An Experience Beyond “Coffee and Cakes”

An Experience Beyond “Coffee and Cakes”

A quote I read on twitter from the recent HTA Catering Conference said, ”You can’t buy coffee and cakes on the internet!” and that, of course, is very true but it should not be translated as meaning the only reason people are visiting our garden centres is to drink coffee and eat cakes, rather they are visiting for the experience of eating and drinking in a wonderful environment. If the rest of the centre is not offering anything in the way of an experience then it will, quite rightly, be ignored.

Another comment I frequently hear is that grow your own is on the decline as people are realising that it is hard work, fraught with problems and actually it is cheaper to pick up some fruit and vegetables in the supermarket as well it is but equally, it is also cheaper and not very taxing to drink coffee and eat cakes at home. Offering the experience in the plant area should be as natural as offering the experience in the restaurant.

I suspect the majority of garden centre staff view, for example, growing potatoes in a bag as an expensive way of filling the larder (and it is) but the reality is that cheap potatoes is not what they are buying. They are buying the experience. For a relatively minimal investment they are buying ten or twelve weeks of fun and anticipation, it may be that for the first time in their lives they will put something on the Sunday dinner plates that they have grown themselves. Even something as mundane as frost protection can become interesting watching the weather forecast with the kids to decide whether they need to go under some protection for the night.

Customers need to be given a reason why they should buy rather than simply a list of what they need and how to do it. This could so easily be linked with the success of our restaurants by highlighting plants that are being used in the recipes whether they be fruits, vegetables or herbs. A living wall of herbs in the restaurant or cafe filled with Rosemary, Chives, Basil and other common ingredients would quickly highlight how quickly and easily they could create something that would give them a constant supply for their home cooking and barbeques. Alternatively, if the soup of the day is Tomato and Basil then Basil plants could be put out on the tables with a brief explanatory label and a note as to where they can be found and how they are used at home. The chefs could also be encouraged to venture out into the seating area to cut fresh herbs to take back into kitchens which would create interest, highlight the freshness of products used in the kitchens and indicate how easy it is to use fresh produce.

Also, most garden centres stock great product lines such as the James Wong Homegrown Revolution range of seeds which, in my view, is one of the most innovative and inspirational ranges available but is inevitably displayed in the most unimaginative and uninspiring way possible, usually crammed between some other monstrous racks because nobody knows anything about them. What would happen if a few Inca Berries, Cucamelons or Tomatillos were available in the restaurant either raw or in recipes for customers to try and this was linked to the seed range (and the book)?

Simple changes like these could easily become the equivalent of bringing a mop-top wig home from The Beatles Story, a memento of the visit, a talking point and something which creates a bond between the garden centre and the customer.