Unrelenting rain and floods have dampened park caterers' takings this summer - but there's still a lot to smile about. Jackie Mitchell reports
Catering in parks is a risky business - certainly in Britain, as it's seasonal and highly dependent on the weather. For most park caterers, April's unusually hot weather was a great start to the season, but then business plummeted in May and continued to do so as the weather became worse. Operators hope August's better weather will compensate for the lack of business during the summer months.
Fiona Boyd-Thorpe, who runs Food Service Associates, a consultancy for open-space catering, says April to October is the busiest season, although some parks get business all year round. "It's more weather-dependent than seasonal - you might get a crisp autumn day and be inundated with customers," she says.
She thinks there are good prospects for caterers in parks as the competition is low. "Anyone with a quality offer is likely to do well," she says. "There are no contract caterers in this sector - only one-man bands and people who aren't necessarily caterers."
Catering facilities in parks vary enormously from kiosks and self-service cafés to fine-dining restaurants such as Oliver Peyton's Inn the Park in St James's Park, the Belvedere in Holland Park or the Garden Café in Regent's Park. "But there's no general trend that they're moving in that direction," says Boyd-Thorpe. "Catering in parks is changing and evolving. The quality of park catering has been lifted. Park operators have picked up aspects from high-street catering and taken them on board."
For catering in parks, there are two options: a lease or a concession, where caterers pay the client a percentage of turnover. The latter has a downside. "There's a risk because even if you're operating at a loss, you've still got to pay up," says Boyd-Thorpe. "In some cases, there may also be some capital investment involved, such as fitting out a new kitchen."
The good news is that local authorities are actively looking for caterers, so just how much can you expect to earn? Boyd-Thorpe says that annual turnover can range from £50,000 and £1.3m, with profits at 5-12%. You might want to consider a kiosk, as they offer a high turn-over with low overheads. Once it's equipped, you'll need only a couple of staff to run it. Although it may take time to land a contract, another advantage is that these usually last 10 years or more. According to Boyd-Thorpe, yearly turnover can range from £20,000-£500,000 depending on the operation.
Boyd-Thorpe is working with clients including Hylands House in Chelmsford, Essex, which have introduced new catering concepts and hired professionals to run them. Hylands House, a Grade II-listed building, is set in 574 acres of historic landscaped parkland. The Stables Centre next to Hylands House has been restored and converted into a new visitor centre. This includes the 80-seat Huttons Courtyard Café, a gift shop, artists' studios and stabling for horses.
Since opening in February, the centre has attracted 50,000 visitors and the café has been a great success. Despite the unpredictable summer weather, Huttons has taken in the first six months what it had hoped to take in the first year. Sue Ireland, director of parks at Chelmsford Borough Council, says: "Prior to this, there was a tearoom that was a limited offer serving sandwiches and hot drinks. Now the café has waiting staff, is licensed for alcohol and serves traditional English and European dishes all prepared on site with local produce. Catering is vitally important to this facility."
The café caters for visitors to the Stables Centre, which is an attraction in its own right, and visitors to the park as well as visitors to Hylands House. The café is leased to two former school dinner ladies, sisters Tracy Holder and Louise Toner, who won the contract through a competitive tender. The two women, who started their business last November, won the contract "because we were impressed by what they proposed and their passion to make it work", says Ireland.
Although Holder says the recent bad weather slowed them down, turnover for Huttons has been £187,000 since February and they expect £350,000 by the end of year. She thinks the venue is a major factor in the café's success. "People sit in a beautiful courtyard under parasols - it could be Venice," she says.
Sunday lunchtime is the busiest time, with a traditional roast at £6.50. Paninis at £3.85 are the biggest seller, followed by salads and jacket potatoes. The average spend is £4.80. "We have a children's menu with no chips, and in the afternoon we get the cream tea brigade - we can get through 200 scones in a weekend," says Holder.
The Forestry Commission has 20 permanent catering facilities at forest parks ranging from snack bars to restaurants. Except for Thetford Forest Park they're all managed on a mixture of leases and licences. New catering opportunities are advertised in the trade press, local newspapers and on the website. Caterers are expected to operate sustainable catering businesses and use local produce. This is certainly the case at Westonbirt in Gloucestershire. Set in 600 acres, the National Arboretum at Westonbirt is one of the most spectacular tree gardens in the world with a collection of more than 3,000 trees and shrub species, many of which are rare or endangered. Unlike some open spaces, Westonbirt is not totally dependent on the summer weather. "Thirty per cent of our visitors come in October to see the autumn colours of the trees dominated by the Japanese maples - some of the largest in the world," says John Burton, attraction manager.
The 95-seat Maples restaurant is leased out, under a franchise arrangement, to Stan and Diane Hyne, who have run it for five years since it opened. It was built with timber from the arboretum with seeds on the roof which grow. "We've been incredibly lucky that takings this year are on a par with last year," says Stan Hyne. "We have more than 22,000 members of the Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum and they come to lunch here anyway regardless - we rely on them when the weather's bad."
All dishes are made from scratch on site with local ingredients - people come to the counter and chefs serve them. It's open from 10am to 5pm every day except Christmas Day. Main courses cost about £6.95. "People pay an entry fee as well (£7 adults, £5 children) so we have to take that into consideration when we set the prices," says Hyne. "Customers can come here several times a day spending more than £25 for morning, coffee lunch and afternoon tea - the site is over 600 acres with 18 miles of pathways, so they need a rest."
For EC Softice, which runs a kiosk business, takings have been down by 30% this year because of bad weather. "Last year profits were up by 20% - if August is wonderful, it might bring it back up," says owner Ernie Colicci. The company operates kiosks in parks including Hyde Park (seven kiosks), Green Park and St James's Park (seven) and Regent's Park (one cafeteria, four kiosks), under a concession arrangement, with a percentage payable to the Royal Parks. "The contract is 12 years and we're open 364 days a year," says Colicci. Opening hours are about 10am to 9pm. "On a sunny day we can serve 2,000 - on a horrible day, 300," he adds.
Case study: Pavilion Café, Dulwich Park, London
In 2002, sisters Tarka and Domani Cowlam won the contract to run the Pavilion Café at Dulwich Park, London. They have a 15-year lease from Southwark Council. The café had been neglected and needed complete modernisation, which was paid for by the Cowlams with support from the council.
"People hadn't been to the café before so initially it was a struggle to get them in. They assumed it was still a greasy spoon," says Domani.
Today the café has a loyal following, including parents with young children, retired couples, dads and footballers on a Saturday, and families on Sundays. It has 80 seats inside with outside tables.
"The dog walkers come here for breakfast most mornings. We also get what we call the hearts of the park - a walking club for people with a heart condition. They've been coming here since we started - we organise a Christmas party for them," says Cowlam.
The park is open from 8.30am to 4pm in the winter and until 6.30pm in the summer, seven days a week except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day. In the winter there are seven staff and in summer, this is increased to 10. As Dulwich Park's facilities include a football pitch, tennis court and bowling green, there's a constant stream of customers.
"The weather does have a huge effect - even on an hourly basis," says Cowlam.
"It can be difficult to anticipate how much food to prepare. If the sun comes out, there's suddenly a huge number of people. It's tricky to find a balance - we usually sell out of food."
The food is freshly prepared from local suppliers, with a licence to sell beer and wine. Although Cowlam says sausage and chips is the most popular item, the menu offers paninis, salads, wraps, jacket potatoes and Sunday roast.
Spend is between £5 and £10 per person. The children's menu at £1.50 to £3.50 serves items such as turkey burger, fish fingers, vegetable pasta bake, jelly and ice-cream.
Home-made cakes include lemon and poppyseed loaf, cheesecake and banoffee pie, and there are wheat- and dairy-free biscuits and sponge cakes. Organic suntan lotion, insect repellent and organic baby food are also sold.
Pavilion Café Dulwich Park: www.pavilioncafedulwich.co.uk
Forestry Commission www.forestry.gov.uk
Fiona Boyd-Thorpe Food Service Associates www.catering-consultant.biz
Royal Parks www.royalparks.gov.uk