Nursery cafés ... Are they your cup of tea?

By Gabrielle Stannus

As chain stores drive down plant prices, independent retail garden centres are seeking new ways to attract customers into their stores. For some nursery owners, opening a café may provide that point of difference.

Robin and Scott McLay did just that, opening the Wild Canary Botanical Bistro at the Brookfield Garden Centre four years ago. “We did not want it to be a ‘quiche and salad’ experience” explains April Simpson, Brookfield’s Marketing Manager. “We wanted the bistro to be famous in its own right”.

After running the bistro themselves, Robin and Scott decided to lease the Wild Canary out so they could focus on doing what they love; the plants and the nursery. Kate and Matt Harvey took up the option to run Wild Canary, bringing with them years of hospitality experience, having set up and run Harvey’s in Brisbane’s popular James Street precinct.

Wild Canary opens for breakfast and lunch, seven days a week, and after hours for functions, including weddings and special local producer dinners. Ingredients for the Wild Canary menu are supplied by the nursery’s extensive kitchen garden and local farmers.

After the launch of Wild Canary, a mostly older crowd and young mums visit Brookfield Garden Centre during the week, including ‘true gardeners’ and those seeking good coffee. Weekend visitors tend to be much more diverse, with a younger crowd coming in, seeking brunch first then houseplants.

Dr Louise Grimmer, from the University of Tasmania’s Tasmanian School of Business and Economics says that a well-run, attractive café with a unique, fresh menu and superior customer service can become a destination in its own right.

“Nursery cafés can be an incredibly powerful way to attract visitors to your nursery but if you are thinking about setting up a café, the decision should not be taken lightly. Running a café is a distinctly different activity from operating a retail store.” says Dr Grimmer.

Dr Grimmer encourages garden centre owners to use their cafés to better exploit their existing footprint to increase sales density. “Make sure the design of the café incorporates plants! And ensure that the plants and other decorative items that are used in the café are for sale, discretely marked of course but clearly for sale. Use the elements you have in store for sale in the café”, says Dr Grimmer. These may include vases, pots, plants, gardening books or even food items used in the café dishes, e.g. relishes.

April says Wild Canary has become famous for its cakes, which feature edible flowers. Customers take the flowers from the cake they have eaten to the garden centre, where they ask staff for help to identify them so they can purchase seedlings.

Dr Grimmer recommends using the café space to hold classes in cooking and botanical illustration classes, book launches, reading groups, permaculture or even flower arranging. “You could consider running tours of the business followed by morning/afternoon tea or lunch in the café with a guest speaker”, continues Dr Grimmer, “(or) devise a ‘trail’ which showcases your business and nearby complimentary businesses”.

Looking overseas for inspiration, one finds that the garden centre café scene is well established in the United Kingdom. The iconic Petersham Nurseries Café even had a Michelin star at one stage. So popular have these café become that the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) has run a two-day Catering Conference annually for the past eight years.

Matthew Appleby, Deputy Editor of Horticulture Week, says that the HTA estimates that catering accounts for 15-80% of turnover at garden centres which have an on-site café or equivalent in the UK, averaging out at around 20-25%. Newcomers such as Rosebourne split their focus fairly equally between food (~50%) and everything else it sells (~50%), i.e. plants, gardening and gifts. Established players such as Barton Grange Garden Centre are opening food outlets on site offering fish and chips, pizza, ice cream and sweets, along with bowling alleys and cinema screens! High labour costs may reduce profitability. Consultant Neville Stein suggests these garden centres have had to decide whether to make food fresh, or buy in more ready-made food to reduce the need for kitchen staff. In the end, the decision comes down to café branding.

April encourages potential café owners to step outside of the horticultural world to gain inspiration, reminding readers to stay authentic if they are to attract and retain clientele. “What is it that you are good at?” asks April. “What is your brand?”

In other words, while a café may expand your business, do not lose sight of why you opened a nursery in the first place.