Xanthe Arvanitakis talks about the growing importance to cultural institutions of widening their attractions offer.
Edited by Clare Dowdy
FX: When did the UK’s cultural institutions start to change the way they thought of their catering?
Xanthe Arvanitakis: In the late Eighties and early Nineties cafes started to be established as part of the overall offer, and the sector was dominated by large-scale contract caterers that also serviced corporates, schools and hospitals. So the branded casual-dining offer was often bland and generic.
In the past five or 10 years, the catering offer has transformed and is much more embedded and really core. It’s no longer about converting an unused back room, but is up front and is often at the front of the building.
FX: What has driven this change?
XA: One of the main reasons people visit cultural organisations is to meet up with friends and family. Catering spaces are increasingly seen as a place to meet up, not just somewhere to get a cup of tea. Meanwhile Government cuts, [funding to England’s national museums has been cut by around 30 per cent in real terms since 2012], have accelerated these changes. Attractions are forced to think in terms of ‘what’s my per head income per visitor?’
FX: Who led the way?
XA: The V&A was one of the first, by rebranding and upgrading its offer, and exploiting the William Morris designed rooms.
In 2003, JWA developed a new brand strategy for the museum and repositioned the catering offer, which was retendered on the back of that idea. Benugo came on board with a much more culturally led and high-quality offer.
FX: Who is doing this in an interesting way now?
XA: Of the new-builds Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Switch House restaurant is a good example of the future trend of out-of-hours opening times for the gallery. That makes the restaurant a destination in its own right. And like some of the upmarket co-working spaces, such as Fora, some restaurants are standalone, like Somerset House’s high-end Spring restaurant. We’re seeing more and more high-end offers, with Michelin chefs turning iconic spaces into iconic restaurants.
To have a standalone restaurant you need to be in a central location with enough of an evening dining crowd. Overseas places where it works include RIJKS at the Rijksmuseum, Otium at The Broad in Los Angeles, Le Frank at Paris’s Fondation Louis Vuitton, and Bar Luce at Milan’s Fondazione Prada [designed by film-maker Wes Anderson].
FX: What role does design have to play?
XA: The design should come from the heart of an organisation’s brand strategy. At historic venues that means working with their collection, while contemporary buildings should work with their architect. The advantage for a cultural organisation is that it already has the cultural offer: the building or the collection, or both. That gives it the aesthetic and the history. This contrasts with high street restaurants, which have to manufacture a theme, and that can appear naff.
FX: What’s your current experience of such an approach?
XA: We are developing the brand strategy for the redevelopment of St Albans’ 1830s’ Old Town Hall – complete with Palladian facade – into a museum and gallery, due to open next year. The cafe offer will be a crucial space to draw in the local community and visitors to St Albans. The brand strategy will inform all aspects of this offer, from the brief to the caterers and fit-out.
FX: What’s the future for these sorts of restaurants?
XA: It’s a future that probably applies to the whole catering sector: the impact of an increasingly flexible workforce. As a consequence, there has been a massive explosion in after-hours events as museums and galleries compete for the bar and nightclub crowds – the whole ‘lates’ phenomenon. It’s about exploiting these spaces after hours, partly driven by [financial] need, and partly by visitors wanting that sort of experience.