Co-owner of Tong Garden Centre Mark Farnsworth talks about how revamping the catering offer has been central to building a new identity across the business.
Tong Garden Centre was once considered to be one of the leading garden centres in the north. The centre was rebuilt following a fire in 2001, which created an indoor retail area of nearly 70,000ft2 and over 100,000ft2 of outdoor selling space. With 700 car parking spaces and excellent warehousing all sitting on a 17 acre site, we knew that the infrastructure was in place to restore Tong?s reputation after several difficult years.
My business partner, Tom Megginson and I finally acquired the site in May 2015. We started talking to the previous owner in July 2014 and the period through to May gave us great planning time. Once the deal was concluded, we had refurbishment plans ready to go and work started immediately.
Our mission is to re-establish Tong as an iconic garden centre and to reposition it as one of the north?s leading garden centres, and a destination outlet for all of the family.
To create the destination location, we knew we had to broaden the appeal of the centre and that became our immediate focus. One of the first things we knew we had to do was invest in the catering. We fully refurbished the existing restaurant, and added a coffee shop, bringing us up to nearly 250 covers in total. We also added a children?s play area, a food hall, as well as sub-letting 11,000ft2 to a range of retailers who were better equipped than us to deliver a clothing, aquatic
and outdoor clothing offer. This was all in addition to fully remerchandising the plant area.
Catering is a vital part of our proposition at Tong, with good facilities serving well-priced, home-cooked food and quality beverages, with the intention of increasing dwell time and generating a reason for people to visit all year round.
On acquisition, there was just one dining area ? a 100-seat restaurant that looked tired, dated, and which was underused. It was evident that, if we were to achieve our increased footfall targets, the dining offering needed to grow commensurately.
A light and airy, soft-seating coffee bar area was built, which is an intentionally relaxed, informal setting. The new coffee shop can accommodate 96 covers inside and 80 further covers in a newly-created outdoor seating area. The Coffee Shop benefits from a state-of-the-art, energy efficient kitchen, and environmentally friendly lighting.
The original caf? re-opened as Orchard Kitchen following extensive refurbishment and is now an open, comfortable place to enjoy a wide range of hot meals for 132 covers. We are proud to serve a seasonal and local menu that is prepared on-site by a dedicated team of chefs and cooks, and that changes regularly.
Twenty-five jobs have been created in the catering team since the acquisition in May, and sales of catered food are on track to nearly treble in our first year.
Visitors to Tong can also shop for local food, with the new food hall ? William?s Farm Kitchen ? showcasing over 100 Yorkshire producers. It incorporates a state-of-the-art butchery and bakery which also provide food for all of our catering areas.
All this took place as part of a drive to strengthen Tong’s core offer as a garden centre, which of course also means plants. This area of the business had somewhat lost direction prior to our arrival, resulting in a very confusing customer offer. Improving the experience in the plant area was high on our list of improvements.
By moving the outdoor plant area nearer to the entrance ? and by merchandising plants by category ? the plant area has now started to showcase the quality and value of the plants. It is also much easier to shop. The introduction of template-driven, Tong-branded bed card system has also significantly improved the customer?s ability to find what they are looking for.
As a result of these core gardening initiatives, sales have almost doubled year on year. Staff
morale has also improved with our people enjoying taking ownership of a much-improved gardening and plant offer.
Due to the completion in May, there was only so much we could do in the plants area, as we did not want to disrupt trade too much. This winter has seen us perform a full makeover of the plant area, and it will be exciting to see the customer response once the weather improves and spring finally arrives.
A third area we looked at was increasing our appeal to younger families, something we did with the launch of a new adventure playground to replace the previous small outdoor play area.
Extensive investment resulted in ‘Grasshoppers’, an adventure playground that comprises a bouncing pillow, zip wire, giant sand play area, large climbing frame and coin-operated cars. Over 20,000 children enjoyed Grasshoppers during the summer holidays (and we raised over ?5,000 in just six weeks by donating 10% of the ?2.50 entry fee to a local children?s hospice).
In addition, we reached out to younger parents with the introduction of a number of retail concessions to complement the product offering, drive additional footfall and to consolidate Tong?s desire to be a ‘destination’. Brands include Bon March?, Mountain Warehouse, Brantano and Maidenhead Aquatics, picked for their marketing appeal across a range of demographics.
Painted, tidied up and refreshed
Re-vamping Tong has been hard work but we have thoroughly enjoyed it so far. With a new team in place, we can now move even quicker and it?s been truly rewarding to see the response from customers. We are the first to recognise that we have a long way to go but we are happy with the progress we have made so far, and very hopeful for the future.