15 September 2020, 08:22 AM
  • Whether you seat customers or serve them from a hatch, getting the balance right can have a real impact on profits
Eat-in Vs Takeaway: what’s right for your café?

As emergency takeaway-only policies soften to allow limited seated customers, now’s the time to be weighing up the pros and cons of both. Will safely-spaced tables cover your staff costs? Can a takeaway counter ever attract large enough transactions? If you’ll mulling the figures with an eye to changing the way you serve your customers you’re not alone…

Costs down, profits up
Set in lush farmland to the west of Edinburgh, Craigie’s Farm is a long-established farm shop which, prior to lockdown, found its turnover equally split between its café and shop. Whilst Covid-19 has shaken everything up, the business has fared well. “We’ve really had quite a good pandemic, if there is such a thing,” says founder John Sinclair. “The café had to close but the shop more than made up for the shortfall and the café team was busy making up orders, calling customers and making deliveries.”

Hot drinks were back on the menu at the first opportunity: “At the beginning of June we hired a catering van from a farm shop down south and operated outside the shop,” says John. “It was doing about 20% of the café business but with much lower staffing costs so it worked quite nicely. And now we’ve reopened the café.” But, not quite in its original form: a clever policy has helped maximise spend from those who do take up a table. “We get lower numbers in the café, but ask people to pre-book, pre-order and pre-pay,” explains John. “We deliberately didn’t include a coffee and cake option on the form though, because traditionally a lot of customers would spend a good few hours over a couple of coffees. So, we’ve put up a reduced menu of higher-value options to make sure we’re getting a good margin from those who are coming in. Also, because we know who’s coming in, we can staff accordingly. The truck is still there so if people just want to turn up for a coffee they can without taking up that valuable space in the café.”

So has the experience changed John’s view of the café element of his business? “Absolutely. We’re just in the process of building a 150-seater café on-site. It was going to be a tray-slide but we’re removing that element and going down the app ordering route. Throughout this we’ve tried to focus on opportunities: the move to online ordering for our elderly and retired customers has been a big change, and we’re hoping that’ll carry through to the café.”

The retail balance
Not everyone feels that growing the seated offer is the right direction of travel. The Goods Shed in Kent is a food hall with a razor-sharp focus on direct-from-the-farm produce. The retail/foodservice balance has shifted over its 18-year history, but never more sharply than during lockdown when the food hall pivoted to a delivery service. “We’ve got a whole medley of on-site eating options downstairs in the food hall,” explains founder and director Susanna Sait, running through a list of concessions that serve local Woodchurch coffee and Margate chai. “We’re moving towards retail more than the onsite café emporium though,” she admits. “[The latter] is very fashionable but economically it’s not as attractive as retail. The market’s very tight and I’ve found for the last two years it’s harder for pop-up food stalls to make it work. It was exciting when we could just focus on retail.”

Whilst hot drinks to takeaway are still popular, it’s the veg counter and whole carcass butchery that have helped The Goods Shed pull through, each gaining £3k a week in sales through the peak of the lockdown. So is coffee still an important way to pull in the punters? “Yes, but then you have to deal with the difficulty of them wanting to stand and chat,” says Susanna. “Obviously in the current phase they’re allowed to sit and drink their coffee. At the start [of lockdown] we were just doing retail and takeaway coffee and people loved it. With the café element back in it’s all about socialising and being together, which is the antithesis of what we’re supposed to be doing.” In truth, Susanna’s love of foodservice was already on the wane. “The whole Tripadvisor culture was starting to chip away at our morale, to be honest. It’d become horrible – everyone was behaving like a food critic essentially.” So, offering a great cup of tea or coffee to takeaway feels like a winner for Susanna. “It’s great that now the customers have got a more appreciative angle. We’re appreciating them too. They’re not numbers any more, not just covers. It’s a two-way street. They understand that you’re trying to deliver a good product and they’re really embracing that.”

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