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