The famous Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, has long been an oasis of calm in the west of London. Just a stone’s throw from the Underground, the sea of green is an amazing juxtaposition from the city suburbs that cease at the tall outer walls.
The Gardens are punctuated by Victorian conservatory structures like the prominent Palm House, the Grade I-listed Temperate House or the multi-sensory Hive exhibit. Kew remains a global resource for plant knowledge and conservation, using its facilities to cultivate and preserve rare species and combat plant ailments.
So it is no surprise that Kew continues to attract 1.5 million visitors annually, including international tourists, locals and Gardens members. As a result, the expectation levels on customer experience are high, so every aspect of the visit has to be right. And as with so many all-day attractions, the catering has to be up to scratch.
In September 2016, Ampersand was appointed the official caterer at Kew for a five-year term following a competitive tendering process. Part of the CH&Co
Group, Ampersand took on all catering at the attraction, including a number of existing F&B venues; a year on and the team are looking to take the operation to a new level.
“The great thing about Kew is that during the tender process it was very clear that they wanted to make it a partnership with investment into each of the F&B outlets and spaces,” says Robin Bidgood, managing director, commercial division, CH&Co Group.
“It is an ever-changing landscape here and we sit as part of that overall visitation piece, and that has really made a difference in the last year. Kew have been great in helping us work around the Gardens and use the spaces.”
During a peak summer’s day on the site, the catering outlets can take between £60,000 and £70,000 from outlets that span all styles, from mobile concessions to artisan grab-and-go cafés and fine dining at the à la carte full-service restaurant.
“It is part of an overall architecture of the site where we try to provide different offers and different price points,” explains Bidgood.
“The principle of being able to look after people while they are here is central for us. We don’t want people going away saying that the Gardens were beautiful but we couldn’t get a bottle of water or an ice cream.”
The collaboration between the venue and the caterer is hugely important. And nowhere displays this better than the main thoroughfare of the Gardens.
Kew features an artery path known as the Broad Walk, which runs parallel with Europe’s longest single flowerbed and is therefore an area that sees a lot of visitors.
“The central Broad Walk is a space with a huge footfal,l so we wanted to capture it,” says Bidgood. “We have worked closely with Kew on our mobile offer and our penetration and customer spend has gone up a lot as a result, and we have been able to turn over more from a concessions perspective.
“With our fixed sites, there is a finite capacity, but if you have got 16,000 to 18,000 people coming here on peak days, your restaurants alone cannot cope. So, what do people want on a hot day? Firstly, water, so we knew we could offer that.
“But we have flexibility on our mobile offer; we can offer ice cream or a Pimm’s bar, or gin and tonic. We work with our suppliers to provide this. For example, Marshfield Ice Cream, who we work with, has its own story of where all the milk comes from and being organic, and how they make it.
“So there is a desire to find things with good provenance and British-based where possible, too.”
With tourists, locals and members alike all using the Gardens daily, the demographic of those interacting with the catering offer is also wide-ranging.
“We try and give each of the dining locations an identity,” explains Bidgood. “So, with our Victoria Gate café, it’s all about getting a coffee and cake – grab-and-go.
“The White Peaks Café is unashamedly kids-driven. It is right next to the adventure playground and activity centre. We want families to be able to know where the toilets are and where you can feed your family, so we try to provide an architecture that does that, in terms of price point and service.
“But The Botanical, for example, is the more high-end element to the offer. It has the most refined space, where we do afternoon tea with a view over the lake and caters for those who are looking for that.
“But you can’t be elitist, because at the same time as someone wants to have a full-service à la carte meal, someone else might just want a bottle of water, so they should be able to get that anywhere.”
Ampersand uses some 70 catering staff during off-peak times, which is boosted up to 140 during the peak periods with seasonal contract workers, while it has also put into practice its consumer-facing technology to continue the revamp of the dining options. Integrated contactless payment technology has been put in place to speed up transactions and the overall service, while security risks on cash are minimised with mobile concessions and pop-ups also fitted with card-only payment options.
While a number of the catering venues are due for an upgrade in 2018, including a complete overhaul of White Peaks Café, Bidgood believes that the key to Kew’s catering success and the strength in its F&B will be down to its range of options.
“It’s all about maintaining interest, and working out how to keep people coming back,” he explains. “For some people it’s about being able to come here and eat and drink something for a tenner, and for others it’s more.
“Having the right price points to appeal to all is important. We work really hard on our ‘good, better and best’ options and making sure we have the right number of products in each of those categories so that people can make choices.
“For example, for the barista-made coffee, you will pay more than the one from the push-button machine, and rightly so. But it is allowing that choice for the customers so they feel they can engage with the catering.”
Overlooking the Palm House pond, The Botanical restaurant opened as the fine-dining centrepiece of Kew in spring 2017.
The new table-service restaurant was specifically designed to enhance the unique Kew Gardens visitor experience. Ampersand is working with the horticultural experts at Kew, including top tree man Tony Kirkham, to forage for herbs, plants and flowers within the garden walls to include in the mouth-watering seasonal menu. Meanwhile, the curation of the space acknowledges the building’s former role as a museum, with artefacts on display in glass cases.
The friendly and professional staff offer a high-end option at Kew, away from the café-style venues for a more refined serving of brunch, lunch and afternoon tea.
The Botanical offers modern British dishes that uphold a strong commitment to seasonality and locally-sourced produce, reflecting the availability of ingredients and products.
The innovative menu will change regularly throughout the year, with Kew-inspired dishes to include hand-picked Kew wild garlic and nettle soup; pan-fried seabass with mixed grain tabbouleh and roast gem lettuce heart; and Botanical Garden salad with heritage radish, elderflower and lime dressing.
Afternoon tea is a grand affair ,with traditional and modern sandwich flavours and botanical teas, while a comprehensive array of wines, spirits and beers will whet the appetite of any visitor.
The Botanical Sample Menu:
Roasted butternut squash soup, blue cheese
Pan-fried scallops, black pudding, pea and mint puree, pea shoots
Spinach and ricotta ravioli, sautéed spinach and cheese sauce
Chicken liver pâté, crispy bacon and herb crouton
Guineafowl breast with parsnip puree, braised red cabbage and curly kale
Spiced fillet of salmon with fondant potato, green beans and tomato salsa
Cranberry-glazed roast turkey breast with all the trimmings
Sweet potato and Kew rosemary wellington with creamy spinach and cranberries
Kew plant burger, vegan with 21 ingredients, sweet potato chips and slaw
Apple tarte tatin with ice cream
Bread and butter pudding with vanilla ice cream
Two-scoop ice cream and sorbet selection with shortbread
Orange and vanilla rice pudding with hazelnut tuile
VICTORIA PLAZA CAFE
Situated at the Victoria Gate entrance, just a short stroll from the Tube, Victoria Plaza Café is an artisan coffee shop bustling with people dropping into grab a bite and a brew before heading into the park.
Grab-and-go items such as soup, sandwiches and artisan cakes – which are made on-site at the central production kitchen – make up the majority of the menu, with up to 2,500 sandwiches being sold and the two tills taking £10,000 on peak days.
Though generally designed for take-away, the café will receive an upgrade in 2018 with an extension of the kitchens and reconfiguration of the seating area. But the café is also often the first place where the partnership between the caterer and the venue comes to fruition.
“During the past 12 months one of our biggest partnerships has been with the gardeners here to use the plants within the catering offer,” says Bidgood.
For exampe, there’s the story behind the barista-made coffee, told on the interior walls, or the use of garden-foraged porcini and oyster mushrooms.
“It is a very active partnership,” says Simon Finnigan, Ampersand’s general manager at Kew. “We go to the horticultural department to work with what we can forage and what they can grow. And we speak to the scientists to see what products they use in their research so we can tell customers and help them understand why plants matter so much. It’s all fully integrated into the Kew ethos. We want to make sure that what we are doing fits in with what Kew are doing.”
Working with the horticulturalists, Ampersand creates changing menu stories.
Bidgood says: “For example, we have an orchid festival every February, which Kew is famous for, and they will come to us and say this year the focus is Thailand. That means we will start talking to them about Thai curries and various dishes we can do around that.
“There is a lot for our kitchen team to be involved with, and chefs can go out and forage and get shown all the nettles for a nettle soup etc. It is very collaborative.”
Set in a beautiful white hall at the centre of the Gardens, The Orangery restaurant offers all-day seasonal dishes for garden visitors as well as being the main venue for events – especially weddings.
While the furniture in the dining hall has been upgraded to feature a floral pattern that is from the Kew archives, there is also another renovation of the kitchen and service area in order to cope with the demand.
The chef-assisted counter service offers a full menu from breakfast to seasonal hot dishes and salads as well as 160 covers and a large outside seating area.
“This is the biggest and busiest space for food,” says Bidgood. “It sits as a centrepiece of the Gardens, too. We have done a lot of work in the kitchens to allow us to put out more volume and we will be changing the counter configuration to make space and be a bit more user-friendly.”
Dishes include options such as Cherry Orchard Farm’s free-range pork chop with hand-picked Kew apple sauce and classic beer-battered fillet of haddock with chips, mushy peas and tartare sauce.