1 August 1997

TAKING THE STRAIN OUT OF RUNNING A GOOD TEA ROOM

Could a tea room benefit your shop or farm attraction? Suzie Horne lifts the teapot lid on what could become either a profitable sideline or a very costly mistake

A TEA room does not have magical powers. Unless it is in the right place and offering something people cannot get elsewhere, it will not be worth the investment and effort it demands.

That advice from a catering consultant reveals there is more to on farm catering than making a few extra scones and buying a bigger tea pot. The decision to offer catering on the farm, whether run alongside a farm shop or other attraction, must be made with clear objectives in mind.

"It is exceptionally hard work," says consultant Anne Sugden of Rossendale, Lancashire. "You should be aware of this, and prepared to learn about the work involved. Its no good getting someone in off the street and paying them £3 an hour to run it for you. Thats like giving them an open cheque book," explains Anne.

Know what your doing

You have to demonstrate that you know what you are doing. "If you do not understand the business, then hiring unskilled labour will result in calls for more staff because they cannot cope with the workload and you will lose money through high wastage."

If the germ of a tea shop is already in your mind, a good starting point is to visit as many other establishments as possible and try to identify what makes them successful – or otherwise.

Success is 95% preparation, stresses Anne. "You need to put the time in before you even start to serve food. Be clear about whether you have the money to put into this venture in order to be able to do it properly."

That means capital outlay of between £20,000 to £25,000 to cover kitchen equipment, tables, chairs, a chill counter, crockery, cutlery, heating, lighting and insurance.

"Is it going to be viable? Many of the establishments I visit havent a clue whether it is or not. They havent done a budget so they dont know where they are."

Pricing policy is important too. Make a mistake and it can let the whole venture down. "People dont know how to cost and price. If something costs 45p to make, they will put 20p on top and I can tell you now that they will be losing money.

"Everything they sell is subject to VAT, and what is there left for overheads and labour? You have got to add value," comments Anne.

That can be achieved in several ways, starting by examining the position of the tea room, cafe or restaurant. Thinking about its location on the buying or visiting cycle is essential. "Its no good putting it in a dead corner. People want an attractive outlook – gifts, home-made cakes and jams. 70% of your customers will be women and they want to look at pleasurable things, not farm and garden equipment."

Do the job properly

The heating and lighting must be right to encourage them to sit and spend. But the chairs must not be too comfortable otherwise they will sit too long and spend too little. Tea and cakes alone will not bring in the revenue you need to set up and do the job properly, comments Anne.

Radiant heat from overhead is not a good idea and white plastic chairs and tables are now outdated. Better to go for good plain wood, she recommends.

"You eat with your eyes – the display of cakes and other food must be tempting. Food made to order will not achieve the turnover you want."

A common mistake is menus which offer what the operator of the business thinks customers want. "Ask them what they want – do a customer survey to find out. Try to think of a different style of menu. If you can buy similar food to yours at the corner shop, why bother?

"Selling items which can be bought anywhere simply puts a ceiling on your potential profit. People expect and are willing to pay a premium for something different."

Staff training

Staff can be one of the biggest worries. Most catering staff are untrained, says Anne. But from her experience it pays to either employ trained staff or spend time and money on their training.

Public liability insurance is a key consideration. Most companies have recently increased their minimum cover. The most important thing is to inform your insurer of your plans, and that this will be a change in the nature of your business.

Its important to realise that a tea room can be a great selling tool for the rest of the retail enterprise, especially if customers see that it connects with other areas.

"Dont make the teashop a separate area which just sells naff things. Use the clotted cream and home made jams you are selling on the shelves." The aim should be to have the same high standards of operation across all parts of the business. &#42

Creating an attractive environment draws customers and encourages them

to leave with full shopping bags.