EXCLUSIVE: National Trust cafes profit from kitchen design code

Packwood House Cafe, The National Trust

The National Trust has told FEJ how a more systematic approach to catering equipment procurement has led to improvements in its kitchen operations and helped drive funds from catering sales.

With more than 300 properties under its care, virtually all of which have some form of food and drink offering, the National Trust manages the sort of kitchen estate that some budding high street operators could only dream of.

As an illustration of just how sizeable its catering operations are, the National Trust serves more than 3.5 million cups of tea every year and makes annual profits of £11m from foodservice. As a result of the growth that its catering business has seen, the charity has introduced some robust policies to get best value for money when sourcing equipment and ensure that the quality it strives for is replicated across all of the sites it operates.

One of the most significant changes over the past 24 months as far as equipment purchasing goes has been the introduction of a ‘Catering Design Code’. Put simply, it provides operational guidelines that the organisation can follow when planning kitchens, serving as a blueprint for counter and kitchen design, equipment standards and specifications.

“The Design Code ensures that the right equipment is used for any investment in catering facilities in order to produce and serve the appropriate style of menu,” explains Matt Drew, head of food and beverage at the National Trust (below). “Despite our properties all being unique, we need to offer a consistent quality and sufficient range of food and drink, and therefore we work with eight different menu structures, each supported by a counter design and equipment list.”Matt Drew, National Trust

One of the challenges for the group is that many of its cafes and tea rooms are located within historic buildings, including places such as castles and mills, so while its ideal operational layout and equipment list fits into a neat rectangular space with no columns, it’s very rare that it has such flexibility.

“It’s incredibly important that our food and beverage operations work both for our visitors and staff, but also reflect and protect the fabric and spirit of our places. Therefore, each project and property requires a certain degree of flex in terms of the layout and equipment without compromising our ability to trade at peak times and provide a great experience for our visitors.”

With so many sites to keep an eye on, the Catering Design Code provides the company with a proven template on which to base new investments. When it comes to planning refurbishments and deciding on the equipment specification, Drew says there are three main considerations: people, environment and cost.

From a people perspective, it is important for the National Trust that staff can easily and efficiently work with the layout and equipment. In terms of environmental factors, catering equipment must be energy efficient with the least impact on the environment as possible throughout its lifecycle. Finally, when it comes to cost, there is a lot more to contemplate than simply the initial capital outlay.

We work with eight different menu structures, each supported by a counter design and equipment list”

“The whole life cost is always an important consideration, taking into account the lifespan of the equipment, maintenance costs, operating costs, reliability, purchase price and the disposal or recycling costs,” says Drew, adding that the organisation has completed an analysis of whole-life costing for equipment with the aim of encouraging the purchasing of equipment that meets all of its three key objectives.

Drew insists there have been several highlights for the catering division over the past 12 months, but it is the net effect of implementing a consistent structure that has been most gratifying.

“We have introduced a series of consistent menu structures based on which we have developed a design framework that assists properties with operational catering design, leaving the aesthetic design with each property to decide on. We’ve also spent the last 12 months supporting our kitchen teams with practical training on food production and kitchen management practices, and we will continue to focus on this.”

With more than 21 million visits to its properties annually, the National Trust’s Catering Design Code remains the backbone for ensuring that customers eating at its premises are as impressed by its food offering as the locations they have come to see.

Main pic: National Trust Images/Oskar Proctor

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