These operators have successfully taken their businesses outside

12 May 2022 by

The pandemic started the exodus outdoors, and now more operators have seen the year-round benefits of space for more customers, out in all weathers. The Caterer hears from the experts at the Outdoor Summit

It's impossible to discuss outdoor occasions in Britain without first invoking the weather. But for Julie Crump, chief operating officer at Caviar & Chips, there's a joy in embracing the changeable forecast.

The company runs a wedding catering business as well as a pub, the No 34 Garden & Grill in Warwick, and is opening a wedding venue at Stockton House in Shropshire later this year. Crump recalls a recent wedding where it started raining the minute the groom kissed the bride. "You know, I think it just created part of fun." Being outdoors makes every experience unique. "You're never going to get the same in terms of the weather, lighting, temperature, flowers, bees…and so yes, some of the wettest weddings we've done have probably been some more of the memorable ones!"

However, planning remains important – such as ensuring there's an adequate power supply to keep the fizz cold and the party going into the small hours. "I think we've learned the hard way, thinking, ‘it'll be fine, we'll make it work', and then discovering you're packing a van in the middle of the night with no lighting."

Being respectful of wildlife is another priority. For example, due to the number of pheasants on the Shropshire site, the business has decided against using fireworks. "It's being a little bit aware that we are invading the natural environment," she says. "We want to be really conscious of where we are and what we're doing to operate within it."

A restaurant on the river

Stuart ‘Tommo' Thomson runs his bar and restaurant Barge East from a 120-year-old Dutch barge in Hackney Wick in London. The site opened at the end of 2018 and now has a large garden seating up to 300 people – making 80% of its capacity outdoors.

Like Crump, Thomson is mindful of wildlife, but a different type. "We are in an urban area so we have to be on top of managing unwanted pests and keeping the venue clean and tidy. We don't want guests seeing mice and rats, which are part of the outdoor environment."

He says being located in a residential area has helped boost business with more people working from home. However, now we're out of the pandemic, they've also had to work harder to win custom in the colder months.

I literally cannot imagine going into a kitchen now and turning on a gas stove

"During Covid people were willing to be outside in all weathers. But certainly, this last winter just gone, we had to put more work into maintaining those customers being outside."

Hot-water bottles, blankets and heaters have become "a crucial component in trying to maintain trade" he says.

Creature comforts in the outdoors

Josh Chadwick, hotel manager at the Tawny in rural Staffordshire, agrees that ensuring customers are comfortable and have everything they need is key to keeping things running smoothly throughout the year. The site has no main building and instead has a ‘deconstructed' approach across 70 acres, which includes tree houses, boat houses, shepherd huts and retreat lodges.

"A lot of our guests do love the outdoors but they might not always be prepared. So we've got something called our explore reception, where they can borrow wellies, boots and extra coats free of charge."

He says that in lockdown people became aware they can tolerate the weather, but outdoor heating can still be helpful. "Our favourite is infrared heaters," he says. "A lot of heaters just heat the air around you, and as soon as the wind blows in the wrong direction, the heat disappears."

Felicity Cunliffe-Lister, proprietor of the Swinton Estate in Yorkshire, which includes a glamping campsite on its grounds, echoes the point that outdoor accommodation should not mean compromising on comfort.

"Certainly, when we launched in 2012, I think it was more of a niche experience and we've adapted over time to really accommodate those who are perhaps a little less hardcore when it comes to camping, so we have made allowances for much more in the way of luxuries," she says.

She believes ensuring guests are well-rested is key to keeping them happy. "I think, just because you're camping, you shouldn't compromise on anything that might have an impact on the quality of your sleep, so we have the best mattress and the best linen. If you can wake up refreshed you can face the day, whatever the weather."

Mark Sorrill, founder and owner of the Pop-Up Hotel and Hideaway Spaces, which provide luxury camping experiences for private events and festivals such as Glastonbury, also notes that the glamping market has expanded hugely over the last decade.

"I think there's probably a softer market in the depths of winter, but I still believe there's a romance and excitement to being outside. Even if it's cold, as long as the guest is kept comfortable, I don't see any reason this shouldn't be a 365-day-a-year experience."

Outdoor theatre

For a number of operators, outside dining is also an opportunity to showcase cooking prowess as well as creating a visual spectacle for customers. And that's especially true when it involves an open flame – just don't call it barbecue.

"I have been doing live fire cooking for most of my career, alongside being classically French-taught," says Andrew Clarke, co-founder of outdoor restaurant Acme Fire Cult in Hackney.

"Without being pedantic about it, we're actively trying to not use the word barbecue, which is a very specific style of cooking related particularly to the southern states in the US," he says. "And [we're] not going down the obvious route of briskets and ribs in a sticky sauce. We're actually leading with vegetables and getting a bit more creative with that."

The key ingredients here are wood and charcoal. "Everything gets cooked around that and we don't waste any amount of heat. Even when we're cleaning down at the end of the night, we'll throw a load of the vegetables onto the dying flames because that's prep for the morning."

Opeoluwa Odutayo, co-founder and recipe developer at Mortimer House and Ice Cream & Ting, both in London, says there are few limits to what can be cooked using this method.

"I grew up in Nigeria where everything is cooked on open fire. We use a lot of firewood and charcoal because gas and electricity is pretty expensive," she says. "I grew up making cakes on live fire. That's how I was trained: to make cakes in pots and bake it in the pot with stones. You might have to regulate it and watch it closely, but it's definitely possible."

For chefs wanting to get into this style of cooking, Odutayo says the key is to pick something you care about. "I'm fully [about] Nigerian cooking, fusion style, so every time I cook, it's something that has a connection to who I am or my tradition. I'd say if you're starting out cook something that you enjoy and that you're passionate about."

Tom Powell, head chef at Kindle in Cardiff, which opened last September, says he "literally cannot imagine going into a kitchen now and turning on a gas stove".

"It doesn't factor into my brain. Obviously, [now] I need a good 40 minutes in the morning to get my fire up to any sort of temperature, so there are some early starts. There's more to do because you're preparing your heat source as well as the food."

He believes this method of cooking brings a greater depth to the cuisine. "I think with fire cooking we actually have a bigger canvas to work with, because there's so much more that comes from using open flame – flavour-wise, textures, even colours."

Steve Horrell, executive chef at Roth Bar & Grill in Somerset, caters for a number of outdoor events, where a whole animal typically features as the centrepiece. "We try and have lots of different bits of kit going at the same time," he says. "People walk past and ask questions and are interested to see what you're doing: you've got a lamb in one corner, your veg in another and they can see some fruit ready for the grill… I think they pick up that it's not just a barbecue, that what we're cooking is a step up from that."

His top tip is to practice. "We did a few events with friends and family and you only learn from your mistakes," he says. "You are essentially playing around every time you do it. You move the fire around, you move your ingredients to a different part of the fire if it's too hot or too cold. You're always nurturing it. And, at the end of the day, it's theatre."

Licensing and planning permission: what you need to know

Measures originally put in place during the pandemic to allow pubs, cafés and restaurants to erect moveable structures for an unlimited number of days without planning permission were made permanent at the end of last year.

But while that's great news for operators wanting to trade outside, James Daglish, partner at Keystone Law, points out there are still number of things to consider.

"The automatic part of the regime only applies to drinking establishments and venues that sell food and drink – unless it's a listed building," he says.

However, permanent exemption from planning permission is for one structure only. "So make the most of that one structure. There must be at least a two-metre gap between the structure of any nearby residential uses – particularly important to watch out for if you're in an urban or highly populated area."

The height of the movable structure must not exceed three metres, with a footprint no larger than 50% of the main building you operate from or 50 square metres – whichever is the lower number. "And you must not use the structure for the display of advertisements. So the beer advert on the side is, I'm afraid, a no-no.

"Also, think about smells and smokers," he says. "You'll need to give some thought to your other legislative obligations. So fire risk assessment, health and safety and extreme weather. How are you intending to keep your customers warm? You will need to mitigate any fire risk if you use heaters.

"And crucially you will need a premises licence. If you're serving alcohol, you need to think about how that fits in with your existing permitted activities. In all likelihood[if the area is] being newly used, it will not be licenced. You can either licence that area or take advantage of off-sales."

That means any sales that take place outside are fulfilled within the licenced area. "So, the drinks need to be poured in the licenced area and then taken out to the outside space. And when it comes to payment, that can take place outside as long as the device you're using is communicating back to the till within the licenced area."

Images: Shutterstock

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