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How Debenhams revamped its food offering

17 April 2008 by

Listening to customers' demands has been a major consideration in the £5m revamp of the catering outlets at department store chain Debenhams. Divisional director Peter Barrett, who is driving through the changes, explains to Janet Harmer the thinking behind the refit

Catering for a food operation which serves nearly 20 million customers each year is a challenge that has inspired Peter Barrett every day for the past 25 years.

Barrett joined Debenhams Foodservices in 1983 as marketing director and, within two years, was promoted to divisional director. Today he is responsible for 166 food service outlets, employing 2,500 catering staff, across the company's 150 stores.

"It is an area of the industry that it is easier to get wrong than it is to get right, and that is what has kept me going all this time," says Barrett, who is overseeing a £5m overhaul of Debenhams' in-store restaurants.

In the early years of his career, initially as an executive management trainee with Trusthouse Forte and then working over 15 years for the company - in such prestigious establishments as the Café Royal and the Talk of the Town, and in banqueting and government hospitality - Barrett believed his future lay in exclusive venues. But when he was asked to help out in the company's outside catering division at Ascot, his outlook was unexpectedly opened up to the possibilities of mass catering.

"The sheer scale of it appealed to me enormously," explains Barrett. "From that moment, the challenge has always been to turn something that is served to large numbers of people into something that is worthwhile."

It is this thought that is driving Barrett and his team as they overhaul the catering offer across the portfolio of Debenhams stores in the UK and Ireland.

Their starting point has been the extensive research they have carried out among their customers - particularly their key target audience of "ladies who lunch", retired people with time and money, and young families.

The findings that have influenced the current refurbishment include demands for more fresh ingredients, made-to-order items, healthier options, hot snacks, interesting menus and contemporary environments.

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Once the refurbishment is complete, the intention is that the majority of catering outlets in Debenhams' stores will be converted into one or other of two distinct brands - a Douwe Egberts Coffee at Debenhams coffee shop or a Style Café. Some 25 stores currently have no catering as, with less than 4,000sq m of retail space, they are deemed too small.

The company's flagship and largest store, with 18,600sq m of retail space, is in Oxford Street, London, and it is the only store with four food and beverage options. As well as the 230-seat Style restaurant (akin to the new-format Style Café), and a 100-seat Café Venue (soon to be replaced by the new Douwe Egberts Coffee at Debenhams brand), customers can also choose to take a break from shopping at either a 60-seat family-friendly burger restaurant called Dee's Diner or a 65-seat Champagne bar, Café Desire. There are no plans, at present, to expand these last two brands to other stores.

Douwe Egberts Coffee at Debenhams was born 18 months ago, as an updated version of the Café Venue brand, which was the store's first take on high-street coffee shops, introduced eight years ago. The new brand is already in place in 27 stores, with a further 28 due to open shortly.

"We were already serving Douwe Egbert's coffee in our stores and believed that the merging of two major brand names would be a smart move," says Barrett. "We are about halfway through the modernisation programme, and early results have exceeded all expectations, with sales up around 30%."

The change of name is just one aspect of the transformation. As well as an expansion of the coffee offer and improved training for baristas, better food displays have been introduced alongside a more comprehensive choice of snacks. There are now more hot snacks, such as a hot chicken fajita wrap and a roasted vegetable mezzaluna (each £4.25), as well as a selection of new pastry items including cup cakes (Sicilian lemon and mascarpone, or mint chocolate, at £1.50) and bread-based booster bars (super fruits or honey and hazelnut, at £1.50).

"We are delighted with the changes and particularly love the fact that our customers think of the brand as an outside one," says Barrett.

The second major new brand, the Style Café, has been introduced into 62 stores over the past 12 months, with a further 52 to be converted from former brand The Restaurant over the next two years.

Key components of the Style Café brand including a deli-bar, more freshly cooked items ordered at the counter and then served at the customer's table, a comprehensive children's menu with free fresh fruit and a VIP baby service, and a relaxing and contemporary seating area.

The deli-bar, in particular, fulfils requests from customers for more freshly prepared food, using the ingredients of their choice. Customers can choose from 10 different breads (including tortilla wraps, focaccias and pumpkin seed rolls) and have them filled with a number of ready-made fillings, such as hot Mexican-style chicken, aromatic duck, or roasted red pepper, onion and mozzarella, or create their own fillings from a wide choice of ingredients. Served with a side salad and hand-cooked crisps, the deli sandwiches cost £4.75, with an added portion of chips at 99p.

Traditional meals

Traditional cooked meals, ordered at the counter and served by staff to the customer at the table, include the likes of lamb shank with mint gravy, new potatoes and green beans (£7.45), battered cod, chips and peas (£6.45), and aubergine and walnut bake (£4.75).

For such a large catering operation, Barrett says that the company uses a relatively small number of suppliers (40), channelled through Brakes Logistics. About half these companies provide products, such as the Welsh farm shepherd's pie, which are made to Debenhams' specifications.

For younger diners, babies as well as older children, Barrett believes that Debenhams' offer in its Style Cafés is one of the most comprehensive in the marketplace. As well as an award-winning VIP kids' pick'n'mix selection, which offers a choice of five items plus one free item of fruit for £3.15, there is a selection of branded organic baby foods from the BabyDeli range, served with complimentary baby wipes and bibs.

There are also healthy-option lunch boxes containing pure orange juice, baked crisps, fromage frais and an apple, banana or satsuma, together with a made-to-order roll with a choice of filling from the deli bar. Childcare expert Dr Miriam Stoppard continues to advise Debenhams, as she has done for the past five years, on the nutritional content of children's meals.

Business has increased by an average of 8% since the introduction of the Style Cafés, and Barrett is confident that this figure can be improved further. "We are very encouraged by the positive reaction from staff and customers alike," he says. "As ever, we are listening to their feedback and have a number of trials running that will undoubtedly deliver the extra growth that we are targeting."

Staff are encouraged to propose ideas for driving the business forward. For example, Kenny Miles, the food service sales manager at the Style restaurant in Oxford Street, suggested introducing a portion of chips at 99p (normal price, £1.70) as an add-on sale to the deli sandwiches. Following a successful trial, Miles's idea has been rolled out to all deli-bars in Style Cafés around the country.

Happy Hour breakfasts, offered before 11am, for in-store staff, were introduced following another suggestion from Miles. Three hundred of them were sold in the first week.

"We encourage everyone to pitch in with their ideas and routinely get up to 50 suggestions a week," says Barrett. "The best ideas result in a case of Champagne for the member of staff concerned."

Keeping abreast of new trends by constantly reviewing the competition at home and abroad and introducing interesting concepts are vital factors in getting customers to eat in Debenhams, as department stores are generally not uppermost in people's minds when they are looking for somewhere to eat.

"To compete [with outside restaurants], we must deliver an experience that genuinely revitalises the customer and exceeds their expectation," says Barrett. "This is not just about coming up with great concepts, but about having dedicated teams who can deliver day in and day out, rising to the various challenges and, come what may, making it happen for the customer."

The story of Debenhams

  • The first Debenhams shop was opened in Wigmore Street, London, in 1813 by William Debenham and Thomas Clark.
  • In 1905 Debenhams opened its first department store.
  • Debenhams listed its shares on the London Stock Exchange in 1928 and traded as an independent company until 1985, when - as an operator of 65 stores and owner of other companies including Harvey Nichols, Hamleys and Lotus - it was acquired by the Burton Group.
  • In 1997 Debenhams was demerged from the Burton Group, and listed on the Stock Exchange in 1998.
  • Debenhams was taken into private ownership in December 2003 in a £1.72b deal by Baroness Retail, a group of venture capitalists, returning to the stock market in 2006.

Food service at Debenhams

  • Total number of stores, March 2008 150
  • Total sales, to September 2007 £2.3b
  • Total food service outlets, March 2008 166
  • Total food service sales, to September 2007 £72m
  • Food service staff 2,500 (10% of Debenhams' employees)

Brands

  • New 23 Style Cafés (new format), 39 Style Cafés (original format), 27 Douwe Egberts Coffee at Debenhams
  • Established 25 Café Venue, 52 The Restaurant

Flagship store, London

  • Style Restaurant 230 seats, £1,300,000 sales, 190,000 customers
  • Café Venue 100 seats, £830,000 sales, 240,000 customers
  • Café Desire 65 seats, £200,000 sales, 35,000 customers
  • Dee's Diner 60 seats, £170,000 sales, 50,000 customers
  • Total 455 seats, £2,500,000 sales, 515,000 customers

Designed to care

As part of Debenhams' wider corporate responsibility policy, its food service department has introduced 10 pledges to highlight a caring approach to customers and the environment. Illustrated by a series of classy black-and-white photographs displayed in every Style Café, the pledges cover:

  • Allergy information - an allergy advice file and product knowledge manual, containing details on the contents of all foods, is available in every store.
  • No azo colours - after research showed a potential link between the consumption of azo colours (synthetic food dyes) and hyperactivity in some children, Debenhams has removed azo colours from all products served in its restaurants and cafés.
  • Good Origin coffee - certified as 100% sustainable, Douwe Egberts Good Origin coffee, which aims to help farmers and the natural environment, is used in all the company's outlets.
  • Free-range eggs - the two million eggs served in Debenhams' breakfasts every years are from free range hens.
  • Hydrogenated fat-free - responsible for raising blood cholesterol, hydrogenated fats have been removed from all products.
  • Healthier kids' meals - Dr Miriam Stoppard is Debenhams' nutritional advisor on children's meals - every meal comes with a free piece of fruit.
  • Non-GM - products using genetically modified ingredients are banned.
  • Friendlier oil - oil used for frying is recycled into bio diesel.
  • Recyclable packaging - all sandwich packaging is made from recyclable cardboards, and all serviettes are made from 100% recycled paper.
  • Sustainable fishing - all fish products come from a sustainable and managed source.
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