Saturday, 1 December 2012

It’s always gratifying to be proven right - Inapub November 2012

It’s always gratifying to be proven right, even when no one remembers that it was your idea in the first place. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I came up with the concept of serving food in pubs myself, even if Inapub does, somewhat harshly, focus on the longevity with which my insights have been entertaining and informing licensees.

However, there was a time when I had to fight hard to persuade the publishers of a now defunct pub trade newspaper to devote any editorial space to food. Blinded by the wads of cash being offered to advertise dayglo alcopops, headache-inducing nitrokeg beers, and bag-in-box leibfraumilch, the commercial powers-that-were ignored my insistence that food was the way forward.
Happily, most of those soulless, dead-eyed imbeciles are now in occupations more suited to their skill set, such as grave robbing and grandmother retailing, while my crusade continues. While there are still excellent wet-led businesses out there, it’s increasingly unusual to find one that doesn’t include food as part of the offer.

So, I was pleased to spend an afternoon at the latest Be At One cocktail bar watching another domino fall.  The group’s 13th outlet at Guildhall in the City, is the first to include food. Ossie Grey, one of the team that originated the River Café, has developed a menu of sharing plates for Be At One.
The food is an object lesson in creating dishes that match seamlessly with the drinks menu rather than looking like an add-on.  The range include four sliders, including a tiger prawn variety, crostini, bruschetta and other hand held food with distinctive flavours, all great accompaniments to Be At One’s cocktail range.

In the brand’s defence, its earliest units were small venues which would have struggled to accommodate food. The addition of a food offer at bigger sites with diluting the appeal of the drinks offer should keep Be At One’s ambitious expansion plans on track.
Food and drink working seamlessly together? Who’d have thought it? Me, that’s who.
On the menu this month: I’m a sucker for a sausage sandwich, but the authentic US hot dog is rapidly overtaking the humble banger bap in popularity. Taking a cue from specialist restaurant chains such as Giraffe, pub group Grand Union has come on board with its new ‘Dirty Dogs’ menu. Options include the Hell Dog with chorizo, jalapenos, melted cheese and fiery sauce, and the Dog’s Dinner, topped with bacon, cheese, barbecue sauce and accompanied by onion rings. It’ a far cry from the day’s when the extent of choice “onions with that?” 
This ‘Pub Food With Porter’ column appears in the November/December 2012 edition of Inapub

The illicit appeal of a mid-afternoon pint is still very strong - Fuller's Tenants Extra, November 2012

The illicit appeal of a mid-afternoon pint is still very strong for those of us who learnt our drinking habits in the days when the licensing laws appeared to have been calculated to require pubs to close at more or less the exact point you wanted another drink.  

Not, I hasten to add, that I have very many opportunities to while away the afternoon in the pub, but I still like to remind young upstarts that, like bank holidays and universal suffrage, all-day opening is a hard-won freedom that should never be taken for granted.      

At this point, I know there will be a few older hands cursing me, kicking the dog, and recalling the days when a licensee could get a few hours’ break from the daily grind by calling “time” and putting the bolts across the door. I don’t underestimate the long hours and hard work that running a successful 21st century pub involves.

It’s not simply more hours, but a more diverse offer as well. Increased competition as well as changes in consumer eating habits that mean we ‘graze’ more,  mean that pub food, in particular, has required a rethink.

From Sunday lunch to sharing platters, pubs need to cater for a wider range of expectations. During National Curry Week in October, I was lucky enough to spend an evening at Fuller’s pub The Red Lion, in Barnes, eating an authentic meal that would have put most ‘specialist’ Indian restaurants in the area to shame.

It’s not just food, of course. New figures from the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) show that pubs sell more coffee than the specialist coffee chains, with 3.6m cups sold each week.

Experts forecast that the need for a more diverse operation will continue. Analyst Horizons believes that the high fixed costs of running a food business means that outlets which effectively run several food formats from the same site are best placed to thrive. That may sound too complicated, but a stroll through the average town centre shows how many needs a pub can meet:

·         Breakfast café – hot drinks, toast and  bacon sandwiches or the full English if there’s enough demand, to eat in or take away 
·         Coffee shop – with a menu of specialist teas and coffees, along with a few packaged snacks such as muffins and flapjacks, pubs can keep the morning coffee and afternoon tea market happy.
·         Sandwich bar – a simple sandwich menu and some sandwich bags could boost lunchtime trade.
·         Family meals – a kids’ menu of burgers, fish and chicken will appeal to parents looking for a change from fast food.   
·         Sit-down restaurant – pub food remains the nation’s favourite style of dining for consumers eating out
·         Late night menu – if customers head for the kebab shop at closing time, a simple range of quick-to-cook hot snacks will keep them in the pub while they wait for a taxi.
Each pub has to make its own decisions based on staffing, facilities and local demand – but if you don’t try, how will you ever know what the potential for extra trade is? 
This column appears in the November 2012 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Lunch is, sadly, a habit I’ve fallen out of...

Lunch is, sadly, a habit I’ve fallen out of. There was a time, back in the days when I worked on much-missed trade paper The Publican, when lunch was more or less obligatory.

At the appointed hour, we’d head to Fuller’s temple of calm in Croydon, the Royal Standard, nestling in the shadow of the A232 flyover.  A sausage sandwich and a pint of Chiswick set me back less than a fiver, and was the perfect way to set up an afternoon’s work.

Alas, the old Publican team is now scattered to the winds, and the downside of working from a desk in the front room is that lunch tends to be less of a social occasion. I normally manage to compile a makeshift toastie from whatever’s in fridge, but with only the goldfish for conversation, debate about the burning issues of the day is somewhat lacking.
So my attention was caught by research from our old friends at analyst Horizons, forecasting that lunch is set to grow its share of overall foodservice sales. 

Among the insights, we learn
  • The lunch market is currently  worth £14.9bn
  • The lunch market  has risen by 3.3% on 2009 figures
  • The average British adult eats lunch out 1.4 times per week in 2012, a rise from once a week in 2011
  • Lunch through quick service and casual dining restaurants is doing well, meeting consumer needs for fast meals to eat-in or takeaway
Spurred on, I decided to pop out for a pub lunch. In my local – which sadly, isn’t a Fuller’s pub and  – the sausage sandwich comes with red onion chutney, something which  the Royal Standard’s otherwise impressive range of condiments never ran to, with the choice of chips or salad on the side.  Well, I was never going to have the salad, was I?

My lunch may have had more frills than the simple fare of old, but the price was also as eyewatering as the barman’s aftershave.  Could pubs learn something from other businesses which are successfully driving lunch trade? Just a few ideas:
  • Deli counters – let customers build their own sandwich from a choice of fillings
  • Takeaway – offer simple lunch deals ‘to go’
  • Loyalty cards – stamp the card and drive extra trade with offers such as a free after-work drink after five lunch visits
  • Meal deals – offer a pint, glass of wine or soft drink with a sandwich at a set price.
In a market where we’re all pressed for time and looking for value, a pub lunch shouldn’t feel like a luxury

This 'Kitchen Porter' column appears in the October 2012 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra.

There was a certain grim inevitability...

There was a certain grim inevitability to the news that Tesco is to launch a traffic light colour coding system to let its customers know how ‘healthy’ or otherwise the food it sells is.

Those lobbying to change the nation’s eating habits have been pushing hard at Britain’s supermarkets, as well as pub and restaurant operators, to make nutritional information available on ready meals and menus.  As the UK’s biggest retailer, Tesco was an important scalp for the campaign.

I have no problem with giving consumers information which they want, and in ensuing that we all understand what a balanced diet is.  However, I’m deeply wary of people who want to decide what’s good for me, and I suspect those lobbying to change the nation’s eating and drinking habits fall into that category.

A reminder of the practical challenge facing busy pub kitchens was bought home recently when I spent a very pleasant morning preparing food in the development kitchen at Wadworth’s Brewery in Devizes. Cooking with a group of seven others, we cheerfully greased baking trays liberally with butter, sliced chips into non-uniform sizes, and dipped fish into bowls of freshly made batter.

Even with many of the ingredients pre-weighed, it’s a safe bet that no two meals served up at lunch that day had the same nutritional value. Frankly, none of us cared too much as we tucked in and, and that, I suspect, is why the – mainly self-appointed – health lobbyists have a problem.  We all need to mix the healthy with the indulgent, but the eating out is definitely a time for the latter.

I won’t argue that the smoking ban wasn’t positive in public health terms, even if I’d like politicians to acknowledge that it had unintended consequences in terms of hastening the decline of many wet-led pubs. Pushing pubs down the route of menu labelling would mean, in practice, that operators would have to buy in pre-labelled dishes, and would mark the triumph of bought-in food over freshly-made.  Would that really be better for us?

Menuwatch:  The rise of the takeaway continues. Having pioneered the take-home carvery at its Toby and Crown brands last year, Mitchells & Butlers has introduced a takeaway menu at its Ember Inns pubs which includes burgers, fish & chips, sandwiches and even steak and ale pie. If you don’t eat it at the pub, is it still pub grub? I’m not so sure…
This 'Pub Food With Porter' column appears in the October 2012 issue of Inapub   

Friday, 7 September 2012

How long is a reasonable time to wait for a meal? Fuller's Tenants Extra September 2012

How long is a reasonable time to wait for a meal? I’ve got a pretty good idea of how long it takes to cook a medium steak or deep fry a battered fish fillet, but knowing that doesn’t tell you how far down the service list you are in a busy pub. In my experience, asking the question tends to instil a look of fear in waiting staff, and barely concealed contempt from the chef.

The waiter’s fear is usually generated by the fact that it requires asking for a commitment from the kitchen, something that could well result in the demonstration of an imaginative new application for a professional food blender. The chef’s gripe is that he is an artist, and no one kept popping their head round the door of the Sistine Chapel to ask Michelangelo how much longer it would be.

I had cause to think about the issue myself recently. Our party of six eating was served drinks, our orders taken, and then it all went quiet. It was a biggish pub, but I reckon it took the member of staff far more time to plot a course that kept her well away from our table than it would have done to wander past, smile and say “sorry, the kitchen’s a bit busy, can I get you any more drinks?”

Research by Market Force Europe, which mystery visits pubs and restaurants, shows that customers are twice as likely to recommend a venue because of the service than because of the food and drink.  When asked to rate what is most important in a restaurant:

·         35% of people said service, compared to just 18% citing price

·         45% said the biggest frustration was slow service

·         31% said ay that staff showing a lack of interest makes them feel dissatisfied with their experience
It took about 50 minutes for our six meals to arrive, during which time we were left entirely alone by the pub’s staff.  There was no problem with the food – in fact, it was excellent. However, the wait is the lasting memory everyone took away from the meal.   

The company was good, but the conversation would have been rendered even more sparkling by a second round of drinks or the chance to order our first bottle of wine before the meal arrived. Those are simply lost sales – which no pub can afford.
Communication, between the kitchen and front-of-house, and from front-of-house to customers, is at the heart of good customer service, and should be built into procedures. If the kitchen team  update waiting staff on service times as a matter of course,  this can be passed onto customers through regular checks.  How long is a reasonable time to wait for a meal?  You tell me. Please.

This 'Kitchen Porter' column appears in the September 2012 issue of fuller's Tenants Extra              

Authenticity isn’t necessarily my strong suit when it comes to selecting a night out overseas - Inapub, September 2012

Authenticity isn’t necessarily my strong suit when it comes to selecting a night out overseas - I’ve drunk Guinness in Irish bars in Barcelona, and eaten Tapas in Dublin. So it was perhaps inevitable that I found myself standing in the Union Jack British Pub in the French town of Le Mans not so long ago.

In my defence, I’d sought out a bar to watch Andy Murray play in the Wimbledon men’s final, but since the commentary was in suitably unimpressed French, I don’t think I experienced the same level of excitement as I might have at home.

The bar itself was authentically British enough, to the extent that none of the beer was served in the correct branded glass and all the tables wobbled. However, they let us down on one crucial aspect. When we tried to order food, the barman simply pointed to the bistro opposite.

Given that I’ve rarely been in a French bar that couldn’t rustle up a baguette and a bowl of frites, it was an affront to my sense of national pride that the Gallic stereotype of a British pub is a venue that doesn’t sell food.

Of course, I didn’t make a fuss. But if I had, I would have quoted the findings of the latest QuickBite survey from Horizons’ latest QuickBite survey, which found that British adults are going out a bit more often than they have done in the past two years, and that pub restaurants are the top choice, favoured  by 19 per cent of consumers.

Marston’s is among the operators showing faith in the format, having recently confirmed plans for 25 new-build pub restaurants in the current financial year.

However, pubs also have to fight hard for spend in the managed market, with the Quickbite figures showing average spend per head down from £15.80 in January to £13.28 in June. This is being driven both by lower menu costs as managed operators drop prices to drive bums on seats, as well as a tendency to cut back on the extras, such as ordering wine by the glass instead of the bottle.

There was an interesting epilogue to my French misadventure. When our party of 10 adjourned to the recommended bistro, they managed to get almost every order wrong.  It doesn’t get much more British than that.

On the menu this month: In the most interesting Anglo French collaboration since Concorde, Taylor Walker pubs have added a Croque Monsieur to their sandwich menu. Behind the French name, the ingredients for the classic toastie couldn’t be more British - Wiltshire ham, melted Welsh rarebit and mature cheddar. Vive le difference?
This 'Pub Food with Porter' column appeasr in the September 2012 issue of Inapub.

Friday, 17 August 2012

I had rather strange experience in the gents - Fuller's Tenants Extra, August 2012

I had rather strange experience in the gents’ of a central London pub recently. Before you turn the page in shock, I should stress that story this story is entirely suitable for a family audience. Anyway, I was fully focused on the task at hand, when a voice piped up from the stall next to me: “Are you Pieandapint on Twitter?”

Once I’d recovered my composure, I was able to confirm that I do, indeed, Tweet as @pieandapint. My new friend was a beer blogger who was at the pub to attend the same press event as me. In the circumstances, shaking hands didn’t seem appropriate, but having previously only ‘met’ online, at least we’d progressed to talking in the real world.

On the face of it, the social media boom isn’t entirely good news for pubs. Students who would once have put the world to rights over pints of cider in the pub now rant on Facebook instead. However, new research for the regular Deloitte Taste of the Nation survey shows just how important social media sites have become to the eating out market:
  • 37% of consumers use social media when deciding on where to eat and drink out;
  • 61% of 18-34 year olds consult social media on their ‘going out’ decisions;
  • 24% of consumers use social media to search for discount vouchers.
Clearly, independent pubs can’t compete with the managed players in terms of discount vouchers. Indeed, you may take the view that the kind of punter who downloads and prints a “two carvery meals for a fiver” voucher, and cites his legal right to a glass of tap water to accompany it, really isn’t the type of business that’s worth chasing.

On the other hand, I’ve come across a number of quality food pubs that have worked out how to use social media cannily. In this most typically British of summers, one licensee who has a great barbecue menu has been using Twitter to issue daily updates based on the weather forecast to let customers know if the al fresco menu will be on offer.

Another pub has been using Facebook to run a customer vote on the forthcoming weekend’s Sunday roast, taking the view that anyone who had voted for the beef then had a vested interest in turning up to sample it.

Try letting the online world know what your pie of the day or curry of the week is. You may be surprised at the trade it generates. And if you bump into me on Twitter – or in the gents – don’t forget to say hello.

This 'Kitchen Porter' column appears in the August issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra

Monday, 6 August 2012

Two pieces of research crossed my inbox - Inapub August 2012

Two pieces of research crossed my inbox within hours of each other recently. One was a medical study suggesting that a cup of coffee a day can help combat skin cancer. The other was a survey by Livebookings showing that most customers tip less than 10 per cent of the bill.

I should, of course be grateful enough to someone helping me combat cancer to slip them a decent tip. However, I’ve been reminded twice recently of the old industry cliché that “coffee is the final part of the meal, it’s what customers will go away remembering.” 

In a busy central London pub at lunchtime, we were served two cups of coffee which, while retaining just enough residual warmth to technically avoid being labelled ‘cold’, in no way justified their inclusion in the ‘hot drinks’ section of the menu.

When challenged, our server confirmed that we’d had the last two cups from a pot. She bought us replacements, but her mood suggested she thought we would swill down our cold coffee and clear off . 

A few days later, test-marketing venues for a family birthday meal, we had lunch in a Surrey village pub. Despite the promise of table service, each stage of the meal required a walk to the bar. When I ordered coffees, the barman told me they were very busy and coffee would be bought to our table as soon as possible. 

Ten minutes later, I wandered back and the barman pointed to a tray with two coffees sitting on the bar. Once I’d ferried them back to our table, we decided that they were – just – the right side of drinkable temperature-wise. Of course, our quality threshold may have been quite low by that stage. 

These pubs were run by Geronimo Inns and Mitchells & Butlers, both of whom make strong claims for their customer service. I know things don’t always go to plan but in neither instance, whatever the health benefits of the coffee, was I tempted to leave a tip.

On the Menu this month: My family enjoys a carvery, and whenever we visit I think I’m the only one who looks at the alternatives available. The summer menu at M&B’s Toby Carvery has a ‘fancy something different?’ section that features interesting sounding choices, including chicken tikka salad and wensleydale crusted hake fillet. Of course, I had the carvery. Doesn’t everyone?

This Pub Food with Porter column orginally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Inapub.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Just as there are fashions in food - Inapub July 2012

Just as there are fashions in food, there are fashions in food production. Back when Jamie Oliver kicked off his school food campaign, I discussed it with a food technologist working for a company specialising in ready meal production.

She recalled that when she had first qualified in the early 1980s, the process of mechanically recovering meat was seen as part of the solution to the world’s food shortage. Even the most skilled butcher leaves something in the carcase, ran the argument, so why not use machines to recover the valuable protein left behind and convert it into burgers, sausages and other meat products?

Move on a couple of decades, and such products were widely condemned as a nutritionally poor solution, despite the fact that they do their intended job very well by providing a cheap way to feed a family, often in shapes which can be conveniently pushed through a school fence.  

As I write this, protesters are threatening to dig up a field of wheat that has been genetically modified to deter aphids. Opponents of GM crops fear that the modifications will spread into the food chain with consequences no one can predict, while the scientists conducting the trial see huge potential for pest resistant crops to tackle hunger. Both sides believe passionately that their view is correct.

There is also news that farmer and food campaigner Jimmy Doherty is working with Tesco to promote rose veal, produced from the male calves of dairy cattle. Veal has long been a focus for animal welfare campaigners, but the home-produced product meets welfare standards. 

Currently, the dairy industry annually shoots an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 unwanted male cattle shortly after birth, simply because there is no market for the meat. At the same, steak from mature cattle is being priced off the menu in some pubs because of soaring beef costs. 

Ultimately, squaring the circle comes down to what customers are prepared to pay for. Personally, I don’t think I’d have a problem ordering a rose veal burger served in an aphid-resistant bun from a pub menu. The question is, will I be dining alone?    

As I think I’ve mentioned before, tomato is a long way from being my favourite flavour. So well done to the team at Yummy Pubs for recognising that a tomato sauce base is just one of many options for pizza. At their Kent pub, the Grove Ferry, Yummy has come up with a range of pizza sauces including caramelised onion, lemon & dill and green peppercorn. And yes, they even do takeaway.

This 'Pub Food with Porter' column originally appeared in Inapub, July 2012

I have been given a hard time by pub chefs twice in recent weeks - Inapub June 2012

Readers will be distraught to learn that I have been given a hard time by pub chefs twice in recent weeks. Not, I hasten to add because I have complained, made a nuisance of myself or attempted in any way to abuse the privileged position that having my face beaning out from the top of this page potentially gives me. I’m British, we don’t do that sort of thing.

My crime, in each case, was to order a steak. You might think that’s not an unreasonable course of action when faced with a pub menu, but apparently it’s the culinary equivalent of asking Michelangelo to slap a coat of eggshell white emulsion on the ceiling, or Beethoven to bang out a few tunes on the old joanna.

“A steak’s just a steak, it doesn’t tell you anything about how good our food is,” said the chef in one of the pubs in question – and you have to imagine it being said in a petulant midlands accent to get the full effect. 

Firstly, the idea that a couple of decades writing about the business of selling food in pubs has turned me into some sort of gourmet is frankly laughable. A pint of bitter and a pork pie is about the right level for my palate, so pub chefs who think I’m out to have my gastronomic horizons stretched are wide of the mark..

Secondly, I enjoy a decent steak and I see no reason to apologise for ordering one. Particularly when, as in the cases in question, I’m paying for my meal rather than, as does happen from time to time, taking advantage of the generosity of the pub’s owner.

Finally, I have, on occasion, been served some truly horrible and very badly cooked steaks. So any chef who feels that cooking one properly is somehow not a proper test of their culinary skills is talking though their toque. 

The experience highlights a problem that a number of pub operators have mentioned. “We have to rein the chefs in regularly,” was how one put it – a nice way of saying that that the kitchen team were continually trying to drizzle the gravy, carve the veg into fancy shapes, and call the steak pie a beef wellington.

This can be a double-edged sword. The licensee of a pub which has won a couple of food awards tells me that he regularly has to explain to customers who turn expecting Michelin starred cuisine because of the publicity, that what’s was actually on offer is pie and chips. In this summer of celebrating all things British, let’s never apologise for pub food.

We all know that we need to widen the range of fish we eat to conserved stocks of overfished species, so all credit to Chef & Brewer for its recent Flavour of Seafood promotion, which featured dishes such as Cornish Megrim and Seafood Linguine. Since you ask, I had the Sea Bream Risotto, and very good it was too.

This 'Pub Food with Porter' column originally appeared in Inapub, June 2012

I find myself at a slight disadvantage - Fullers Tenants Extra July 2012

I find myself at a slight disadvantage, thanks to the illustrious company I’m in this month. With Tenant’s Extra bookended by some of the nation’s sporting greats on the front and back covers, a glance at my picture will confirm that not only am I not worthy to tie their bootlaces, but also that bending over to do so would pose a grave risk to my spinal health.

Even so, I’ve been looking forward to this summer’s sporting bonanza just as much as the next armchair athlete. A pint in hand and football, cricket, and Olympic events ranging from taekwondo to Greco-Roman wrestling on the big screen – what more could you want? Well, a sandwich to accompany my beer doesn’t seem too much to ask. 

New research into the pub trade by investment bank Nomura shows that what they call ‘solus drinking’ and what the rest of us call ‘going for a beer’ is in decline. In other words, drink-only occasions are decreasing, while food-and-drink occasions, if not exactly booming, are at least stable.    

However, I watched one of England’s Euro 2012 group matches in a Surrey pub which was rammed to the gunnels with customers who were solus drinking like there was no tomorrow. The licensee was clearly caught out by demand, with the shortage of bar staff compounded by the need to deploy one of them on permanent glass collecting and washer-loading duties. 

So when one lucky punter made it to the front of the queue and enquired if there was any chance of a bowl of chips to go with his pint, the harassed licensee just pointed to a chap in a white shirt and fetching checked trousers shouting noisily at the screen. “We’re too busy to serve food during the match,” he said. “That’s my chef - my best-paid member of staff and the only one of us not working.”

High drinks sales during big sporting events are a Holy Grail for many pubs – but it needn’t be at the expense of food. There will be big national occasion during the London 2012 games as Team GB chases the medals, and many of us will gather in pubs to watch them. With a bit of forward planning, it should be possible to offer some simple pub grub as well as a well-kept pint. It would be a shame if all those chefs had nothing to do.
This 'Kitchen Porter' column originally appeared in Fullers Tenants Extra, July 2012

I’ve become something of a specialist: Fullers Tenants Extra June 2012

I’ve become something of a specialist in the pre-theatre dinner market over the past few months. Not, I hasten to add, because I’m an especially cultured individual, but more because, with a couple of our many offspring away at Uni, and the others of an age where they can safely be left for a few hours without succumbing to arson or cannibalism, Mrs P and I thought we should get out a bit more.

Many restaurants in the West End offer a theatre package, promising to get you fed, watered and back out onto the street in time for curtain-up at the theatre of your choice. Theatreland’s pubs, it has to be said, are a bit more hit and miss. 

Very few of them ask if you’re on a timetable, which you might think would be a basic question for West end pub when customers arrive to eat at around 6.30, an hour before the 7.30 start time of most venues in the area. If, as I always do, you say “we need to be about by 7.20 at the latest,” the response also varies. 

“Yes, no problem,” is fine, and so is “sorry, we’re very busy so it could be a problem” – either way, you know where you stand. Unfortunately, vague responses seem all too common. “We’ll do our best” or “hopefully” aren’t much help, because the only certainty is that the cast of the show won’t 10 minutes while you desperately wave at a busy waitress is a bid to pay for a half-eaten meal. 

It seems that pubs sometimes confuse casual dining with a casual attitude to customer service. For example, the Vegetarian Society recently published a survey that showed that while only 3 per cent of self-declared vegetarians eat fish, 85 per cent have been offered fish as a vegetarian choice when eating out.

No doubt the serving staff were trying to be helpful – but the best response to “what are the vegetarian choices?” is probably ‘do you eat seafood?” rather than “I can recommend the fish pie”. 

In the same way, a customer on a deadline needs certainty rather than an optimistic best guess, however well meant the intention. It doesn’t seem much to ask.

This 'Kitchen Porter' column first appeared in Fullers Tenants Extra, June 2012

As calls-to-action go - Inapub May 2012

As calls-to-action go, ‘Free Hog Roast’ has plenty to recommend it as a means of getting customers into a pub. It’s simple to understand, has a strong appeal, and, like cask beer or a properly-made Martini, represents something punters can’t duplicate easily at home.

The downside, as the more astute licensed trade professionals out there will have spotted almost immediately, is that putting on a hog roast is a relatively expensive proposition. Giving away slices of the end product is hardly the mark of a well-run, businesslike establishment.

So it was with some interest that I responded to an invitation from the Derby Arms, a well-located pub on the Downs outside Epsom, to partake of complimentary canapés, a wine tasting and – you guessed it – a hog roast. I should add that this wasn’t an industry junket, but an appeal to customers on the M&B pub’s database as a means of launching its summer menu.

Mrs P and myself were asked to put our names on a guest list, without which, we were warned sternly, there could be no possibility of admittance. As it turned out, when we rocked up at the door, we were handed a glass of fizz without even a rudimentary ID check.

I’m guessing that the unseasonably warm summer evening at the end of March caught the pub unawares, because the vast army that descended on Epsom Downs during the two hour window specified undoubtedly stretched them. Every plate of canapés that emerged from the kitchen was stripped clean in seconds, and it was a struggle to appreciate the subtle flavours of wines served in glasses that were still dishwasher-hot. 

The two young kitchen hands in charge of the hog roast deserve high praise for continuing to produce portions of pork long after the carcase appeared, to the casual observer, to have been reduced to mere bones and grease. All told, the atmosphere was cheerful and the staff helpful. I suspect the pub has generated considerable goodwill by coping admirably with a much higher-than forecast turnout.

With industry analyst Horizons recently warning that pubs need to compete head-to-head with high street restaurant chains, the need to have robust procedures for dealing with peaks in demand is becoming more important. Both M&B’s Sizzling Pub brand and Spirit Group’s Chef & Brewer picked up accolades at the recent Menu Innovation and Development Awards against strong restaurant competition – consumers want to eat at pubs, but they now expect the same service standards they get in restaurants.


When did pollen become a legitimate food for anything bigger than a bee? A recent gastropub menu I encountered offered several dishes served with fennel pollen crumb, and another featured pine pollen, advising diners that it’s a highly nutritious superfood. Which probably explains the buzz. Pass the anti-histamine.

This 'Pub Food With Porter' column originally appeared in Inapub, May 2012

Let’s start with the basics - Fuller's Tenants Extra May 2012

Let’s start with the basics. My brief, according to the last issue of Tenants Extra, is to tell you ‘what’s hot and what’s not’ in the pub food world. So we should define our terms. Sorting out the difference between a ‘restaurant’ and a ‘pub that serves good food’ used to be fairly straightforward. When I regularly shortlisted entries for the annual Pub Food Awards, my mantra was “pies and fries are fine, jus and drizzle crosses the line.” 

That meant that sometimes a very well-run business might end up in the reject pile because its menu or service style didn’t feel ‘pubby’ enough. It’s harsh, but when you’ve got to whittle 100 or more hopefuls down to a shortlist of four, you need to have a system. 

Many consumers decide where they want to eat out by the way they define the venue. People who would only book a ‘restaurant’ for a special occasion will happily meet friends and family at the ‘pub’ for Sunday lunch or a midweek meal.

You might argue that if a business calls itself a pub, that should be good enough, but the definition is often made by someone else. Industry analyst Horizons recently published research estimating that at least 5,000 UK pubs now generate 50 per cent or more of their turnover from food sales.

Horizons’ number crunchers have decided that any operation that hits this magic figure should be redefined as a restaurant. At least their dividing line is clear – sell one too many portions of sausage and mash and your days as a pub are over.

For others, the lines are more blurred. I know some people who define it by service style. For them, white cloths and table service means ‘restaurant’, bare tables and orders at the bar means ‘pub’. Others look at the menu to seek out the all-important pub food classics such as fish & chips, burgers and steaks.  

These days, I suspect it’s as much about the atmosphere and the warmth of the welcome as it is what’s on the menu. After years of pondering, I think I’ve come up with a definition that works. If you’re made to feel uncomfortable about not picking up a menu, it’s a restaurant. On the other hand, if you can order a pint of bitter and sit at a table to sup it without getting a funny look from the staff, you’re in a pub. I’m sticking with pubs. Cheers!

This 'Kitchen Porter' column orignally appeared in Fuller's Tenants Extra, May 2012

Regular readers will be delighted to learn - Inapub April 2012

Regular readers will be delighted to learn that I have faced minimal issues when it comes to eating and drinking out in pubs over the past month. OK, the card reader wasn’t working in one West End pub, requiring me to pay for a meal in cash, but that’s hardly a crisis.

Of course, the challenge the professional pub correspondent faces when everything goes well is that it doesn’t leave much to write about. Thankfully, I have a good experience to report. A friend, one of those people with an eye for bargain, persuaded a group of us to book an online voucher deal at the Cock Inn, at Headley in Surrey. Yes, the Cock inn – you can all snigger once. 

The offer was a three course meal for two for £22. I have to admit I was cynical. “It will be a very limited menu,” I told anyone who was prepared to listen, “and they’ll try and persuade us to buy all sorts of extras.”

In fact, while there were some dishes on the menu that had a price supplement, there was a wide choice of starters and main courses. Our party was made up of six couples, and despite the fact that the pub was very busy, with many people taking up the offer, the service was good, the staff friendly and all everyone’s food arrived at about the same time.

Even with drinks, the total bill represented excellent value. My back-of-the-beermat maths said the hit on margins was balanced by the careful choice of dishes and the high volume of trade, with every table in the pub occupied.

The need to come up with such compelling, value-for-money offers is highlighted by the 2012 consumer report from Which? This found that 38 per cent of people say they are socialising at home instead of going to the pub, while one in four said they have had to dip into their savings to buy food or other daily essentials.

These are stark figures, which explain why so many pub and restaurant operators are using vouchers and deals to drive trade. This remains a challenge, with many finding that fickle consumers disappear when a better deal comes along. However, the Cock Inn has come up with a well- planned, well-executed offer which clearly works for the pub.

One gripe, though - my home-made steak and ale pie was excellent, but served in a casserole dish with a pastry lid. All together now: “That’s not a pie, it’s stew with a crouton”.

Let’s talk burgers. Is it too much to ask pubs to explain exactly what they include inside the bun? Too many menus are disappointingly short on detail. Personally, I love a bit of freshly-chopped onion, but I’m less keen on a slice of floppy tomato. When eating out as a family, the potential for disappointment multiplies with the range of preferences.

 This 'Pub food with Porter' column originally appeared in Inapub, April 2012

Back in the deep, dark days of January - Inapub March 2012

In the deep, dark days of January, I tried to book a table for four on a Saturday night at a number of Surrey’s more food-focused pubs. Since we was almost a month past Christmas, and still a week until the first payday of 2102, I hadn’t anticipated it being too much of problem.

The first pub I tried said it was fully booked in theory, since they had a number of large parties booked, but added we were welcome to turn up and try our luck, since they “might be able to squeeze us in”. That didn’t really appeal as a plan, so I tried a second pub, which was honest enough to admit they were booked out. That was enough to convince me that the received wisdom, that January is a quiet time for the trade, doesn’t always hold true.

At the third pub I tried, a member of staff cheerfully took my booking, only for one of his colleagues to call me back 10 minutes later to say that the pub was closed on the night in question for a private function. The fourth took my booking, including a name and phone number, and all seemed well.

However, when we turned up and confidently announced ourselves, we were met by puzzled stares, full tables and staff who kept going back to look carefully at a diary that very clearly did not contain a record of our booking. 
All credit to the pub in question, the Blue Anchor at Tadworth, for finding us a table as well as for some excellent service - and a general reminder that booking systems need to be robust and reliable.

Predicting customer demand is always a challenge, and my experience suggests that more than a few pubs have been caught out by higher-than-expected levels of trade at the start of 2012. For many, a mix of frozen and fresh food is essential to offer the range of choice and speed of service that customers expect.

The quality of frozen dishes available to pubs has improved substantially over recent years, and the good news is that for the most part, customers seem more concerned about the quality of the food served than how it arrived at the kitchen door.

The British Frozen Food Federation served fresh and frozen versions of pub classics such as hunter’s chicken, mash and jacket potato, burgers and fish and chips to customers, with diners saying that there ‘was no obvious difference’ between the dishes. You can see a video of customer reactions online at

Menuwatch: The flavours of Moroccan spices are now almost a requirement for any pub wanting to show off its gastronomic credentials, turning up in everything from burgers and stews to salads and vegetarian dishes. Given that the cuisine comes from a culture when most people don’t drink alcohol, it’s amazing how well it all goes with a pint of IPA. Cheers.       

This 'Pub Food with Porter' column orginally appeared in Inapub, March 2012