Rob Fredrickson explains the challenges the Royal Shakespeare Company faced in bringing its food and beverage operation in house – and the benefits to the Company as a result

RSC restaurant © PHOTO Courtesy of Good Food magazine

The Rooftop Restaurant and Bar, Riverside Cafe and theatre bars have quickly established themselves as integral parts of any visit to the newly transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. However, the decision to bring our catering operation in-house for the very first time in the Company’s history was not one that was taken lightly. The benefits of doing so have been won through a combination of hard work, determination and willingness to react to customer feedback that simply would not have been possible had the operation remained under contract.

The brief for our new catering spaces was that they should be welcoming, open and accessible for as wide an audience as possible, thus reflecting the core values of the Royal Shakespeare Company. A top-end restaurant focused on a tiny section of our audience – and in the immediate vicinity – would not have enhanced our position as a leading cultural and recreational venue for local, national and international visitors. On the other hand, a mass market, low-value operation would have missed the huge financial opportunity presented by a theatre that during peak seasons attracts some 12,000 people every week. Striking a balance between these opposing positions was one of the greatest challenges we faced. There was a danger that in trying to be all things to all people we would end up not being very much at all to anyone.

Aesthetically, our intention was for our food and drinks venues to feel in harmony with the surrounding architecture of the transformed building, but also stand apart from bar and dining competitors in and around Stratford-upon-Avon. We worked with restaurant and catering design specialists to help interpret our ideas for the restaurant space. We opted for a comfortably contemporary, almost urban feel without losing sight of the countryside and River Avon surrounding the building, acknowledging its history through subtle touches and retaining original, quirky features to create a sense that these spaces always looked and felt this way.

This approach to design translated into every aspect of our operation and our attitude to food had to follow suit. Our restaurant serves predominantly British and European fare, prepared on the premises using, wherever feasible, local produce and suppliers but with options to suit every price point to engage with a wide group of people. We were equally keen to ensure that diners simply having an express lunch were not treated any differently to those having a three-course meal whilst the shows were performing. Though embracing modern cooking techniques wherever possible, our aim was always to present dishes in an accessible and unfussy way – the beauty of the food coming from the careful selection of ingredients, preparation and cooking, rather than expensively assembled fine dining dishes. The Riverside Cafe benefits from the same approach – we bake our own hams, roast our own meat and poultry and take a thoughtful approach to the goods we sell there. It may be a cheese and pickle sandwich, but it will be an artisan British cheese and the pickle is made upstairs in our kitchen.

Drinks are similar in many ways. While we accepted the need to stock well-known, accessible products across the key categories – wine, beer, soft drinks and water – we were acutely aware of the need for a portfolio of products that reflected their setting. This forced us to choose a wine list comprising the very best old and new world classics alongside a set of challenging and diverse wines that may not have featured as prominently (or at all) in another setting. Wine is at the heart of our restaurant and bars, and we have reaped considerable rewards by overhauling the often dour reputation of theatre bar wine. We have at least nine wines available by the glass in our theatre bars and more than 20 in our restaurant. We have also invested in Enomatic preservation systems for the restaurant and Swan Bar. These magical machines mean we can serve a revolving selection of prestige wines by the glass, giving our guests access to wines that by the bottle may well have been beyond their budgets.

The final, and in many ways most important aspect of our decision was our staff and they are one of the prime reasons we have experienced such an encouraging start. Beautiful surroundings, delicious food and well-sourced drinks count for nothing if the service is woeful. Bringing our catering team in house resulted in an additional 100 employees arriving in (almost) one group and the challenges in assimilating, training and developing a team of this size towards a common goal as complex as that laid out in our brief were, and continue to be, many.

However, our commitment to offering exceptional service in a relaxed yet professional manner has shone through, even when we have made the inevitable mistakes every new catering business makes. The new team has quickly found its own place in the Company and there exists a real harmony across the group.

The net effect of our efforts has been a handsome first year return to the Company: over 62,000 diners in the Rooftop Restaurant; 25,000 bottles of wine over the bars; 22,000 sandwiches in the Riverside Cafe; and an enormous amount of positive feedback – including new entry listings in the 2012 Good Food and Michelin Guides.

We’re confident therefore that this is a ‘production’ that will enjoy a long and increasingly profitable run.

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