Sunday, April 12, 2015

Exhibition catering

"I felt at £1.90 for a sausage roll the catering staff should have been wearing masks"

Comments like this are common after every exhibition and are the bane of many managers lives.Hundreds of hours work put in to organising a show, booking layouts and trade, setting out the hall, negotiating advertising and dozens of other jobs and what do the punters notice?

The food.

Cakes 3Something that the poor manager probably has almost no control over.

Unless your show is very small, the chances are that simply catering for a couple of thousand people is beyond the abilities of the organising club. There's a (freshly cleaned) bucket load of food safety issues to consider (as daytime telly says in every add break - eaten something that disagreed with you, SUE!), and more and more people who are allergic to something. Nowadays you really need to be a professional to walk the tightrope of feeding little Johnny now he can't eat tomatoes when there is a Y in the month.

Even if you do fancy taking his on, many venues have sold the catering concession and won't let you do it anyway. From their point of view, it makes sense. Very few hirers will want to do it themselves and it's a good way to earn some money. The caterers then have a contract that says no-one gets to sell food apart from them. At least this stops them having to sort out any mess left by amateur cooks using the supplied kitchen.

All of which leaves the organiser stuck. If you've never dealt with these people before, you might think that the club can just walk in and demand a level of service to suit but that doesn't work either. These people are professionals and quite rightly don't appreciate being told how to do their jobs from someone whose culinary expertise runs to beans on toast and who is very likely to have any idea how different it is to try and feed hundreds of people who all want to eat within a two hour window during the day, but expect paid staff to be provided the whole time even when there aren't any customers.

Mind you, the customers can be at fault. I often wonder about railway modellers. Many seem to live in a bubble and never experience anything outside the limited boundaries of our hobby. Just look at the numbers oblivious to the price of a cinema or footballs tickets or admittance to any other type of show. Very few events will let you spend 6 or 7 hours in the hall for less than a tenner and provide you with exhibits to look at that cost money. Many events are nearly pure trade so every single person has paid to come in the door, but the prices are still higher than those for a model rail show.

LasagneLikewise, prices are measured against supermarkets rather than buying food in a cafe or pub. A good example was York this year. As always, people moaned about the cost of the meals but my experience was that they were about a quid a portion above eating in a Weatherspoons pub - about as cheap as you get for food served on a plate ready to eat. Quality, at least for lasagna, was well above par too.

I used to work with someone in a theatre who had a hobby horse moan about the price of a coke at our bar. He couldn't understand why it was more expensive than the cheapo version he could buy in Tesco. This was despite the extra cost being taken up with the glass, service, heating, lighting, cleaning up after  and everything else that came with the bar cola. It was proper Coke too, not nasty own-brand stuff. He enjoyed his model railways...

It fascinates me that in a hobby where people will happily pay a tenner or more for someone to crush a bit of coal and stick it in a loco tender, one of the simplest improvements you can make to a RTR model, they are so surprised that food costs more than you can buy it in bulk from the sort of discount supermarket that makes Lidl look classy.

I enjoy my grub at shows. You can tell from all the mentions of cake on this blog. Yes, I enjoy a home made cake but realise that this isn't always possible. If it is, the larger meals are often disappointing as these are so much harder to do.

If you insist on buying the cheapest thing on the menu, you will pay a disproportionately higher price. In this case, Greggs would sell you the same food for £1.20 less, but you won't get a plate. Personally, I think you should spend £1.60 more and enjoy the delicious sausage bap I had with most of a pig in a bun. Kept me going all day.

Sausage Bap


Paul B. said...

I'm of the 'cheapest thing on the menu' persuasion, a cuppa and a sausage roll usually suffices, sometimes with cake as well. I don't expect a culinary masterpiece at a bargain price, just something to keep me going between stints of layout watching. And I've never had occasion to complain, after all I'm at the show to look at trains not eat like a king.
If folk don't like show catering the answer os simple, take a pack-up. Then they'd know exacly what they're getting, can't complain at the price and have a few extra pennies to spend on red/blue boxes. But that would be far too simple...

Phil Parker said...

I've made the "bring your own sarnies" comment too - it gives them something to put in the rucksacks as well as saving money!

Nick Brad said...

I always take packup with me to shows, then usually eat it outside when I leave as I've been too engrossed in the layouts on display to remember to eat.
I think the prices that I have seen for food compare well to supermarket cafes and that is what others should be thinking of, not comparing it to the poundbakery up round manchester way.

Huw Griffiths said...

I'm also one of the people who take a packed "lunch" - some of which actually gets eaten in the middle of the day.

As for the rest - some disappears before I even get to the venue - some goes on the way back.

I might also get a few "last minute" extras from a supermarket on my way to the venue.

The observation about discount supermarkets is also interesting.

Until about 5 years ago, the main Cardiff model railway show was held in the former UWIC site, on Colchester Avenue.

This place came complete with the ultimate "must have accessory" for any self respecting university - a big German discount supermarket - in this case, Lidl.

Guess where my lunch came from?

Returning to exhibition hall catering, I think the quality varies a lot between venues.

At one extreme, you get the places where all of it's rubbish.

At the other extreme, you get a few places where quality appears to exist.

Both tend to be rather expensive for what you get - although I accept that the overheads are also high. For comparisons, I think in terms of motorway service stations.

So what would I buy from exhibition caterers? Not much - certainly nothing that I can sensibly take there myself.

However, I might occasionally get a cup of coffee (or something slightly stronger), if I feel that the quality is there - in this case, the price is just something that I have to accept.

James Finister said...

My biggest complaint about Warley is that the real ale tends to run out.

I find a sit down and recharge with food break an essential part of exhibition going these days. I return to the floor with much more focus on what is worth a second look.