two children paying just under £50 to enter the London Dungeon, average spend in the caf‚ needs to stay fairly low. "Average spend is about £2 a head," Thompson says.

Despite the relatively straightforward menu, the Dungeon catering team still work long and hard hours. "In the summer," Thompson says, "we can work from 9am to 9pm, but the most important thing for me is the flexibility of being able to work shifts, so I can build my family commitments around my work."

### Roll call Annual visitors to the Dungeon: 750,000 Average daily covers: 200-300 (rising to 1,500 in school holidays) Weekly turnover in the Blood and Guts café: £2,000 Average spend: £2 Number of Herta hotdogs sold a month: 15-20 boxes (42 hotdogs to a box)
### It's torture What's the best thing about your job? Seeing the customers come out satisfied, and hearing people say they want to come back soon. What's the worst thing about your job? The constant moaning from visitors. Who are the worst moaners? The British complain the most - they just want to complain about something and get their money back; the Americans are the highest spenders; the Germans are the loudest and leave the most mess behind them; and the French students are always trying to nick things from the shop. What would be your advice to people who want to cater at a visitor attraction? Be ready for hard work, know the type of person you are catering for, and then take every day as it comes.
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