A message from Steve, the owner…
After 3 years of having a full kitchen operation at The Square, I have decided on some radical changes. I will be ceasing our kitchen operation totally and instead switching to a coffee-shop-style offer, where all food and snacks are on display and sold directly from the cafe counter.
The last day of our current menu will be Friday 29th April 2019, after which our kitchen will close. Due to the timing, during the Easter Break, we may have a few days when we’re not fully stocked with new food offers and it’s going to take a few weeks to settle into a good range, so I apologise if we don’t have a good food choice for a while but it will only be temporary.
This change obviously raises a lot of questions so I have tried to anticipate, and answer most of them as honestly as I can below. If you have any other questions or comments not answered below, please fee free to message me
Why don’t you just cut down, or change the menu instead of removing it totally?
This decision has obviously not been made lightly and I’ve ran through many different scenarios. We have had lots of menu changes across the three years we’ve been open and I genuinely believe we had a food offer better than almost all other soft play businesses. But a kitchen operation is a big cost to any business and needs to have a large turnover to be viable, which we are just not achieving in Wells. Cutting it down wouldn’t remove any of these costs so I need to adapt us to be more suited to the local market.
So how do other Soft Plays manage this?
A lot of other soft play centres are on a much bigger scale, either being part of a much bigger entertainment complex or being in much bigger towns, so they enjoy a far higher footfall than us. Yet we must still try and compete with them on price, as customers obviously compare us all together and there is a price ceiling for even the best play centres. The smaller ones tend to offer far less, or try to do it on the cheap, which just leads to lower quality and/or complaints. And of course, being blunt, many soft play centres don’t manage it; the business category has a notoriously high failure rate! If we all want great facilities on our doorstep, rather than just the large chains in the major population centres, then we also have to have open minds about the different ways of operating them 🙂
So what will you offer instead?
It will adapt and grow across the first few months as we find the right balance, but in general we will be copying the coffee-shop model. So it will be much more about ready-to-eat products rather than made-to-order food. We’ll have a range of pre-packed sandwiches and wraps, and more savouries/pastries on sale. We already team up with Loaf Bakehouse in Wells for some of their excellent cakes and they will be providing us with a much bigger range of products. And I’m currently in discussion with a local, high-quality sandwich supplier.
Why now, after 3 years?
I’m always willing to stand out from the crowd and I think The Square is already very different to most other soft play centres, but opening without an ‘expected’ food operation 3 years ago would have been a step too far, I think, so I had to give it a fair chance. I’m just coming to the end of my third full financial year and with 3 years of trading history, and 3 years of experience trying various options, the time now feels right. As well as all the commercial considerations, there is a continual drive towards more and more lifestyle choices (the growth of veganism for example), labelling requirements and increased allergen awareness, all of which make it harder and harder for smaller businesses to satisfy everyone and to comply with all the rules. I’ve been pondering a big change like this for about a year but I obviously had to think about my staff and the effect on their jobs. But my chef has recently decided to move on, so it made sense to make the change now. Easter isn’t the best time of year to make such a big change, obviously, but sometimes we have to grasp the situation in front of us!
This is a daft decision, you have to serve ‘proper’ food in a soft play? Won’t it stop a lot of people coming in, or cause a lot of complaints?
This is the immediate perception, yes, and obviously it’s a risk. Any big decisions in business are a risk but the figures just don’t justify the perception? Only around 20% of our customers order from the menu during their visit anyway, so I assume that 80% of our customers are not really bothered? We already have no food on Sundays (and haven’t for two-and-a-half years), with very few negative comments. And that’s without any alternative food on sale so, ironically, this change will vastly improve our Sunday food offer!
The biggest problem I have is that my kitchen is either serving very little food (on quieter days or outside of lunch hour), or it just cannot keep up with demand during peak times (lunchtime on a rainy Saturday in the winter for example), when we can quickly end up with a delay of an hour or more.
I honestly think that after the initial reaction, we’ll find the vast majority of customers prefer our new offer.
What about catered parties?
We have contacted everyone who already has a catered party booked and offered them the choice of going self-catered, and we will honour all current bookings if they wish to remain as they are. All new party bookings will be self-catered until the new food offer is established, after which I’ll review our parties. But again, the reality is that around 60% of all our party bookings are already self-catered, on Sundays, and 95% of all private parties are self-catered. And we often get asked for a self-catered option for Saturdays, which we have never been able to offer.
Does that mean we can now bring our own food?
Unfortunately not. We’re not stopping food totally, we’re simply changing the type of food we sell, so we’ll still rely heavily on food and drink sales for overall viability. You may still bring in baby food, or items that are necessary for medical reasons, or to satisfy food allergies for which we don’t cater. But in the same way that you wouldn’t expect to take your own food or drink into a coffee shop, we can’t allow customers to consume their own food and drink in our soft play.