A garden centre in Devon is wowing its visitors with not only quality, locally-produced food but also delicious vegan, gluten and dairy-free options to meet every dietary need.
St John’s Garden Centre is a family business that has been running for more than 50 years, and has grown in popularity thanks to its newly-revamped Conservatory Café.
Now run by the three Oliver brothers – Nick, Simon and Tom – the centre began as a smallholding for planting, harvesting and selling vegetables from its site at the bottom of St John’s Lane. It has since gone from strength to strength and now boasts a 200-seat restaurant space run by dedicated and creative manager, Mike Horstead.
The 52-year-old has worked at the Conservatory Café for more than 12 years and had the idea to offer up delicious freshly-made special dietary options after gaining inspiration from his daughter, Charlotte.
Charlotte is currently at university, where she is training to become a primary school teacher, but loves coming home at the end of each term to try out her dad’s delicious creations, as well as bringing her own ideas to the table.
Mike says: “We wanted customers to have a better experience and provide them with a better quality, so we decided we would only create these dishes if we could make it as tasty as the original meal, and we wanted to make what we could ourselves.
“My daughter has been vegan for a few years, and says our chocolate and raspberry cake is the best she has ever had. I thought, ‘Well, if she loves it, then there will be so many more that will!'”
The revamp of the Conservatory Café two years ago saw not only a physical overhaul, but also a change in mindset, with the team deciding it was time to “ditch the turkey dinosaurs” and focus on delivering locally-sourced produce.
Vegetarian options are now available in the mornings with breakfast, and at lunchtime as main meals, while the monthly vegan meal specials have proved a huge hit with customers.
This month’s lunchtime dish is a chick pea and roasted beetroot cottage pie, offering customers dairy-free mash, served with steamed carrots, peas and a rich red wine onion gravy.
It’s not just the main meals that have proved popular with visitors, with the cafe’s scrumptious dairy-free cakes – including the walnut and coffee slices – already being snapped up each day. All of the delicious muffins are perfect for vegans, and there’s also a superb range of gluten-free friendly cake options also.
Moist vegan and dairy-free muffins are available to try in a range of flavour combinations including chocolate, banana and amaretto, raspberry and coconut, and cranberry and orange.
Mike says: “Veganism is certainly growing. I’d been out with my daughter for dinners and thought the menu choices for people with special dietary requirements were quite limited – so we thought we would try it ourselves. So far it has gone down a storm with customers.
“We want the whole family to come along – those who are vegan with their non-vegan parents and those who are gluten-free. We want everyone to have at least something on the menu they really enjoy.
“We even find that people who don’t have any specific dietary requirements will try the food and enjoy it. For example, we’ve recreated a family favourite – fish and chips – as a gluten-free option with the batter made out of Westcountry cider.
“And we only put out our vegan chocolate and raspberry cake now, rather than a regular chocolate cake, because it’s just so popular and delicious. People are looking for experiences rather than things – and that’s what we want to focus on here.”
The café has even exchanged its original tea bags for 12 varieties of lose leaf tea, as a more inspiring option. And the vegan hot chocolates are a customer favourite, made of vanilla bean paste, soya milk, and a drizzle of chocolate sauce.
Mike has found that staff are more engaged following the menu-change, providing their own ideas and catering for individual needs by ensuring people visiting the café enjoy a personal experience. And with a large, open-plan shopping centre, plant and tree displays, an under-cover plant area and ‘Jungleland’, St John’s Garden Centre has everything you need all under one roof.