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Visitor attractions: Has the food offering improved?

24 July 2008 by

After both Which? and the Soil Assocation slammed the food provided at visitor attractions in the UK, Tom Vaughan looks at whether the quality of catering on a family day out has improved

By the time you've trudged the hour-long queue into Madame Tussauds you'll have passed seven vending machines. Only one stocks fruit juice and only three mineral water. If you're addicted to Fanta, you're in luck - there's enough sugary pop to encourage someone to scale the nearest tall building. And things don't get much better past the ticket booth: the first piece of fruit takes about an hour to reach, where five diced strawberries on a stick are primed for dipping in a chocolate fountain.

Let's whizz back in time. It's 2004, and consumer watchdog Which? releases a report panning numerous visitor attractions for their lack of healthy food. Two years on, and the Soil Association has its own survey with the general consensus, again, damning. "When it comes to healthy food and drink at the country's top family tourist attractions, our children are being taken for a ride," it says. Then, in July this year, council regulatory service Lacors weighs in with its own report, finding that not one of 397 meals checked at 220 theme parks, wildlife parks, museums and other leisure attractions over the previous 12 months fully met the official guidelines for healthier food expected in schools during term time.

According to Soil Association policy campaigner Emma Hockridge, this shows that "Two years on, not a lot has changed." A follow-up report is due to be published by Which? on 18 August, examining exactly how far visitor attractions have come.

Many sites claim to have upped their offering. Camelot Theme Park in Chorley, Lancashire, took bottom spot in both the Which? and Soil Association surveys. Since then it claims to have reduced the number of hotdog stands on site to make way for healthy food outlets. In fact, the number of hotdog stands doubled between 2004 and 2006, so this isn't quite the achievement it boasts. The real commitment to healthy food, however, is probably decipherable from a line in its press statement, released in response to the Lacors report. "Over recent years fruit has been trialled several times on the park and has resulted in excess wastage due to low consumer demand. It must be remembered that a trip to a theme park is, for most, a once-a-year treat."

And then there is Madame Tussauds. Scoring the waxwork museum using the same criteria as the Soil Association did two years ago, when it totalled a miserable five out of 25, Caterer carried out its own assessment recently. Our markings actually saw it lose three points, with the only redeeming feature being the offering at Caffè Nero, which can be found at the very end of the attraction. Owner Merlin Entertainment's head of group commercial development, Gary Henderson, defended the site as different from most others, however. "Madame Tussauds is an attraction on the move," he says. "You can't peg it into the same hole as somewhere like London Zoo, where you can sit down whenever you want. There is very little space to do what they do."

London Zoo's Oasis café is a good lesson in the viability of healthy food at attractions. Freshly made baguettes, salads, sandwiches and hot meals with vegetables all prove popular, although the junk food prevalent in the zoo's satellite eateries has yet to change.

Then there's New Metroland in Gateshead, Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach and Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which all came out badly in the Soil Association report. We'll have to wait until August to find out how far these venues have come since 2006, but seeing as it took an undercover researcher just shy of four hours to find fruit at Blackpool Pleasure Beach last time round, and none was on sale at the other sites, a lot of work will have been necessary to bring them up to scratch.

It needn't be like this, however. "We all have to encourage our children to eat healthily, because it affects their attitude to food throughout their lives," says food service consultant Chris Stern. And according to consultant nutritionist Georgina Ayin: "There has to be an awareness that children are getting obese, and there needs to be a duty of care towards offering healthy options."

"Any outlet that doesn't make healthy food available isn't doing the right thing these days," says Peter Smale, managing director of Turpin Smale, a consultancy to concession catering sites.

The sentiment throughout the industry is that places have to move with the times, and people are becoming increasingly aware of childhood obesity.

Laziness is what keeps sites churning out greasy burgers and little else, reckons Smale. "These operators see that places like Burger King and McDonald's are popular, so they try and do their own version of such meals. They don't realise there's a lot of development work that goes into keeping these brands what they are. It doesn't make them brilliant, but they are at least consistent. People tend to think fast food is easy."

The key is to balance nutritional concerns with commercial realities. "If all you ever offered were salads and fruit, you'd go out of business very quickly," says Smale. "The mix has to be right. When kids go to an attraction it's a treat, and that element has to come through in the food as well."

For such a balance those attractions with a specifically higher educational bent provide some clues as how to do it. At the Science Museum in London 32 food and beverage workers help prepare 80% of the food and drink on site from fresh raw materials. Fruit and healthy drinks, such as milk, are available and conspicuously positioned on every one of its five sales points, and the options at food points extend from salads through to home-made soups.

The contract is run by Digby Trout Restaurants, and general manager Matt Downey insists that choice is the key at the museum. "We have a moral obligation to offer products that are healthy," he says. "But a visit to the museum is also a treat, so our service should be about choice, too." While Downey admits that the extra cost of fresh food, and the wastage, mean that gross profit margins for catering at the museum sit in the mid-60s rather than at 70%, the choice and range of food adds to the experience and repeat custom, he believes. "These days, even if a particular person doesn't come back, a site can lose by word of mouth and association," says Smale. "Visitor attractions are in a very competitive market."

However, is it really so easy to make the move to a healthier selection? Smale is of the opinion that "you can't change a McDonald's into a Leon." In other words, he believes that there's no point tacking healthy options and fruit on to a burger-van offering. "If you're trying to enhance the customer experience, then you have to structure the whole offering around it. Generally speaking, bolting things on to an already established menu isn't the way forward. Run your offering until the end of the season then plan next year as an overhaul and relaunch it."

Good template

Nutritionist Ayin recommends canvassing children and visitors as to their top 10 preferences after chips, then devising healthy means of cooking these. The Soil Association check list (see panel, page 37) is a good template for a healthy offering, but caterers also need to work with suppliers and seek advice from the Food Standards Agency and environmental health officers to ensure that healthy meals are exactly that: low on fats, salts and sugars.

If the extra labour costs of making food on site are not viable, and the wastage a concern, Smale recommends working with frozen food providers to put together a healthy, labour-light menu. Build up the menu slowly, he says. Focus on a few choices and expand according to demand.

Despite the sugary pagoda that is Madame Tussauds, the greatest example of change over the past few years is found in Merlin Entertainment's other sites, such as Alton Towers. After a drubbing in the Which? report, the group overhauled its menu, beginning in 2005. The food and beverage team worked on the basics, such as adding fruit to sale points, and in 2006 planning started for the launch of a healthy-eating range. "We didn't want to be just about putting salad and fruit out there," says Henderson. "We wanted to bring in signage and information on the menu. We devised a statement for display saying that ‘You will find indulgent foods here, but you will also find a healthy alternative.'"

The repackage launched in 2007 and has been taken a step further in 2008 to include healthy meals designed by nutritionist Annabel Karmel. A sound bet would be on Merlin rising up the ranks in the forthcoming Which? report.

The changes have meant the group has to absorb an extra £75,000 in waste each year, a figure it has worked into the business plan without raising prices. The number might seem large, but it should be seen in context of the group's size, which constitutes 20 UK sites with about 33 million annual visitors. "We decided to take the commercial hit," says Henderson. "Our stance is that you have to provide the choice, even if you have to throw away stuff at the end of the day. If we make a loss, then so be it."

No one will argue that it isn't easy to peddle burgers to kids for profit. A visitor attraction eaterie chock-full of nothing but greenery will soon run at a loss. But in an age when kids' waistlines are expanding at the rate of the Chinese economy, any sensible PR department will be moving kitchens away from junk food, particularly with organisations such as the Soil Association circling. "These poor attractions should be shamed into making changes," says policy campaigner Hockridge. "If they are there for families, they should be doing everything they can to offer healthy food."

The focus on kids' attractions might seem unfair to some, as a day out is, for most people, a monthly or two-monthly event. "You can't look to an attraction company to solve a nationwide problem," says Henderson. "We should all do our best to offer healthy food but realise our primary reason for existing is as a day-out treat."

But there's much to be gained from introducing more healthy options. The route to a balanced menu might seem unappealing and expensive, with extra waste and staffing numbers being two additional costs. But by seeking help, undertaking consultation and researching what kids want to eat, sites can turn around a reputation for supplying junk food.

Attractions such as Alton Towers are, commendably, improving, while the Science Museum and Cornwall's Eden Project have maintained their dedication to a healthy choice. There is much to be positive about, and we'll find out in detail how far the rest have come in August when Which? publishes its report.

Lacors report findings

The overall results from the 397 meals tested showed that, on average, the meals provided had:

  • 10% more fat than the maximum recommended by the School Food Trust.
  • 4% more saturated fat than the maximum recommended by the School Food Trust.
  • 44% more salt than the maximum recommended by the School Food Trust.

The report calls for:

  • "Healthy options" alongside current menus so that parents can have the choice of what they feed their children.
  • The removal of additional salt - such as shakers or sachets - as the food already contains at least the recommended amounts.
  • The advertisement of free drinking water alongside soft drinks.
  • A reduction in the amount of deep-fried or fried foods offered by leisure venues.
  • Further practical guidance for leisure businesses on supplying healthy options, to be developed in partnership.

Eight steps to a healthier day out

  • Provide free chilled water at all outlets.
  • Make healthy snacks and fruit juice available at all vending machines.
  • Stop fizzy drinks promotions.
  • Include fresh or dried fruit, salad and juice cartons in children's menus and lunchboxes.
  • Ensure healthy options such as salads or fresh savoury foods are readily available.
  • Improve ingredient quality and cooking methods of popular foods.
  • Introduce organic and locally sourced items.

Source: The Soil Association

What do kids like?

Consultant nutritionist Georgina Ayin suggests:

  • Pasta with home-made sauces modified to use less salt, sugar, fat and additives
  • Jacket potatoes
  • Fajitas and wraps with lean meat and salad or veg
  • Home-made curries using lean meat and vegetables
  • Stuffed pitta kebabs using lean meat and salad or veg
  • Lean meat and vegetable stir-fries using minimal oil
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