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Eat, drink, pray: Church catering operations

06 February 2015
Eat, drink, pray: Church catering operations

Churches are becoming more enlightened to the prospect of housing a catering operation, turning parishioners into profit. David Harris reports

Should churches sell food and drink? Some people object to it, usually on the grounds that religious buildings should not house commercial enterprises, but so many churches now sell refreshments happily and successfully that trying to stop it happening seems as pointless as trying to puff
up a deflated soufflé.

The Church of England, in particular, has embraced catering with considerable enthusiasm. Many of the country's Anglican cathedrals have thriving cafés and restaurants and most of the clergy are jolly happy about it.

One of the main reasons is the need to raise money to keep old buildings in good order. Take St Paul's. Mark McVay, managing director of St Paul's Cathedral Enterprises, says it has been running a substantial catering operation for nearly 20 years.

"The reason we have catering here is to provide refreshment for visitors and worshippers, but also to give us another income stream for the cathedral," he explains. "We don't have any other funding, from the church or the state, so we are completely self-reliant."

Like many churches, St Paul's contracts out its catering, in its case to Harbour & Jones, which runs both a café and a restaurant in the crypt of the building. The cathedral gets a percentage of sales.

Not all churches confine themselves to the crypt. Liverpool Cathedral, the largest in Britain and the fifth largest in the world, hosts events such as conference dinners in the nave, the central space within the building. The diners are not seated near the high altar, but essentially people are having grand dinners in exactly the same places where worshippers sit when they attend services. The cathedral does not have a restaurant, it becomes one.

This event dining is in addition to a café on a mezzanine level, also in the main building, run by catering company Couture. The big one-off dinners, however, are run by the cathedral's own events team.

Filthy lucre?

So is it controversial putting on grand dinners in exactly the same space as services are held? The short answer is yes. Stuart Haynes, the cathedral's communications director, says: "It's strongly debated and it's not to everybody's liking. The chapter and dean here have discussed and prayed about it
a great deal since it was set up some years ago."

Again, of course, the money the operations make matters to the cathedral, especially as Liverpool does not have an admission charge.

But it would be wrong to characterise church catering as about nothing but money - it is also about bringing more people into churches.

Haynes says: "People come here who might never normally set foot in a church, and they are completely awed by the cathedral. At all events, guests are welcomed by members of clergy and I think they really appreciate that."

Chester Cathedral is another that uses the nave as a smart and striking events space. Last April it signed a deal with caterer Horseradish to offer formal dining.

And it is not just cathedrals that encourage catering. Even if the catering efforts of parish churches are on a more modest scale, many now do something. At the famous 18th century London church St George's, Bloomsbury, for example, last year saw the installation of a coffee cart alongside the front steps on Bloomsbury Way. David Peebles, the rector of St George's, says that one of the reasons for encouraging the cart was that it "helps to bring the outside of the church more alive and brings people in". It might also eventually make some money for St George's. So far the cart's independent operator has been operating there rent-free to help him get established.

The cart has not been problem-free, however. One of the reasons the operation was put outside is that the church is a Grade I-listed building, which makes any changes inside to accommodate catering a challenging prospect. But even the coffee cart's permanent canvas cover caused objections from those concerned to safeguard the appearances of listed buildings, because it was put up as a fixture. The cart now has to be packed away every night in
an aluminium shed alongside the church.

Sacred spaces

Nowadays objections such as this seem to come more often from those seeking to protect buildings from an architectural perspective rather than a religious one.

Peebles, who believes that churches need to be "commercial and adaptable" to survive, argues that being overprotective is not always helpful: "For some people the sacredness of this church is affected by catering inside, but in the medieval world cathedrals were marketplaces. It was the Victorians who decided that a church space should be 'pure'." In the 21st century, things are different. More churches are likely to be disappointed at restrictions on catering services than when cafés are opened. York Minster is one example. There is no catering inside the cathedral, largely because of the lack of a suitable space, but its communications director Sharon Atkinson admits: "We have been asked so often about it that we are looking for a way it can be done."

York has made efforts to offer refreshments in the grounds. This summer, for example, local cake shop Crumbs Cupcakery sold its products from a vintage pink caravan, nicknamed Flo, parked in the grounds. The caravan is a small example of the sort of enterprise that churches are encouraging.

Catering is usually at the forefront, but other businesses are also moving in. Last summer, St James in West Hampstead opened a post office, a stationery shop, a children's play gym and a café, all inside the church itself.

A church, then, but not as most of us know it. Caterers should take note: many churches are open to offers.

Case study: St David's Cathedral

At St David's Cathedral on the western tip of Wales, the catering is carried out by Midshire Catering, which has run the café-restaurant there since 2008 and whose latest contract goes up to 2018.

Operations director John Hughes says it is a prestigious contract for the company, but also a challenging one. One of the main reasons for this is that St David's, on the edge of the Pembrokeshire town of the same name, does not really get any passing trade. Those who eat there are usually those who have come to visit the cathedral, whereas in the big city cathedrals, caterers can hope to get diners who come for the restaurant alone.

Hughes adds that, like other caterers in religious buildings, Midshire has to be doubly careful to source food ethically and gets all it can from fair-trade sources.

In addition, many customers are older people who demand good value from their food, so pricing is crucial. And some promotional opportunities - Halloween for instance - are not suitable for a church.

Catering to all faiths

If inclusion in the Michelin guide is any measure of excellence, then a restaurant that serves a synagogue is among the top food destinations associated with UK religious buildings.

Restaurant 1701 is in the grounds of Bevis Marks synagogue in the City of London. The restaurant takes its name from the year of the synagogue's foundation and aims to showcase kosher food. Its co-founder, Lionel Salama, is proud of the way the restaurant champions Jewish cuisine, which he felt was "not celebrated in this country as it should be". The restaurant pays a rent to the synagogue for the space it occupies. Has it been a
success? Is it making a profit? "We're getting there," says Salama.

In general, other faiths have less catering sited in their religious spaces than the Church of England. A spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain says that visitors can find halal food at restaurants near mosques, rather inside them. He adds: "London Central Mosque does have a catering facility, but this is quite rare. At East London Mosque, for instance, most people will use a number of halal restaurants on the Whitechapel Road."

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