Sir Derek Jacobi likes smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, Lauren Bacall is partial to caviare on blinis and Fiona Fullerton favours apple and walnuts in filo pastry - just a few of the dishes that Ring & Brymer, part of Gardner Merchant Leisure, provides for actors at the Chichester Festival Theatre.
When it was first opened more than 30 years ago, the theatre had a 12-week season and was "dark" the rest of the year. Now it's dark for only three weeks in 12 months, and runs seven days a week, backed by a complex catering operation with a turnover of £1.4m in 1997, an increase of 9% on the previous year.
The catering was first contracted out in 1985 to Payne & Gunter, and moved by acquisition through various companies until Gardner Merchant Leisure bought the previous contractor, Town & County, in 1993.
The current 10-year contract is due for renewal next year. Under the agreement, the theatre takes a percentage of catering turnover and the caterer pays its own running costs. Catering thus makes a major contribution towards theatre finances and faces a constant challenge in seeking ways to cope with the large numbers of visitors and theatre-goers.
"Within six weeks of the new season's programme being mailed to members in mid-February, we have 5,000 bookings for the main Minerva Restaurant, which is always fully booked three weeks before performances," says Peter de Buisseret, Ring & Brymer's general manager at the theatre. To help cope with this overflow, the Café on the Park was started 18 months ago, and became an instant success. "We tidied up a scruffy area of the restaurant, invested £15,000 in new counters and lighting and opened the café from 10am until midnight instead of just during performance times," explains Bob Reeves, deputy managing director of Gardner Merchant Leisure. "To our surprise, we took £100,000 in new revenue in 12 months."
With queues now forming for the Café on the Park during busy periods, the Spartacus Terrace was opened last summer, providing packed lunches and strawberry-and-cream teas to be eaten outside.
"Catering in a theatre is like no other operation I've ever worked in. You either love it or hate it," says de Buisseret, who has worked at Chichester Festival Theatre for 13 years. "Timing is crucial. People come in to eat at the pre-performance 5.30pm sitting, usually three or four courses, and even if they don't turn up until 6pm they have to be served and have the bill ready by 7.15pm.
"There's no mercy for us - the service has to be co-ordinated and rehearsed as thoroughly as the performance itself. We've not lost any customers yet, but there have been some close shaves."
With regular theatre-goers coming to three plays in five weeks, de Buisseret and head chef David Reeves change the menu every three weeks. They use fresh ingredients delivered daily, and select dishes that can be prepared and served quickly. Strict timing keeps the menu and the wine list short.
"The meal and theatre is a total experience for visitors," says de Buisseret. "People are here for an evening's entertainment, and the restaurant is a major part of this enjoyment. We try to keep it friendly and informal, but there's no time to spend half-an-hour mulling over the menu in the bar. Even the brasserie-styled Café on the Park has to provide a slick service for theatre-goers rushing in half-an-hour before curtain-up."
To cater for the matinées, which attract large audiences and coach parties, the Spartacus Terrace, named after a nearby statue, is open between 11.30am and 3pm, Thursday and Saturday. Additionally, de Buisseret is ready to serve as many as 800 meals, many unbooked, on these afternoons.
As well as the three public eating outlets, the theatre has a Members Club Room. Seating 120 and serving hot and cold buffets to some of the theatre's 16,000 members, this is also booked weeks in advance.
Actors and staff are fed in the Green Room, closed to the public. From 11am to 7.30pm, a self-service hot and cold buffet with snacks and sandwiches is available, with some flexibility to allow for artistic temperament. "The Moscow City Ballet were extraordinary eaters," says de Buisseret. "They loved masses of junk food, fresh fruit and chips, and smoked so heavily they kept setting off the fire alarms."
Marketing has played an important part in the expansion of the Festival Theatre catering, and one successful promotion was to ask stars of long-term productions what their favourite meal was and put it on the menu. Hence the Sir Derek Jacobi Special of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs which, with the addition of brown bread and a glass of white wine, is still selling for £10.50.
Pressures of serving three- to four-course meals in less than two hours, plus late-night sittings after the performance, are relieved by what de Buisseret calls "the jolly side" of the operation: meeting well-known actors.
"There are regulars like Pat Routledge and June Whitfield, and Dame Vera Lynn, who was kissed by half the restaurant when she dined here. You get to know who wants to be interrupted by autograph hunters and who wants the star treatment," says de Buisseret, whose team are trained specifically to deal with this side of their job.
He maintains a core of 45-50 staff plus another 50 for the summer season, many from university or drama school and who return from one season to the next.
De Buisseret considers theatre staff to be special. "Apart from the fact that you are expected to serve a three-course meal at 5.30pm, face an empty restaurant until 10pm and then serve another three or four courses, there are the intervals," he says. "You have 600 people wanting a drink and a programme and to use the toilet, all in 20 minutes. It's manic. We have excellent bar staff, trained to serve a lot of drinks in that time."
Because of the nature of the job, a lot of time is spent on customer-care courses. "You must be able to wear a permanent smile, be nice and, more important than a knowledge of wines, love the theatre and the job," says de Buisseret.
Published by: The Caterer