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Exit through the cafe

We find out why British institutions lead the world when it comes to food.

A trip to a museum used to mean an afternoon in a stuffy Victorian building, peering at unloved exhibits before a cup of stewed tea in the cramped room that had unwittingly become the café. As museums and galleries became destinations all this changed, with the café becoming a reason to visit, not an afterthought. We spoke to Ben Warner, founder of Benugo, about what makes successful food in public spaces.

BW Up to about ten years ago the food offered in museums was dreadful, it was seen as a convenience: great if you wanted a bottle of water but beyond that there wasn't much else.

TASTE What caused them to change?
BW When they were made free around 15 years ago they were massively subsidised by government grants. Over the years that's been slowly chipped away and a different approach has appeared within museums and the way they are run; the simple fact is that museums have had to become more commercial.

Where once they were seen as elitist, now they've become interactive places to experience. The Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, they're a day out – like going to a theme park. You hope your kids are going to be educated while they're there, but that's not why you go, you take them because it's a great day and you'll be entertained. And, of course, the food has become an integral part of this.

TASTE What are the challenges?
BW Apart from the obvious issues, such as security, there's the way they're structured – though they've modernised, they can be quite archaic in the way they do things. They are also really volatile in terms of their visitor numbers. The Science Museum has peaks and troughs, halfterm is crazy, but the week after goes from 120,000 per week to 15,000. It's incredibly diffi cult to manage your staffi ng levels around that kind of fluctuation.

TASTE Where does it go wrong?
BW The mistake most operators make is that they don't actually listen to their customer base. They give customers what they think they want, rather than what they actually want - they're not interested in listening to their needs.

TASTE And what do people want?
BW You must understand the profile of the customer and their needs. Some people go to a museum and they're in and out, they're on a mission to see something, then they're out. They're not going to have lunch, just a quick cup of coffee, so you think – how can you serve really good coffee, and quickly?

Then you've people with a little more time. They might spend the morning there, but they don't want to have a lingering lunch and that's where the assisted service of catering comes into its own, especially if you have kids and they only want to stay in one location for so long.

The third group are people who expect a bit more. We've found formal dining doesn't work in museums, so we devised a system that's a little more relaxed. You can have a glass of wine, but it's still fast, you order your food at a till, your wine and everything, so there's no need to wait for your bill. It's still a fast experience.

I think we were quite revolutionary in the way we approached public space catering. We learned quickly that at the V&A, we have customers in every day who have no intention of visiting the museum, they just come for lunch, they work nearby; it's the same at the British Museum. We also think incredibly hard about the environment we're in. You have to be very sensitive and appreciative and not too dogmatic, because the museum is always going to be a greater thing than you are, and so it should be.

That means being aware of the environment – there's no point in putting a flashing neon sign in the middle of the British Museum. We're lucky, some of the environments such as the Morris, Gamble and Poynter Rooms at the V&A are destinations in themselves.

TASTE Is it true to say that this is one area in which Britain is leading the world?
BW I agree. I was just one of several people asked to go to China to give a talk to local directors and curators, and funnily enough – apart from one Japanese guy – they were all from the UK. It wasn't just food, there were retail experts, curators – it was about the whole experience. I looked around a couple of their museums, and they are identical to where ours were twenty years ago.

Little thought has gone into the customer experience, they're dreadfully dull. Everything is behind glass, there's no interaction for kids, just boring wayfinding, and these are big institutions, not little places. Of course, it goes without saying that no thought has gone into the food offer.

Interestingly I've also talked to museums in Abu Dhabi, and they have a different set of concerns. Their issue isn't money; it's do they need a reliable brand in there that people have heard of, such as Starbucks, or do they create something unique to pull the customers in?

TASTE How does Europe compare to what's happening in Britain?
BW I can't speak about every museum, but I'm a bit disappointed with those I've seen. I was in Florence and visited a couple of places. Frankly they were a joke. Italian food is so good, the best, but they had the feel of an old motorway service station.

TASTE Where do you think has the best museum catering?
BW The MOMA restaurant in New York run by Danny Meyer is revolutionary. He has an amazing restaurant called The Modern, which is part of the museum but a separate entity, meaning it can open beyond museum hours.

If you can have a restaurant associated with, but not inside, the museum it's fantastic because during the evening people spend the big money on alcohol. He also has food concessions within the museum and it's probably the best museum catering I've seen.

TASTE What does the future hold in store?
BW The museum was one of those forgotten places that people didn't understand or see the potential in - now they do. It's going to become more competitive, and as more operators want to do it the standard will get better.

I just met with someone from a museum that is dedicating a vast space to their catering, with a terrace looking out over a park, and a separate entrance so that can be accessed in the evening. They see the food, and the way it's delivered, to be almost as important as the museum.

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