Building someone else’s brand can be a good strategy if you want to keep a steady cash flow at all times of the year. Miles Clarke reports.
It has to be an enticing option—locating your business in the heart of a landmark attraction. It could be an historic house, the botanical gardens, museum, art gallery, theatre complex or even the world renowned Sydney Opera House.
It makes sense for the operators of the attraction—effectively outsourcing an essential service and gaining the security of a steady rental rather than the peaks and valleys endured by foodservice operators. But the benefit works both ways.
This option is particularly attractive to caterers as invariably the venue has scope for special events out of business hours. It has become a significant cost centre for the venues and it’s not uncommon to use them for wedding receptions, gala dinners, awards nights and a variety of corporate functions. Sophisticated computer software has been developed to manage bookings and functions in areas built for quite different purposes.
In some instances the food and beverage operation can almost overshadow the host venue as is the case of the Museum of Sydney, where Paul Lockrey has held the restaurant lease for the past 12 years.
His presence in Bridge Street coincided with an explosion in coffee bars, bistros and cafés in the area. He currently has some 38 competitors within a 400-metre radius.
“I would have had to shut up shop years ago if I depended on the visitor traffic for the museum,” says the veteran of 27 years in the food business. “Virtually every foyer in the skyscrapers around us now has a coffee kiosk, so we’ve made MoS Café an upmarket bistro which is also a great spot for breakfast and light meals through the day. We seat up to 160 when using the forecourt in fine weather.”
Lockrey’s company Toast Foods also operates another restaurant in the city and a kiosk in the Royal Botanical Gardens. Corporate catering is a major revenue source for the company and he’s looking
to provide a full service special events product, with an event manager, catering manager, sales and market executive and drivers already in place.
Lockrey, whose father ran a milk bar in Parramatta for more than 35 years, says he has eased back to 60 hours a week from the 100-plus he used to do a few years ago.
“Some of the big catering companies are not interested in the small orders, but if someone wants 20 mini-muffins I’ll do it.
It all adds up.”
In Perth, Ogden IFC is riding the wave of Western Australia’s resources boom through its management of Her Majesty’s Theatre, the Perth Concert Hall, the Playhouse Theatre and Subiaco Arts Centre on behalf of the state government. General manager Michael Scott says business is steady from government departments and the resources sector, but this is not without its challenges.
“Right now getting staff at short notice can be difficult with unemployment running at an historic low. However, we’re able to make good use of chefs from Parliament and we also find there are often chefs from the five star hotels who hire themselves out as independent contractors.”
Ogden IFC capitalises on the venues
it operates to bring in corporate functions and a wide range of special events. At the gracious Her Majesty’s Theatre, they’re able to dine up to 350 on its venerable stage.
“We have a good reputation that was enhanced by a number of Restaurant and Catering Australia (R&CA) awards received in recent years, and we can consequently keep our marketing costs down,” says Scott. “We’re busy across all venues which smooths out the peaks and troughs that our sector is renowned for.”
One business that certainly trades on its location is the Truffle Group in Sydney— they’ve had the functions contract for the Sydney Opera House for the past four years.
A winner of the R&CNSW Major Event Caterer of the Year at state and national levels, the Truffle Group relies on the
Opera House for around 500 of its 700 events catered over the year. These range from cocktails and hospitality from Sydney Opera House stakeholders, such as the opera and ballet companies that use the venue.
“It’s a wonderful place for a wedding or conference dinner as there’s always a sense of excitement about the building,” says Chris James, a Truffle Group director. Famously, the Sydney Opera House was the wedding venue for tennis star Lleyton Hewitt, securing worldwide media coverage for the location. Many leads come via the venue but James says the group spends between one and two per cent of a $14 million gross revenue a year on marketing.
“The Opera House is such a flexible venue, we can use it in so many different ways to stunning effect, but of course being one of the busiest arts centres in the world means we have to work closely with the venue operators to ensure there’s no clash with the various users. That said, we’re always looking for opportunistic use of its many wonderful spaces for functions.”
The capacity allows the Truffle Group to cater for up 1,800 diners simultaneously, but the operation’s flexibility means they only require eight full-time staff at the venue.
Sporting venues can also offer opportunities for caterers and the Truffle Group helps build the brand of motorsport in Australia through its business with the Australian V8 Super Cars Organisation (AVESCO) and its major events in Bathurst (NSW), Phillip Island (VIC) and Symmons Plains Raceway (TAS). The Bathurst races are the biggest with more than 2,000 corporate guests and more than 70,000 general public to cater for.
Cafés and kiosks in landmark buildings offer the caterer the opportunity of a steady cash flow at those times of the year when business is quiet for functions.
The Mode Group has such an arrangement at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. The café is open seven days a week and is accessible without a museum entry ticket.
There’s a theatrette at the museum that’s in steady demand and there’s function space for 1000 guests and more in the various parts of the atmospheric building, which celebrates Australia’s rich maritime history.
The Mode Group’s food and beverage manager, Helen Boulter, says it’s not uncommon to have up to five functions happening simultaneously, including catering on the tall ship, the James Craig.
“We have eight full-time staff here and much of our business is referrals and repeats. We attend the industry trade shows and also let our food and service do the selling. Everything is freshly prepared on the premises,” says Boulter.
Old Parliament House in Canberra is one of Australia’s most revered historic buildings, the home to the National Portrait Gallery and one of this country’s most visited venues. It welcomes more than 350,000 visitors a year.
It’s also home to a thriving food and beverage operation, Ginger Catering, owned and operated by Maryanne Ellem and Janet Jeffs. It comprises Café in the House for daytime dining seven days a week; The Ginger Room for fine dining five nights a week and onsite catering that services between 60 and 100 functions a month.
Ellem certainly has much to be proud of, with her four-year-old operation sweeping the boards for the 2005 R&Cact Awards, taking out the Fine Dining, Café Restaurant, Venue Catering, Wedding Catering and Caterer of the Year awards at the ACT Awards. Ginger Catering has 89 staff, who comprise some 49 full-time equivalents.
“These accolades from our industry have been most welcome and certainly have provided us with profile, which has helped drive the business. They also impose a great expectation to maintain and improve standards,” says Ellem.
While the venue attracts many visitors, with the Café in the House serving upwards of 200 covers a day, it is the historic function areas where much of the revenue for Ginger Catering is generated. Events such as a busy wedding program, conference dinners, cocktail parties, corporate hospitality, school formals and catering for government departments all make up much of the business.
“We’re in a position where we don’t need to very actively market our services,” says Ellem. “We are able to rely on word of mouth in the main and have plenty of repeat business.”
There are some restrictions in operating in a heritage listed “living museum”, but she says her team simply works within the restrictions and guidelines around them.
“We need to ensure access to all fire exits is maintained and if customers want to bring in signage it needs to be free-standing as we cannot stick anything to the walls.
In most cases our clients just love the rooms the way they are. We certainly see ourselves as being in partnership with Old Parliament House. I believe in building good business relations with our landlords, suppliers and staff and we have great respect for this wonderful venue in which we operate.”