Those of you familiar with the family activity scene in Cheltenham will no doubt have noticed or heard that the soft play centre, The Play Farm, in The Brewery Quarter has recently changed hands and undergone refurbishment, re-opening its doors to the public again in January of this year. Places like this can often feel a little impersonal and you get the impression they may be run by chains or larger organisations that have less than great intentions when it comes to providing great service to parents, focusing instead on creating an environment that the kids will love and Mum and Dad can just endure…
I was recently lucky enough to get to know the new owner, Richard Oates, and today rather than try and review all of the changes that have taken place I’m hoping to show you the family man behind the venue. I know first hand how hard running a business and caring for a family can be – we are all human – here’s the face behind Cheltenham’s soft play venue.
CMHQ: Richard thanks so much for having me here today – the coffee tastes pretty good – that’s a great start! We begin all interviews here at CheltenhamMaman with a question about the small people in your life. Who have you got?
Richard: Yes – they are a massive part of my life and the reason I’ve taken the plunge into this new endeavour so they’re a great place to start. I’m Dad to three little boys – the youngest being just nine months and the eldest is six. Our house is a busy place!
CMHQ: And you don’t live locally is that correct? What made you set up shop in Cheltenham?
Richard: No I live in Wandsworth in London so a couple of hours away. I decided last year that I’d had enough in my career as a city banker. My job was no longer as enjoyable as it once was and I just wasn’t getting enough quality time with the family. I’d also always fancied life as the owner of my own business and had taken an interested in children’s nurseries and soft play centres. I decided on a radius of home that I would consider buying in and when Cheltenham came up I just felt it was the right spot to give it a go. I’d read that just a couple of years ago it was ranked by a national newspaper as the number one place to live for families in the UK. The location in the town centre is great and it’s rare to find space this big in any town/city centre, certainly not in London.
CMHQ: So how do you split your time? If work is so far away are you getting much more quality time with your family?
Richard: These initial few months have been a big strain on my time as we completed the revamp and set the bar at a suitably high level for the staff to follow. This was expected though. Though I’m spending a lot of time working, it’s the flexibility that I relish. I travel to-and-from Cheltenham a couple of days a week, with an overnight stay thrown in for good measure. Every other weekend the family and I decamp to Cheltenham too and I can spend some time working and also with the family sight seeing and enjoying the area. It’s all about balance!
CMHQ: So now that you’re here – what was your priority when you collected the keys?
Richard: Well the place was built in 2010 – so not actually that long ago – but a lot of the interiors really were not fit for purpose and hadn’t been refreshed at all in the last eight years. The highest priority was an injection of capital, giving the Play Farm a little “love” which the customers deserve. I did away with the pub style carpet in favour of brighter, non-slip flooring which is much easier to clean. Though this was a bigger investment than I’d envisaged at the outset, surprisingly this is probably the most frequently commented on by parents, with many feeling the space immediately looks bigger and cleaner.
We’ve given the place a really good scrub and a lick of paint and we have new tables and chairs and we’ve also made some basic, but in my view imperative changes to the facilities. There’s now a changing table in the gents – it drives me mad when places don’t provide facilities for fathers to parent too! I’ve already spent tens of thousands of pounds bringing this place up to spec – that should tell you how committed I am to making a success of it.
CMHQ: And what about the play structure itself?
Richard: Well in the baby area we’ve increased the size of the space significantly and installed some sensory lighting and mirrors. We’ve added an additional tier to the toddler area so those guys have a lot more space to explore and burn off some energy. The juniors area is much the same but we’ve had to spend a fair bit of money on maintenance and replacing faulty equipment..
CMHQ: But the change you’re most intent upon and passionate about is the food and the menu – is that right?
Richard: Exactly right. We all know children love soft play centres right? They burn off loads of energy, get some exercise and have fun but so many people that run these places forget that it’s the hard working parents who are giving up the dosh to come in and I’m a firm believer that we should be trying to offer them a great experience too.
I’ve completely overhauled the menu and I’m firstly committed to not serving anything for the children that I wouldn’t want my own children to be eating. The last menu was vast, but much of it was cooked from frozen with less than desirable quality in some instances, with little of it fresh. We’re now using mainly fresh ingredients sourced locally wherever possible. We’re offering mixed fruit cups, a hot Pick ‘n Mix with proteins and carbs labelled as such, and have introduced pure fruit smoothies as an alternative to the Slush drinks some parents take issue with. We’ve substantially cut down on the use of the deep-fat-fryer and the meat content in our sausages and fish fingers is much much higher, of real premium quality now.
We also have gluten, dairy and meat free options as well as premium organic pasta dishes.
I feel we’ve really broken the trend with the adult food. Far too many Soft Plays offer greasy kids dishes in larger portions. For the adults we’re offering fresh chicken fillet or fish finger brioche buns with a selection of three different salads – no wilted lettuce any more – this week we are offering a tricolore slaw and a pesto pasta salad with pine nuts. Each Ciabatta filling is matched with a complementary dipping sauce too. Your readers would be pleasantly surprised too at the modern presentation of the various dishes on offer.
We have made a conscious decision to scale back the menu, instead choosing quality over quantity. My philosophy is simple. If we can’t do it properly, we don’t do it at all. Ultimately, my name is on every dish that leaves the kitchen and I am just not prepared to accept below par fare.
CMHQ: So you’ve clearly got some great ideas and you’re just over a month in – how are things going? What’s been your biggest challenge?
Richard: Well change is tough and we’ve tackled some big changes in a short space of time. We kept on all of the staff so they’ve had to bring their standards of work in line with my expectations and my vision for a healthier and brighter offering – that’s not been a seamless transition but we’re really getting there now. The chef now takes pride in what he’s sending out of the kitchen and we have room for improvement always but the need to resist change is receding in the staff as they start to see that these changes are for the better.
We’re also busy learning about how busy the place can be and about what staffing levels we need. Sometimes it’s just impossible to predict – get a rainy day and things can suddenly be much busier than you’ve planned for. Anyone in business will sympathise with this – it takes time to learn to recognise trends and patterns and to get a firm grasp on what works best. We’re only a month in and I’ve already learned so much!
CMHQ: And aside from these massive changes – what more can we expect?
Richard: Our party offering is still very similar to the way it has always been but in time that will change – I hope to offer themed parties – superhero, unicorns, dinosaurs – a whole array of options. We’re also renting out the party space during the week to local businesses who offer classes or activities for children. We currently have Monkey Music and Pyjama Drama in and I hope to welcome more. I am also committed to providing a service for children with special needs – perhaps with a special early opening for children with autism or other learning disabilities. I’m making connections with specialists in these fields so I can fully understand what it is I need to provide to get this right – but it will happen.
CMHQ: This all sounds great Richard – I’ve enjoyed hearing about your plans. It’s also really positive that you’re taking the time to help parents locally understand your vision and that you are open to feedback and suggestions. We’re all learning all the time – business is no exception! So good luck with it and thanks for the chat!
Richard: Thank you! – Your readers can take a look at the website to find out more. My staff and I would love to welcome new faces we’re open seven days a week! Hope to see some of you soon.
This is an endorsed blog post.