Fresh produce can add value to the art experience

Museums and galleries - Pharmacy 2 interior 2_Prudence Cuming Associates © 2H Restaurant Ltd. All rights reserved

Pharmacy 2 at Damien Hirst's Vauxhall gallery: a revival of the artist's first gastronomic adventure

As funding cuts bite, UK museums and galleries are increasingly looking to enhance their food offers, going beyond the traditional sandwich, in order to generate much needed cash, as Produce Business UK discovers

The opening of Tate Modern’s new extension this summer added not only much needed exhibition space but also five new food and beverage venues. The gallery’s popularity, visitor numbers were reaching five million a year, meant that catering facilities at peak times were often stressful for staff and hungry art lovers alike. 

Now there is more choice with two new bars, a new catered for members’ area and viewing gallery, but also a 150-seat fine-dining restaurant. The dining options not only enhance the visitor experience, but they also contribute to the funding of the institution.

As supervising chef Stephen Goodlad explains: “Tate is one of the few that still do everything ourselves in house, with all the money we make going back into the gallery, to spend on art, the restoration of the buildings and services we offer. We’re not making profits for someone else. We champion the best of British; wherever possible in the business we use British suppliers.”

Museums and galleries - Stephen Goodlad Supervising Chef Tate Catering i
Tate Modern’s supervising chef Stephen Goodlad is proud of the in-house catering

Jeroen Schuijt, CEO of Tate Catering, adds that given the international profile of visitors, it is important to ensure they leave with a favourable impression of what British food can offer. “With the new building comes the opportunity to showcase our talented chefs and staff, the excellent ingredients we source, the expert suppliers we use and our passion for service,” he continues. “Tate celebrates excellence and its ethos flows through our restaurants.”

Museums and galleries - Tate Modern Restaurant (Switch House Level 9) Getty Images for Tate Catering iv (Waiter Corinne Jean-Jacques)
Tate Modern’s fine-dining restaurant in the new extension

On a smaller, but equally high-profile, scale is the new restaurant at Damien Hirst’s Vauxhall gallery. A partnership between Hirst and restaurateur Mark Hix, Pharmacy 2 is a revival of Hirst’s Notting Hill eatery that closed in 2003.

Hix says the menu reflects their shared passion for quality food made from fresh ingredients, including regional specialties such as Yorkshire rhubarb and Wiltshire truffles. “Damien and I have been friends for many years, sharing a love of food and art,” he adds. “Damien designed a formaldehyde ‘Cock and Bull’ for my restaurant Tramshed so it makes sense for me to exchange my skills by creating the menus at Pharmacy 2.”

Museums and galleries - Shaved winter squash with Trevisano and Graceburn cheese_Prudence Cuming Associates © 2H Restaurant Ltd
​Shaved winter squash, Trevisano and Graceburn cheese served at Pharmacy 2

Destination UK

It is not just London’s cultural establishments that are enhancing the food offer for visitors, many regional institutions have also picked up on the benefits of putting more than a selection of factory-made sandwiches on the menu.

And the opportunities for this secondary spending by visitors are huge, both with overseas and domestic patrons. According to the Arts Council, in 2013 over 10 million overseas visits to the UK involved some engagement with the arts and culture of the country.

Last year Mintel commissioned research into secondary spending at UK visitor attractions, including museums and art galleries. Mintel’s data shows that those visiting attractions while on holiday are much more likely than day trippers to buy meals. 

The report states: “The best approach is to tie in the food offer with the destination being visited, for example, showcasing the best local produce and regional specialties.”

Visitors that subscribe to membership schemes are also a great market for food sales, with 63% having bought a meal at an attraction during the previous year compared to 48% of visitors overall. The top memberships schemes were for historic buildings, gardens, museums and art galleries.

Musuems and galleries - Urban Ground-6
Eastbourne's Towner Art Gallery wanted a modern feel for its café

The Towner Art Gallery in the seaside town of Eastbourne is a great example of how improving the food offer can generate funds, and a better visitor experience. In 2013 a local business, Urban Ground, took over the catering contract and introduced fresh filled wraps, flatbreads but also salads and soups made with seasonal and local produce.

Co-founder of Urban Ground, Andy Spirou, says this approach has worked well although he also finds he needs to buy in from supermarkets when his local supplier does not have enough of a particular product. “We do buy from a local greengrocer, but the problem I have found is that consistency, quality and price can vary which can prove difficult to manage. To work with this, we need to react and have specials and menu changes,” he adds. “We look different to the usual gallery cafe, [so] most customers recognise that the food is freshly prepared and the taste speaks for itself. We do not display any packaged food, apart from a little confectionery, so our display of freshly prepared filled artisan rolls and homemade cakes sell themselves.”

The Towner’s general manager, Niamh Pearce, says the improved food offer has certainly helped with visitor numbers. “Towner’s visitor numbers have increased dramatically in the last two years [around 20,000] and whilst a lot of this will be to do with our programming and marketing there is no doubt that the café experience does attract visitors – some come for the café on its own and visitors to the exhibitions tend to stay longer,” she says.

“Venue hire has also increased significantly over the last two years. For evening events Urban Ground can offer a wider range of menu options.  We can accommodate up to 60 for formal, sit-down dining and up to 150 for buffets or canapés.  As well as providing essential money to Towner they [Urban Ground] also massively contribute to the visitor experience, which is equally important to us.”

Museums and galleries - UrbanGround produce-filled rolls
Rolls filled with fresh local produce at The Towner’s café

Catering to the arts

The often unique or historical architecture and interiors of museums and galleries make them perfect for private-hire events such as weddings, celebrations and corporate entertainment. This all brings with it opportunities for caterers and their suppliers.

Zak Mensah, head of transformation for Bristol City Council, represents the city’s four museums and art gallery. He says the role of catering cannot be underestimated. “Bristol City Council’s culture team runs two cafes and a private hire business in partnership with Levy Restaurants UK,” he explains. “The year on year revenue exceeds £1 million.  In line with the rest of the sector, the private hire side of the business generates more income than our cafés. 

“It not only generates vital income, it also means we can make the best use of our venues, further opening them up to individuals, organisations and businesses across the city and beyond.  Our cafés undoubtedly contribute to our very high overall visitor satisfaction, some 85% based on exit-survey data.”

With many institutions, including English Heritage, now receiving less or no state support, there is a need to work all assets to generate income. For fresh produce suppliers this clearly offers an opportunity to benefit both their businesses and British culture.

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