Cafe or Resturant – What is right for you?

Cafe v. Restaurant


This short article discusses the benefits and dis-benefits of using the café and restaurant models for catering provision at a Historic Visitor Attraction.


The catering provision should not normally be viewed in isolation from the wider visitor experience of the site. The only exception to this is when the catering provision can operate as a standalone business without the need for the visitor attraction.   This article will show the importance of the catering provision being an integral part of the visitor experience and hence the business provision of any Visitor Attraction.


The integrated nature of the experience from a visitor’s point of view is important for the site manager to recognise. They must ensure that this concept is followed through in all management decisions and activities.


Visitor experience starts from trying to find out about your house/attraction in the comfort of their home through to their departure after a wonderful experience. For most visitors, the location of the toilets and where you can get a decent cup of tea or coffee is an important part of the orientation experience on arrival – as working where to go next. In business planning terms, the ‘secondary’ income from retail and catering streams are an essential component overall income mix and can be directly related to the ‘primary’ income stream of admission charges and (possibly) car parking. The relationship between these different income streams and long term income from return visits. Put simply: if a visitor feels the coffee was ‘too expensive’, they will not be well disposed to spending money on the retail offer, and will not be well disposed to the idea of a return visit. They will also mention this to their friends – which works as a form of reverse marketing.


Your catering offer should be an essential element of the visitor experience.  There are very few visitors who will not need dome form of refreshments after walking around your site.


Very often consultants will quote the figure of 30% visitors using the catering facilities as being a normal target. If you think about this, it means that you are satisfied that 70% are not going to use the catering offer. For any business where 70% of your visitors do not wish to take up any catering offer of a cup of tea or coffee and some light refreshments after a couple of hours walking around a very pleasant house/garden means something is going wrong somewhere.


In order to develop an effective catering offer, you need to decide on where it should go and what level of catering offer you should have. The ‘where’ can be determined after looking at the options for a route around you house and/or garden – identifying car-parking, ticketing, toilets, retail and catering offers and interpretation and best route around the site. The ‘what’ needs to be linked directly to what your visitors are expecting and need. In reality, the majority of visitors are looking for a place to have a sit down and drink a decent cup of tea or coffee before moving on – perhaps home or perhaps around the site. In additional, the offer of light refreshments is often welcome. For those who would like to have something for lunch, the majority are looking for a very light meal, because they will eat when they get home or perhaps at a pub later in the day. Very few are actually looking for a ‘proper hot meal’ for lunch. It is interesting to note that the offer of a hot meal in a ‘Restaurant’ environment can actually put many visitors off. This is because they do not wish to be embarrassed just having a pot of tea when others are having a full meal. If your customers feel uncomfortable they will often turn around and leave. Having had no refreshments, their perception of the visitor experience is likely to be that it was ‘below par’ – “great house, shame about the lack of a place to get a good drink”.


In reviewing the differences between a cafe and restaurant catering offer we need to consider the financial cost implications of each offer. These are summarised in the table below


Cafe Restaurant
Capital costs of catering equipment to meet required standards Relatively low Significantly higher than cafe style operation –
Staffing (labour costs) for quality service Min. of 2 staff (serving/till and clearing tables and washing up, plus cooking and preparing scones/cakes/jacket potatoes etc) Min. of 3 staff (serving/till, food  and clearing tables and washing up)
Preparation time before opening and after closing MinimalE.g. scones/cakes/jacket potatoes can be prepared and cooked during slow times in mid morning and after lunch. Additional hours – preparing hot food and cleaning away afterwards
Providing for ‘afternoon teas’ Ideal Restaurant covers setup can be off putting for customers seeking just afternoon tea
Providing for light snack lunches Ideal Workable – but requires range of light snacks in addition to hot food offer.
Catering expertise required Low to medium expertise (relatively low labour hourly costs) Medium to high expertise (higher labour hourly costs)
‘Embarrassment factor’ at just wanting to by a coffee None Potentially high
High meal costs puts visitor off spending in retail offer Risk low – if good quality at reasonable prices Higher risk – as visitors tend to have a spending limit – especially if they were really only wanting a low cost light snack for lunch.
Opportunity for drop in customers wanting a just drink Good Poor
Opportunity to drop in for a high quality restaurant meal. None Good – subject to opening hours and accessibility.
Limited hours of opening effect on maximising customer base and return on investment No real adverse effect Serious adverse effect on maximising profit by just lunchtime and evening hours.
Dwell time at tables Relatively quick (15-30mins) Slow (30-60 mins)



It is interesting to remember that you can easily spot a 4/5 star restaurant menu. It will normally have only five choices of main courses – especially if cooked by a full kitchen brigade. The poor quality restaurant menu, however, will be immediately recognisable by its wide range of main courses and other dishes – using ‘boil in the bag’ and other ‘low skill’ techniques. If you are going to provide high quality home-baked style cookery which tends to look good and go down a treat with customers, you need to have a very narrow range of quality food on offer. The drinks need to be the very best quality that you can afford and sold at reasonable prices. Nowadays a cafe that does not offer high quality cappuccino and latte coffee will not do well. There is an expectation of high standards and a choice of high quality coffees. The aroma of a good coffee and home-made scones is one of the best forms of marketing you can have.


The business model that works well for a visitor attraction is the ‘Tea Shop’ model. This catering offer has high quality teas and coffees, with cakes and a limited range of sandwiches, jackets potatoes and quiches for the light lunches. The service is quick, customer orientated with fast clearance of tables. This age old model works well, is relatively low on labour costs and expertise required to run the operation, and initial low capital set-up costs. It has been used countless times very successfully and can be seen today on the high street in many guises including: Starbucks; Costa Coffee; Pret A Manger; and, Marks and Spencer’s Cafe Revive.


Catering offer can also have a secondary customer base associated with visitors just dropping in to use the retail and/or catering offer. This requires the layout of the ticketing to allow for customers to access the retail and catering offers without having to buy a ticket.



Keep it simple and keep it profitable. Nine times out of ten a cafe rather than a restaurant is what will be the most effective and profitable choice for most visitor attractions.

Dr David Hickie
Heritage Matters 2012