Trustees of art galleries and museums have a choice when selecting an operator. On the face of it, employing a cafe manager might seem sensible – surely the institution then gets all the profit? The flaw with this reasoning is that a profit motive is lacking.
A cafe undoubtedly enhances the visitor experience; viewing exhibits requires sustenance. The cutting of arts funding in the eighties concentrated trustees’ minds on other sources of revenue. Catering contracts were put out to tender. The National Gallery was won by the flamboyant Justin de Blank, a pioneer on the London scene, and Michael Milburn ran the Royal Academy cafe. My company, Mangetout, was the first outsider to operate within the Tate organisation when it opened Tate Liverpool in 1988. By 2000, Tate Enterprises was set up independently, for catering and other commercial activities.
Apart from a couple of global brands, London’s main attractions are currently split between Benugo (V&A, National History Museum) and Peyton & Byrne (National Gallery, British Library). These two are currently on a roll. Oliver Peyton has just moved into Kew Gardens – four sites with an estimated turnover of £38m, and the Warner brothers at Benugo, are in Scotland overseeing five heritage sites including Edinburgh Castle, for a similar amount of £35m. The big question is: are they spreading themselves too thinly?
Contracts in smaller art institutions with good footfall are also highly sought after. For a foodie entrepreneur who wants art-loving customers without huge capital outlay, the arrangement is ideal. At the recently refurbished South London Gallery, Hamish Pritchard and Nicholas Herdman are delivering delicious home-cooked food of the highest quality. These people should be encouraged: Benugo and Oliver Peyton will need successors. In my consultancy role for the cafe facilities at Charleston in East Sussex, we shall certainly be seeking an enthusiastic local.
First published En Passant magazine January 2011