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