The cafe as a visitor experience

Paul Smith of Montfort Catering highlights some innovative approaches to refreshing your catering offer.

“Less and less people are going out just for a drink and there are also a significant number that don’t eat out unless it’s part of something more experiential.” These were the words of a successful and long-established restauranteur and bar operator pitching for a catering tender at an iconic cultural venue that we were recently consulting on. It highlights a growing cultural shift towards ‘immersive dining’ and wider ‘experiential’ offers, integrating an activity and experience with food and drink.

At one end of the spectrum there’s the big production: “Mama Mia! The Party” – an all-singing, all-dancing theatrical dining experience, with tickets costing in the region of £100 – £200 per person. Albeit on a tighter budget and scale, across many of the cultural venues we advise, we are supporting with the integration of eating and drinking with all-encompassing wider experiences. There are typically two potential approaches:

  1. A café or restaurant experience that shares the DNA of the wider attraction, integrating elements of the attraction into the visitor café or restaurant. Black Country Living Museum is one such example, with many of the visitor cafes, restaurants and bars set within period buildings and reflective of the environment that may have been typical at that time.
  2. An independent, albeit complementary destination in its own right, although physically part of the cultural venue. One recent commission we consulted on resulted in the appointment of Jaguar Shoes Collective repurposing the previous Empire Bar at Hackney Empire with a new concept – Two Palms. While the core offer is food, drink, and great hospitality, being a culturally rooted organisation, they also integrate a diverse programme of live events as well as unique exhibitions. The offer is not dependent on Hackney Empire’s audience footfall, but is a unique destination, culturally compatible to their programme which provides a sustainable commercial return to the Hackney Empire.

Experiences can also differ and be turned on and off at different times. Take a few other examples that we have recently been involved with:

  • Added value experience ticket, covering admission plus ‘democratic’ wine tasting from a local partner organisation – making wine tasting fun and inclusive – an added extra to the main visit.
  • Café book clubs – organised by the visitor café operator and actively embracing community engagement. One group even coordinate some of the book choices with the local theatre programme so they can also enjoy a relevant performance reflective of a novel that the group has recently read and discussed.
  • Wellness walks, knitting clubs, spoken word, coffee chats – providing touchpoints for locals to meet and expand their social networks, while often partaking in another activity. It doesn’t always have to be complex or expensive!
  • Seasonal ice cream parlour – as well as embracing the recent trend for dessert cafes, this one is also going to be a big hit with those groups booking the ice cream making (and eating) classes. For the rest of the year the venue gets to use the space for its own needs.

These are just a small sample of how integrating experiences into your visitor café or restaurants can provide unique and memorable moments, as well as the potential to develop a strong sense of identity. By doing so you will not only add value to your visitor and public catering but also create a unique proposition and differentiator for your café or restaurant. Additional potential benefits to your organisation, apart from very satisfied visitors include increased footfall, longer dwell time, greater participation, increased spend, repeat visits and an improved commercial return.

While we believe there will always be a place for restaurants, bars, cafes, and the likes to focus solely on great food, drink and hospitality, there are sectors of the community looking for an integrated experience or adventure . . . something different. The cultural sector is perfectly placed to integrate great experiential offers within visitor catering. Ask yourself, what more could you be doing to elevate your visitor café or restaurant to create a strong sense of place?

Do get in touch with Montfort Catering Consultants for an informal chat if you would like to explore opportunities further or discuss how we could support you.

Paul Smith is Founder and Director of Montfort Catering Consultants and can be contacted on

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