In 1986 the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire was one of the first locations to be designated as a World Heritage Site within the UK.
This designation recognised the area’s unique and unrivalled contribution to the birth of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the impact of which is still felt across the world today.
Ironbridge is now home to 10 amazing museums that make an unforgettable experience for visiting guests.
Renowned caterer CH&CO Destinations is the F&B partner of the attraction and adds to the visitor experience through bespoke food and drink experiences at The Station coffee shop, Forest Glen restaurant, Fish & Chip Shop, New Inn Pub and Club Room (tea rooms) that are found at the Blists Hill Victorian Town.
Since the caterer started working with Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust in February this year, it has introduced a focus on Shropshire produce to the menus it curates for day-to-day visitors while also delivering bespoke dining options for outside events for the trust at its Coalbrookdale and Blists Hill locations.
“Coalbrookdale has five event spaces in total, while Blists Hill offers free rein of the Victorian village,” says Sean Ritson operations director at CH&CO Destinations.
“Popular for private and corporate use, and particularly weddings, CH&CO works with customers to create memorable event experiences. We will deliver more than 20 weddings this year and approximately 40 events, which includes supporting the museums development (fundraising) initiatives.”
The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust welcomes more than 500,000 visitors per year, with Blists Hill Victorian Town accounting for nearly 50% of the total. Footfall increases during the summer months and school holiday periods as well as on key calendar occasions, such as Easter, Bonfire Night and Christmas, for example.
Day-to-day CH&CO is responsible for the catering at five sites as well as a mobile ice cream trike that also provides refreshment for visitors, serving locally sourced ice creams.
The 60-cover Station coffee shop serves barista-brewed coffee, a range of hot and cold drinks, breakfast items, a variety of grab-and-go items including artisan sandwiches, hot hand-held take-away items and a range of delicious home-baked cakes.
For the younger visitor, there is a bespoke children’s box offer called Little Victorians that gives children the freedom to build their own lunch.
“This is a family destination, so it’s important that we give parents and children exciting choices,” says Ritson. “In the Forest Glen restaurant, for example, children can create their own lunch, just how they like it. The Little Victorians box offers a variety of sandwiches, sweet and savoury snacks such as seasonal veg and portions of cheese as well as fruity drinks.
“We work closely with our chefs and nutritionists to reassure parents that each combination of lunch box is packed full of the essential nutrients and vitamins required for growing children.”
Forest Glen is situated in a stunning glass-fronted pavilion and is a popular destination for lunch. The 120-cover assisted-serving-style restaurant offers hot and cold hand-made dishes that feature some of Shropshire’s finest produce. Grab-and-go options, hand-baked cakes and a range of hot and cold drinks and ice creams are also available.
The Fish & Chip Shop is a visitors’ favourite. The authentic Victorian chippy serves take-away fish and chips, fried in beef dripping – inkeeping with the Victorian era.
Adding to the fully immersive experience, the team also dress in character during service.
The New Inn Pub – another authentically Victorian venue – is a great destination for an atmospheric drink. Fully licensed, visitors can enjoy a range of traditional ales, beers, spirits and soft drinks, including a range from the local brewery, while the Club Room out the back offers an authentic Victorian-style dining room with table service of home-cooked food, including afternoon tea, a Sunday carvery and a menu of chef’s specials such as rich suet-puddings, wholesome casseroles and warm salads.
It is really important to both CH&Co and the venue that each of the outlets reflects the subject matter of the museum.
“Apart from The Station coffee shop and Forest Glen restaurant, all different F&B sites offer a fully immersive experience,” says Ritson.
“The visitor is transported back into Victorian times and everything is done to bring this to life, from the food offer, decor and design through to the authentic Victorian uniforms.
The food and drink outlets are all within the museum and part of the visitor experience, meaning that there is no access after the main museum opening hours; however, clients can hire event spaces for private events outside of museum opening hours.
Part of CH&CO’s task was to come into the museum and take the catering to a new level, so what developments have been actioned?
“We have invested in refurbishing the Station coffee shop and Forest Glen restaurant to create more efficient, modern catering outlets,” says Ritson. “They’re sympathetic to the site, but the customer journey at both has been streamlined to elevate the customer experience, improve flow, reduce queue times and increase efficiency and spend.”
Of course, taking on-board contemporary trends remains important and CH&Co has a no-plastic-straws policy and is with the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust to introduce a more sustainable approach across the venue. Likewise, giving customers the option to build their own meal options has become central to the Forest Glen restaurant.
“It’s important to us that that the food and drink at the museum offers consistent good value,” says Ritson. “To enhance this, we also offer meal combinations at special prices. For example, in the Forest Glen restaurant: main meal, drink (hot or cold) and cake; hot drink and cake; sandwich and cake; and discounted fruit pot with any main meal or sandwich.”
Creating an F&B concept that is a hit with visitors is about the whole package, from theming and promotions to the food and drink itself.
“The food and drink offer is key to the overall visitor experience, giving people a reason to return and talk about the venue, ultimately helping to increase footfall,” adds Ritson. “Great and welcoming food and drink experiences are about more than what’s on the plate, they raise the spirits and bring people together to create truly memorable, positive occasions. Therefore, the right food and drink offer instantly broadens the appeal of a venue.”
With a captive audience, Ch&Co and the Ironbridge Gorge Museums look to convert as high a percentage of visitors as possible into F&B customers.
“There is no high street near to the museums,” says Ritson. “So we must meet the demands of the modern, food-savvy consumer whilst also providing an immersive experience that reflects the World Heritage Site – one of the most unique venues in the country.”