Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The Mac's canteen team has expansion on the menu

JRS Catering has just celebrated its first birthday in the Metropolitan Arts Centre. Director Sharon Wright reflects on the highs, and a few lows, as the company strives to build on its early successes.

Sharon Wright and John Robinson, directors of JRS Catering which runs the Canteen at The Mac.
Sharon Wright and John Robinson, directors of JRS Catering which runs the Canteen at The Mac.

The Mac – or the Metropolitan Arts Centre, to give it the full title – has just celebrated its first birthday. So, too, has the Canteen at the Mac. But while the Mac is a charity, the Canteen is an independent commercial business, run by JRS Catering.

JRS won the contract to operate the catering operation after a tender exercise, having previously run the catering facility at Drumbo Park greyhound track in Lisburn for two years. "The contract was coming to an end and Drumbo Park was going to run the catering itself," explains JRS director Sharon Wright.

"A tender was coming up at the Mac, which was our first. We did both contracts for a bit and now only the Mac. This is a completely different business."

But do not be misled by the word Canteen. The cafe-cum-restaurant provides top quality, beautifully presented food, using locally sourced ingredients. Janet and fellow director John Robinson were committed to engaging a top chef and used a recruitment consultancy to find the right person.

The Canteen's head chef is Shaun Hanna, who was a quarter finalist in the BBC TV series, Masterchef the Professionals.

"We scoured the country for him," says Sharon.

"We needed someone of his standard to provide the quality of food we wanted for the Mac. And we wanted to use his profile. We used a marketing company to promote the chef and the Canteen and the Mac."

Having pitched the Canteen at the quality end of the market, the menu is surprisingly affordable. "The price point is one of the main goals as [providing] value for money," explains Sharon. "Our lunch menu is very competitive." Moreover, pricing has been carefully controlled in the context of the economic crisis and the shortage of cash for spending.

As well as lunch, the Canteen offers breakfasts and morning coffees and evening dinners on show evenings and on Fridays and Saturdays.

But Sharon admits there have been difficulties. "The first year has had its challenges," she says. "The flag protests and the adverse weather conditions did affect us. But we have had steady trading."

Business at breakfast, morning coffee and lunch times has been "excellent", but "the evenings we do have to work on", admits Sharon. "People don't realise we are open in the evenings. The evening trade is where we do have to do the most work on."

Marketing has been important in achieving business success, with the Canteen not relying simply on the flow of visitors to the Mac and its events. Seeking awards and external recognition has been central to the marketing strategy.

The Canteen was listed as one of the top 50 coffee shops in the UK by The Independent and has achieved top 10 status in Tripadvisor. It was also shortlisted in the Belfast Business Awards for best hospitality business and by the Restaurant Association of Ireland for best customer service in Co Antrim.

JRS has embarked on new initiatives to promote trade. A loyalty scheme will encourage regular customers through promotional deals and 'random act' rewards, while the card also accumulates a cash balance on each purchase.

As well as operating as a cafe and restaurant, the Canteen also hosts special events, including birthday and other private parties, receptions and food and wine evenings. These activities are proving very successful, as is outside catering, and these lines are generating as much income as the cafe and restaurant business.

"Events have been up slightly on our projections," says Sharon.

But the two JRS directors are keen to develop the business not only within the Mac, but also beyond. "We are looking at another project," says Sharon. "There are another couple of tenders coming up."

Judging by what has been achieved in a year at the Canteen at the Mac, further success looks likely.