After 10 years operating as a catering company Rhubarb Food Design decided to open its first restaurant and it`s in an environment mostly reserved for well-established high street restaurants, sandwich bars and pubs. BigHospitality went along to its location at Heathrow`s Terminal 3 to see how the new venture is taking off.
There aren’t many people who see the positive side of airport delays, but for Lucy Gemmell (pictured, right), director of the recently opened Rhubarb Champagne Bar and Restaurant, they can be a blessing.
Rhubarb, until now a name synonymous with the high-end, celebrity-favoured outside catering business, opened its first outlet – a 54-seat Champagne and food bar – in the departure lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 six months ago.
Some might consider it an unusual decision to open a first outlet in an arena dominated by well-established high-street restaurant chains, but Gemmell and her retail director, Helen Bowey, delays aside, believe it was an opportunity not to be missed.
“We were offered sites in other places when we started looking at opening a restaurant, but we weren’t interested. I think it’s great fun to do something different, so when this came up we couldn’t turn it down.
“There are risks in every business, but from our point of view in an airport we have got good traffic. With the economic situation as it is, a lot of the business class travellers will now travel in economy and we are in the hub of that. You feel like you’re almost in a first class lounge here,” says Gemmell, pointing towards the chocolate-coloured leather banquette seating and glossy marble Champagne bar that bring a luxurious feel to an average airport lounge.
Being situated in an airport terminal may guarantee passing trade, but passengers only spend an average of 35 minutes in departure at T3, so the question is how can Rhubarb`s staff push the more profitable items such as coffee, desserts or an extra glass of Champagne?
“People order based on the amount of time they have, so we have adapted our menu for an airport setting without having to compromise quality,” says Gemmell as we peruse a menu featuring some interesting dishes that are quick to prepare, but have a firm Rhubarb stamp on them, such as the cheekily named Mile High Club Sandwich (pictured, below), Three English Pies and the Rhubarb Afternoon Tea with mini scones, tiny smoked salmon sandwiches and bite-size cakes.
“We are visually exciting and offer something different from the usual which helps us.
“Yes, it can be hard for staff to up-sell here because people have that limited amount of time, but that’s why delays are good,” enthuses Gemmell.
While airport delays may create more orders from time-rich passengers, they can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help, however.
Because of the constraints involved in operating within an airport with such tight security, only one food delivery can be made per day and it must be thoroughly scanned. Staff, too must go through the same security checks as travellers, so there`s no popping out to the cash and carry for extra supplies if they run short.
"You learn to be very organised and to make friends with other restaurants here very quickly,” says Bowey, “as you never know when you might need their help."
The security aspect also has an impact on business decisions, according to Bowey, as BAA must approve any changes she wants to make to the restaurant. Installing two TV screens, for example took three months to achieve.†
"You have to go through the right procedures and that can be frustrating, but BAA have been very good, very understanding and you learn quickly how to do things."
While others may balk at the thought of having to run any changes past someone other than your boss, Bowey, who has run the site from the outset, takes it all in her stride and says she would be keen to launch the concept at other airports in the future.
"Six months in we know BAA`s processes and what we have to do to tick their boxes. It`s becoming a lot easier to understand how everything works," she says.
Figures are looking good so far. The restaurant, open from 6am to 10pm seven days a week, serves an average of 250 covers a day, rising to 450 on a busy day and Bowey is confident that the estimated turnover for 2009 of £1.5m will be met.
The business also has access to better demographics than most, knowing exactly who their customers are and where they come from, ensuring they can tailor their menus, which they change four times a year, to their customer base.
Bowey says: "We get the staff to ask to see each customer`s boarding pass, so we can tailor the menu towards them, you don`t get that chance with many businesses."
Rhubarb may be confident of a successful first year for its flagship restaurant, but Gemmell has no desire to sit back and see how it fares.
She is already looking into developing a take-away, or `portable food` as she calls it, arm of the business with an emphasis on providing take-away food with high nutritional values.
"So much of the food on offer at airports is not ideal for flying, it`s wheat or dairy-based which many of us cannot tolerate," says Gemmell.
"I think we need to be competitive in everything we do. From the consumer point of view you`re either going to grab a take-away or spend time enjoying a sit-down meal at an airport, so it`s worth looking at all options, but whatever we do we`d make sure it was exactly the way we have done with Rhubarb where we only buy quality produce. We are not going to compromise that."
Business in Brief
Name: Rhubarb Food and Champagne Bar
Location: Terminal 3, Heathrow
Menu: Modern International. Dishes include Mile High Club Sandwich, Tuna Sashimi, Beef Rendang Curry, Smoked Salmon Bagel and Three English Pies
Opening Hours: 6am to 10pm daily
Director: Lucy Gemmell