Association of Independent Museums Bulletin (AIM)

21 Jul 2017 By Charles Manners

The operation of a café can be both challenging and time consuming, so the temptation to outsource the issue is tempting, and if managed well and the right catering partner is found can make a real difference to the visitor experience. There are pros and cons of outsourcing, what it is not is an abdication of the responsibility to manage and integrate the catering offer into the visitor experience.

Going down the outsourced route definitely results in a loss of control, with the upside that a good commercially driven operator who understands the museums culture can add real value. We are always reluctant to advise museums to enter into long contracts of 5 years+ for the offer of capital (often much needed); whilst understanding that this may well be the only solution, as committing to a partner whose strategic direction could be very different in 5 years’ time, and may not be aligned is a real risk.

The growth of artisan cafes has resulted in a number of commercially sound operators who are seeking to expand, add in the number of contract caterers there are usually a good number of potential partners in the mix. It is when there are sales of less than £300k per year it can be difficult to find a commercial partner; and this is where the local operator may be the solution.

We sadly see too many contracts where the potential sales were over promised (visitor numbers), which then add in the contractors optimistic view, and the resulting sales do not deliver the expected commercial terms for both parties, and creates unnecessary antagonism. Realistic sales forecasts and commission levels, with a well-managed set of Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) with regular client / contractor meetings will to ensure the outsourced solution works for both parties.

For smaller museums and visitor attractions where the catering sales do not commercially allow an catering contractor to substantiate either an outsourced catering offer or a commercial in-house offer we are seeing the increasing use of volunteers to help in both the catering and retail areas. Whilst volunteers have been a core component of many venue teams the use of them in specifically catering has been limited, this is changing. Volunteers, so long as they have the appropriate Food Hygiene Training, can be a welcome addition to any in-house team and can complement paid staff.

Ensuring that the visitor knows from the menu that all profits go to the museum, and the staff are a mix of paid and volunteers is always a positive!

As ever getting the balance right in both outsourcing and or the use of volunteers depends on the culture of the organisation and its values, aims and objectives. However in an era when (local) government support is reducing, and competition for the visitors time & their £’s are increasing, all options need to be considered.


Ian Doughty


Tracey Fairclough


Charles Manners


Chris Brown







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