The BBC has run members-only clubs for the past 80 years. Jane Baker tunes in to one of London's best-kept secrets and discovers that changes are under way to ensure members eat in rather than go elsewhere for food.
Think BBC, and private members' clubs are not generally what come to mind. But the seven in London run by the corporation offer a dawn-to-dusk menu and are turning over a combined £5m a year. In total, the clubs have 22,000 members, and each has its own personality, depending on the type of workforce it caters for.
Bush House in the Strand, for instance, is home to the BBC World Service, where people of 47 nationalities work. It has rustic tables, an aquarium, squashy sofas, and waitresses serving dishes such as pan-fried salmon steak with curried vegetables, steamed ginger rice and coriander butter. Club West One at Broadcasting House, where celebrities such as Terry Wogan pop in for coffee on their way to the studio, has a modern café-bar and a menu serving grilled rib-eye steak with leeks, parsnips and mash. Television Centre at Shepherds Bush, meanwhile, is self-service with a more basic menu, such as chilli con carne and fish and chips. Woodlands, which is at the heart of BBC Worldwide and produces the Radio Times among other publications, has a bistro-style d‚cor and a young workforce who enjoy weekly themed evenings.
"The clubs were started in the 1920s as venues where staff could discuss social matters rather than work," says operations manager Roland Nemani. "The spin-off from this was the creation of 47 clubs within the main clubs, catering for a variety of activities, from diving to tennis and from bridge to yoga." Anyone who works for the BBC is eligible, and membership fees are a percentage of salary, ranging from £1 to £7 per month. Members' ages range from 18 to retirement, and average spend on food is £5, with the bar revenue accounting for 60% of turnover.
The staid image of the BBC is not reflected in the clubs, where dress is informal, the atmosphere relaxed and the bars are open in the evenings.
Club catering is currently in the midst of change as menus and images are updated. The refurbishment at Elstree (where the soap opera EastEnders is filmed) has taken the offer from one hot meal and a sandwich selection to a full menu, and organisers are expecting a 19% increase in turnover. Breakfast is growing in popularity, and eating habits in the evening are changing. All clubs serve lunch but, depending on local demands, food in the evenings ranges from crisps and peanuts to snacks or a full menu. This too is set to expand.
"The trend now is for people to want to eat at the clubs in the evenings," Nemani says. "At the moment, they might have a couple of glasses of wine and then pop out for a meal, so why not feed them in the club? Bush House, for instance, is looking at serving items such as tapas during the evening." This is the latest in a series of developments that has changed the Bush House Club out of all recognition.
"When I arrived six years ago, the main food offer was jacket potatoes and sandwiches," explains manager Ross Neale. "There hadn't been much competition outside, but then things started to change. We really needed to move forward fast to keep pace with the new outlets opening in the locality."
He brought in head chef Mark Farrell, who had a commercial background. Farrell applied craft skills to sauces, cooking fresh food and changing the style of menu to à la carte. The decor was updated from what Neale describes as "the worst kind of airport waiting lounge". Membership rose by 9% and so did sales.
Another development for the clubs is an increased focus on healthy eating. Fitness plays a big part in the clubs' culture and all premises have some form of fitness centre, with gymnasiums and treatment rooms. This has prompted the clubs to launch a healthy option menu this month. This shows calorie counts and fat content, and is essentially a grab-and-go food for people using the gym.
The seven clubs are run as a charity, which enables those making a profit - Bush House, Television Centre and Woodlands - to subsidise the other four, which run at a deficit. It also means that any profits are ploughed back into the service. A £32,000 refurbishment at Elstree is due to be completed this month.
"The members own the clubs and hire professionals like us to run them," Neale says. "We hold monthly meetings with the club committee and the menu development team, which carries out members' requests where possible. Chefs are given the autonomy to design their own menus according to the culture and requirements of the club members."
Club organisers also have to be aware that, although club catering is run by the clubs themselves, contract caterer Compass has the contract for staff catering, with a staff restaurant sited in each of the seven buildings.
All the clubs hold special functions, which are important sources of income. Some are linked with programming, such as the Children in Need appeal or actor Ross Kemp's leaving party from EastEnders at Elstree. Others are centred on visiting celebrities, such as a Caribbean theme laid on when cricketer Sir Viv Richards visited Bush House. Private events can be also booked by members.
"The more personalised service and informal surroundings of the clubs guarantees a steady usage by members," says Nemani. "Ultimately, it's about making sure BBC staff have access to a wide range of catering outlets at work, with staff restaurants that fulfil a diverse range of requirements alongside clubs that offer an alternative venue and service. There's something for everyone."
Total turnover: £5m
Average spend on food: £5
Catering staff: 60
Total membership: 22,000
BBC Club Membership Services team: 020 8752 6666
Television Centre, Shepherds Bush
Situated in the heart of BBC Light Entertainment, this huge club caters for those wanting quick service or take-away products.
Woodlands, 80 Wood Lane
Produces the Radio Times along with other BBC magazines, videos and books. The club has a purpose-built sports centre as well as a 120-cover bistro, deli bar and grab-and-go service for more health-conscious members.
White City, 201 Wood Lane
A stylish café bar serves members looking for a freshly prepared lunch.
Club West One at Broadcasting House, 99 Great Portland Street
The heart of radio-land, where presenters, producers and local BBC staff enjoy a lively atmosphere.
Bush House, the Strand
Comfortable and laid back, offering a home-from-home for the staff of World Service.
Victoria Road, North Acton
The newest club, opened 14 months ago, serving the Rights Department and the famous costume and wig designers.
Elstree, Boreham Wood, Hertfordshire
Refurbishment under way, with the final look being a modern twist on the comfy gentlemen's clubs. Turnover is £120,000, with plans to increase this by 19% following refurbishment.