GCA column: Spring in our step

Peter Burks, chief executive officer of the Garden Centre Association, reflects on a positive spring for the industry – despite the slightly unhelpful weather.

For many years our industry has looked to reduce the impact that both the seasonality and weather factors have on business. Catering has played a big part in this and for the last 12 months it has been even bigger still.

We have just had to endure the sixth wettest winter ever, something that could have kept all but the hardiest of our customers at home, but fortunately the lure of our restaurants proved too strong. Restaurant sales, as recorded in the Garden Centre Association (GCA)’s Barometer of Trade, showed an increase of 11.55% for the whole of 2023 compared to 2022. They have performed even better in 2024, being 12.39% up so far this year compared to the same period in 2023.

'Average spend'
The average spend has also increased, by 4.5% so far this year, but much of this could just be down to inflationary rises. However, this clearly shows the strength of the offer and value to our customers, and of course to our members’ businesses.

The quality of food that is offered in our garden centres has increased significantly during the last 10 years or so. Who would have believed you if, maybe even five years ago, you had told someone that by 2024 many of the best restaurants for a decent lunch would be in a garden centre?

This has been achieved by having a good focus on the menu, the ingredients, local provenance and cooking in-house. All of these are factors that our audience takes a lot of interest in, and they shop accordingly.

We have added sections into our annual GCA inspection form to ensure our restaurants are promoting these parts of their offer, something that we are not always that good at. We are usually doing home cooking, for example, but do we write ‘homemade’ on our point-of-sale? Unfortunately, often we don’t, which is something I think we do need to do more of. If we are doing these good things, then shout about it. It helps to further differentiate you from the mass-produced offerings elsewhere.

The sourcing of ingredients locally has also increased enormously and is a very big factor in customer engagement. It is so good to see that what you are eating has been sourced from another local business, thereby helping the local economy even more.

Many restaurants now have maps on the wall showing where their food has come from. It is also good to see restaurants copying some of the larger, trendier out-of-town eateries by actually growing some of their own herbs, salads and vegetables.

I was in a garden centre recently where they were just finishing off a large new outdoor seating area for their restaurant. The area was bordered by a raised planter where they would be growing produce for the restaurant. Clearly not all of their ingredients could be grown this way, but it makes a great story, especially for children, and is a good way of learning where food comes from and how to grow your own.

'Chelsea Flower Show'
While on the subject of children, it was great to hear about the work the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) are now doing to promote gardening and growing to children. The speeches at the Chelsea Flower Show lunch were extremely focused on getting children involved in gardening, which the RHS was strongly promoting with its ‘No adults allowed’ garden. This was also encouraged  via the inclusion of the Children’s Choice Garden Award. which was voted on only by children.

It was also good to hear King Charles’ comments to the children when he asked them if they were growing vegetables. He followed this up by saying: “There’s nothing more fun than eating something you have grown; you should try it.” What a great piece of encouragement to the nation’s children to get growing with something they can eat.

I know our GCA member garden centres are very good at holding in-store events to help get children hooked on growing, and they do a lot to support local schools and clubs as well. Maybe now is the time to start doing even more of this while we have some serious assistance in the media. And encouraging more future gardeners, and potential employees, can never be a bad thing, especially while future trade is so uncertain.

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