Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The New Year should be a time of optimism and renewed hope...Fuller's Tenants Extra Dec 2013

The New Year should be a time of optimism and renewed hope. Unless, that is, you happen to run a pub, in which case the onset of January is often simply a pain in the backside. Typical New Year’s Resolutions, such as eating less, cutting back on alcohol, losing weight and spending more time in the gym, all tend to make customers think twice about popping to the pub.
Add to that the fact that January is the time when December’s festive spending comes home to roost in the form of bank statements and credit card bills, prompting people to think twice about going out,  and it’s not hard to understand why many publicans view the first month of the year as a write off.
So if you can’t beat them, join them. In menu terms, it’s not difficult to revamp your offer to boost its appeal to customers looking for healthier options. This could include:
  • Fish dishes: Many people see fish as a healthier alternative to meat, providing it isn’t dipped in batter and deep fried.  Talk to your supplier about availability of good value fish, and serve it grilled or oven baked with seasonal veg.
  • Potato alternatives:  Offer rice, pasta and salads to accompany main courses alongside potatoes to offer diet-conscious customers more choices.
  • Soup it up:  Freshly made soup is an appealing alternative to sandwiches. Featuring a home-made soup of the day during January varies the menu and is also a way to make the most of good value ingredients. 
  • Soft drinks: Promote juices and smoothies for customers on the wagon.
In your eagerness to appeal to those looking to vary their food and drink intake for health reasons, don’t forget there are also those staying away for financial motives. Ways to appeal to this group include:
  • Meal deals: Offer special deals such as two meals for a set price, or a free drink when two people dine.
  • January sales: Promote good value meals that can be made economically. Hearty dishes such as shepherd’s pie, curry and stews can be promoted as winter warmers and generate good margins.
  • Food festivals: Make a special feature in January of dishes that can be bought or made relatively cheaply, such as locally sourced sausages or home-made pies.
You have a captive audience right through December, so hand out vouchers and leaflets promoting January offers to every customer at Christmas meals and functions.

It’s also very important to remember that while the average New Year’s resolution will fail well before the end of January, a fresh new look for the menu, supported by interesting promotions, should last all year.  And at the very least, when your regulars drift back, make sure you’re there to welcome them a pint of Pride and a comforting plate of sausage and mash.
This 'Kitchen Porter' column appears in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Fuller's Tenant's Extra.

Monday, 18 November 2013

It has, I’m told, been an excellent year for sprouts...Fuller's Tenants Extra November 2013

It has, I’m told, been an excellent year for sprouts, and salmon is in very good supply. However, turkey is likely to be on the expensive side this year due to lower production in Europe and high demand from the Germans, who have got their Christmas orders in early, in the same endearing fashion that they adopt to get their beach towels onto the sun-loungers while everyone else is still thinking about breakfast.
For most pubs, I know, all this information is of little value so close to the festive season. Menus have been printed, prices fixed and the bookings diary filling up for months as customers try to make sure they don’t miss out on a venue for the office do or the darts team annual festive bash.

I was speaking to one pub recently where the licensee regularly takes a Christmas booking from the local branch of the WI in February. While he’s more than happy to book the ladies in, the inevitable next question, “can we see a menu please?” is slightly more of problem that far from the season to be jolly.

He normally resolves it by printing out a re-dated copy of the previous year’s menu. The majority opt for turkey with all the trimmings, and if the fish or vegetarian option changes slightly from year-to-year, who’s really going to remember in December what they ordered in February?

If nothing else, this demonstrates the challenges of trying to offer customers certainty in an uncertain world. Those booking for Christmas in September want to know what they’ll be eating and how much they’ll be paying when they sit down in December. Even if pubs can persuade suppliers to agree prices months in advance, things can change. Last year, some suppliers invoked the rarely-used ‘force majeure’ exceptional circumstances clause to raise the contracted price of potatoes after disastrous harvests.

Thankfully spuds, like sprouts, are in much stronger supply this year.  And however healthy the Christmas bookings are looking, there’s still time to boost the bottom line a bit more with some last minute festive food ideas:

  • Big up the buffet: For customers looking to book close to Christmas, offer a buffet option if you genuinely can’t fit any more in for sit down meals. Many buffet items can be prepared in advance and served ready plated, so needn’t take up valuable kitchen time;
  • Give yourself room to manoeuvre: Menu descriptions such as ‘served with seasonal vegetables’ give you some leeway if prices for some produce change;
  • Share and share alike:  Sharing plates and snacks appeal to customers who are meeting friends informally for a Christmas drink, and like buffets, can be assembled quickly and simply; 
  • New Year deals: Target local businesses such as shops that may be too busy for a staff party pre-Christmas with a deal on group bookings for January. This has the added advantage of bringing in business at a traditionally quiet time.

This 'Kitchen Porter' column appears in the November 2013 of  Fuller's Tenants Extra

What is it that visitors to Britain want to do most? Fuller's Tenants Extra October 2013

What is it that visitors to Britain want to do most? Tourists surveys show that, alongside visiting the Tower of London and seeing the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, very close  to the top of the list for many is visiting a ‘proper’ British pub and eating a traditional dish such as fish and chips or sausage and mash, ideally accompanied by a pint of bitter. 

Of course it’s not just tourists who love the pub. Surveys also show that the pub is the favourite place for Britons to eat out, from a sandwich to a family Sunday lunch. So why, when ‘pub grub’ is referred to in the media, is all too often qualified by a descriptor such as ‘ordinary’ or ‘run-of-the-mill’?  

As one of the perks of my job, I had the good fortune to mark the start of British Food Fortnight in September at a dinner overseen by Brian Turner. The great chef and champion of British produce had worked with EBLEX and BPEX, the trade bodies that promote British meat, to create a menu that spotlighted the very best of home-produced food.

I won’t bore you with the menu … oh, all right I will. Charcuterie from Monmouthshire, freshly grilled mackerel, roast English lamb and a blackberry Eton mess. The reason I mention it, though, is because between courses Mr Turner made a point that I thought was worth repeating.

British cuisine, especially when compared to French, used to be dismissed as bland and a bit ordinary. Brian’s view is that there’s now a recognition that both British produce and traditional British dishes are amongst the best in the world, and as we loosened our belts at the end of his meal, it was very hard to argue.

The overall rehabilitation of the reputation of British food has also helped pub food raise its game, although unfortunately the perception still lags behind the reality. However, there are some easy ways for pubs to put this right:
  • People love provenance: Use geographic descriptions on menus wherever you can – From Welsh lamb to Suffolk pork and Whitby scampi, you might be surprised how much of your menu already has provenance you can promote
  • Talk it up: Use terms such as ‘local’, ‘in season’, ‘fresh’, and ‘homemade’ wherever you can to highlight dishes on the menu
  • Celebrate it all: There’s a whole calendar’s worth of special events such as British Food Fortnight to spotlight your menu, or invent your own - it’s not just bangers and mash with a pint, it’s a Beer and Sausage Festival!
This Kitchen Porter column appear in the October 2013 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra

As a wiser man than me once pointed out...Fuller's Tenants Extra, September 2013

As a wiser man than me once pointed out, chickens originated in China, potatoes in South America and the Egyptians invented basket weaving – but it took British ingenuity to come up with chicken and chips in the basket.

Pub grub has always been very good at adapting to outside culinary influences. Early in my career as a trade journalist I spent an enjoyable and somewhat riotous evening in a pub in the North East where the star attraction at the food servery was home-made chicken curry and chips. It was my first encounter with this particular delicacy, and it remains one of the finest gastronomic experiences of my life.

So I was fairly relaxed at the ‘revelation’ by industry analyst Horizons that influences from American cuisine are the biggest growth area on UK casual dining menus. The evidence comes from Horizons’ quarterly Menurama survey, which looks at the menus of a wide rage of managed pubs and branded restaurants.

Some of these trends are largely cosmetic. Just as certain establishments like to refer to ‘fries’ rather than ‘chips’, and to ‘chargrill’ food rather than simply ‘grill’ it, so there’s now a tendency to list ‘slaw’ rather than ‘coleslaw’ and ‘mayo’ rather than ‘mayonnaise’ on menus.
In other instances, there’s evidence of operators looking for the next big thing in food. While the growth of the gourmet burger continues, with burgers the most frequently-listed main course on menus and having seen 13% growth over the past year, hot dogs seem set to follow the burger’s path from ‘cheap and cheerful’ to ‘gourmet treat’.

The hot dog is now a top 20 dish in British pub and restaurants, having nudged old favourite scampi and chips down the rankings. Gourmet hot dog styles that have appeared on the menus of various pub groups include a Chilli Dog served with beef chilli, jalapenos and mustard mayo, and a Mac n’ Cheese Hot Dog served with macaroni and cheddar cheese.

While I’m not suggesting that pubs should replace their classic British bangers and mash, there’s no harm in adapting to trends. There are occasions, especially trading periods when the bar is busy, when a hot dog is an easy food option, keeping customers happy and boosting sales. It can also be easily ‘Britified’ by serving speciality sausages from the local butcher.

There’s a strong affinity between US diners and UK pubs in menu terms, with both offering good value food, cooked to order. Other US menu classics which might help pub refresh their menu include:

  • Pulled pork: slow cooked pork, served shredded and a way to use cheaper cuts profitably. Pulled pork is ideal for sandwiches and barbecues;
  • Black & blue steak – steak cooked quickly to seal in the flavour, served charred on the outside and pink on the inside;
  • Cobb salad – salad with bacon, chicken and boiled eggs, a great alternative to a Caesar salad;
  • Gourmet fries – chips served with ‘extras’ such as chilli, cheese, gravy and macaroni cheese, relatively cheap to make and offering high margins.    
This 'Kitchen Porter' column appears in the September 2013 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

With the peak summer holiday season now firmly upon us...Fuller's Tenants Extra August 2013

With the peak summer holiday season now firmly upon us, many pubs will currently be seeing an upturn in family business. Like most parents, I’m always right behind any suggestion that pubs should do more to make themselves family-friendly, although I also recognise just how far the trade has come in a short time.

For several years, either side of the turn of the century, I regularly judged the Family Pub of the Year category in a national industry awards. There were so few pubs that genuinely had a credible family offer, that the same few businesses tended to get shortlisted year after year. After one seaside pub won three years running, we had to politely ask them to stop entering and give someone else a chance.

The market has moved on, partly because of changes to licensing laws which have made the regulations on allowing children into pubs clearer, but also because family trade is and important revenue stream for many businesses. From children’s birthday parties after school, to Sunday lunch attended by three or more generations, family occasions can make an important contribution to a pub’s food turnover.

So, I was interested to read a new survey by leisure industry researcher Canadean which suggested that pubs need to be offering good value to families this summer. The cost of extra treats, as well as food and drink when eating out, is a concern for parents, with 60% planning to look for special offers and discounts.

Where I do part company with the family pub evangelists is when they criticise typical children’s pub food. Sausages, fish fingers and, of course, chicken nuggets are all too often dismissed as the root of all that’s wrong with children’s menus. To which my response is that those making the criticisms either don’t have children or if they have, they’ve certainly never taken them out to eat.

Much as we’d all like our kids to eat a little more healthily, a family meal out isn’t the occasion to try and force them to consider the merits of chickpeas over chips. Equally, if the fish fingers and chicken nuggets are sourced with the same attention to quality as the rest of the menu, they’re fine as part of a balanced meal.

To keep families happy and well fed this summer, try the following ideas:
  •  Advertise value – promote fixed price kids’ meals via the internet and exterior boards and posters 
  • Let them chose – carvery and buffet menus allow children to pick the food they like without having to make a fuss
  •  Side orders – have a choice of sides dishes such as peas, carrot sticks and baked beans that kids can chose for them
  • Make a meal – for parties, allow groups of children to make their own pizzas or wraps with a choice of topping and fillings
  • Fruit fun - offer fresh fruit or fruit salad as a dessert option  
This Kitchen Porter column appears in the August 2013 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra

The customer is always right – unless, that is, the chef disagrees... Fuller's Tenants Extra July 2013

The customer is always right – unless, that is, the chef disagrees. I was reminded of this on a recent Saturday lunchtime visit to a smartish gastropub.

The menu went into detail about the quality and local provenance of the steaks on offer, which is obviously sound practice and helps customers appreciate the commitment that goes into serving good food.

However, the description then went a bit further. It advised customers, rather patronisingly in my view, that because of the quality of the beef “we recommend that steaks are ordered medium-rare, and certainly no more than medium.”

Since I’m the one paying for the steak, my instinct was to say that if I want it cremated before serving, that’s how I’ll have it, but since my family have threatened to disown me if I ever embarrass them again while eating out, I kept quiet. In fact, like most of us ‘medium’ is my default setting for ordering a steak anyway, so that’s how I asked for it.

Sadly, the steak that emerged from the kitchen a few minute later wasn’t even medium-rare. It was very rare, to the extent that just inserting a fork into the steak caused a trickle of blood to start running towards my triple-cooked chips.

I know there are ‘foodies’ who insist that the only way to eat a steak is to have it lightly seared on either side, and I’m not much of a squeamish eater, but I do like my steak to be cooked at least to the extent that it doesn’t require a bandage.  

While the matter was addressed, I was left with the definite impression that in the view of the kitchen, the problem lay in my inability to appreciate their culinary skills, rather than their unwillingness to prepare food the way the customer wants it.

It reminded me of an occasion some years ago when the Pub Food Awards were held at the Savoy, and I was negotiating the menu with the French head chef. We decided beef would be the main course, and I suggested it should be served medium. He asked me: “Is that British medium or French medium?”

My response was that since ‘French medium’ refers to an animal with a mild suntan running around the farmyard, we’d go with British. That’s how the meat was served on the night, and if the Savoy can manage it, so can a pub.

The latest research by CGA shows that consumers are generally going out less often, but when they do, they are more willing to ‘treat’ themselves.  A steak is usually the most  expensive item on the menu, and anyone ordering one will expect to have it ‘their’ way – and if they do, they’ll go away happy and will be back another time. 

This Kitchen Porter column appears in the July 2013 issue of Fuller's Tenant's Extra.

The problem with raising customer expectations is that they have a have an annoying habit of staying raised... Fuller's Tenant's Extra June 2013

The problem with raising customer expectations is that they have a have an annoying habit of staying raised. If you serve a well-kept and impeccably poured pint of Pride in a clean, branded glass on a quiet Tuesday lunchtime, the same quality will be expected on a busy Friday evening, even if customers are four deep at the bar and the staff are struggling to keep up.

The reality of this was bought home to me, ironically, on a quiet Tuesday lunchtime recently when I met up a couple of business contacts in West London.  Being from the barren and windswept north – well, Yorkshire – they indicated a greasy spoon café nearby and suggested we have a coffee there.
Nonsense, I said, indicating a Fuller’s pub nearby. We’d get a better cup of coffee and a more pleasant environment in the pub, I insisted. A jocular exchange followed about the amount of time I spend in pubs and the likely condition of my liver – which, just for the record, is in tip-top shape according to my recent medical.

So, I marched confidently up to the bar and ordered two cups of coffee and a tea. The barperson apologised profusely and said that while the tea was no problem, the pub’s coffee machine was broken and they were waiting for an engineer.

We made do with tea, but in the half hour or so I was in the pub, more than a dozen customers had to be disappointed when they ordered coffee. 
The experience echoed a recent meal at pub where we were eating as a party of four on a Saturday evening. Two first choices of main course and three desserts were unavailable. Someone better at maths than me can work that out in percentage terms, but it struck me as a poor hit rate.    

Now, I completely understand that things sometimes go wrong. Equipment breaks down, food orders fail to arrive, and higher-than-expected demand empties the larder (or…ahem… the freezer).  The issue is what you do about it. A recent survey by Accenture found that 85% of people who have switched to a new bank, hotel, phone company etc. after poor service would have stayed loyal if the business had acted to address the problem properly.
Shrugging your shoulders when things go wrong isn’t enough. If you’ve let a customer down, how about offering:

·         A complimentary dessert or liqueur at the end of a meal if first choice dishes aren’t available

·         A complimentary bottle of wine next time the party eats at the pub

·         Free admission to your next ‘event’, such as a pub quiz

·         Or even just a complimentary coffee next time they  pop in   
For a relatively minor cost, you’re making an investment in customer relations that will be paying you back for years to come.

This Kitchen Porter column appears in the June 2013 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra.

In most cases, once I’ve decided the broad thrust of the way my meal’s headed ... Fuller's Tenants Extra May 2013

In most cases, once I’ve decided the broad thrust of the way my meal’s headed, I’m happy to leave the detail to the chef. Having opted for, say, the pork belly or the sea bass, I’ll then let the man at the sharp end of the kitchen decide what trimmings, sauces and side dishes will best accompany it.

However, when it comes to burgers, as far as I’m concerned, the deal’s off. In part, that’s because I’ve been let down too many times by pub menus.  For some reason, chefs who describe in loving detail the various components of most dishes are often disappointingly vague about way they assemble a burger. Simply describing it as a ‘cheeseburger, served with salad’ doesn’t cut the mustard – or even the ketchup, relish or BBQ sauce.
Does it have a splurge of mayonnaise on the bottom half of the bun? If so, you can leave it off mine. Are the onions freshly sliced or caramelised? Fresh for me, please.  Lettuce and gherkin? Lovely. Watery slice of tomato? I’m not so keen. Mature cheddar or processed cheese slice?   Cheddar …well, you get the picture. 

We all have our own preferences when it comes to what makes the perfect burger, something the  growing number  of upmarket burger operators are taking making the most of. This summer sees the arrival in London of two US operators, Five Guys and Shake Shack, who join home-grown brands such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Haché and Byron in offering burgers tailor-made to customer’s preferences.
Five Guys offers no fewer than fifteen different options for vegetable and sauce accompaniments to its burgers, which are freshly cooked to order once customers have made their choice. President Obama, when he stopped off at a Five Guys in Washington, chose lettuce, tomato, jalapeno peppers, and mustard as his toppings.

With the barbecue season approaching, now’s the time for pubs to be thinking about revamping their burger menu. Just a few ideas to help boost sales:
·        Make it modular: Offer a range of toppings, sauces and accompaniments and let customers build their own

·        Fresh or frozen: If your burgers are home-made, shout about it, but according to the level of trade, a good quality frozen burger may be a better option

·        Add some choice: Offer chicken, lamb and a veggie burger as alternatives, all of which are available as bought-in options

·        Sliding sales: Sliders are versatile smaller burgers, which can be served as a bar snack, part of a sharing platter, or as a main course selection which gives customers a chance to try a wider range of flavours

·        Add a pint: Above all, remember that burger and beer is a match made in heaven. A burger meal deal including a pint of cask ale is something a burger bar can’t offer.
This Kitchen Porter column appears in the May 2013 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra.

The world has got smaller, they like to tell us....Fuller's Tenants Extra April 2013

The world has got smaller, they like to tell us. While that may not be a proposition that would stand up to rigourous testing with a tape measure, it’s undoubtedly true that the boom in global travel over the past few decades has broadened our horizons, in culinary terms as much as any other.

Britain, and London in particular, has long been a haven for world cuisine, fuelled in part by our long-standing habit of sailing off to foreign parts and planting flags on the beaches of places that took our fancy.  

Deen Mahomet, who hailed from Bihar in Northern India and served in the Bengal branch of the British East India Army as a surgeon, opened the Hindostanee Coffee House in Portman Square in 1809. This promised “the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England, served with choice wines.”

A century later in 1908, Chung Koon, formerly a ship's chef on the Red Funnel Line, opened Maxim's in Soho, the first mainstream Chinese restaurant in Britain.

Today, within two minutes walk of my front door in suburban South London, I can find both  Indian and Chinese food, as well as excellent Turkish kebabs and wonderful British fish and chips – although the chippy is owned by the same Cantonese family that run the Chinese takeaway.

Extend the radius to a five minute walk and you can add in Thai, Portugese, Italian in the form of pizza, and chicken fried in the unique styles of several different southern states of the USA.

The exact range of cuisines will vary depending on the location, but there will be few pubs whose customers don’t have an increasingly exotic range of choice from restaurants, takeaways and, increasingly, home delivery specialists. It pays to have an occasional stroll around the nearest town centre, or just make a scan of the local business directory to see what you menu is competing with.

This shouldn’t be seen as a threat, but an opportunity. It’s relatively simple to meet customers’ tastes for global cuisine alongside a more traditional pub grub offer. Here’s just a few ideas:

·         Curry night: Most branded pubs have a curry night toward the end of the week, Make yours a Monday or Tuesday and drive trade at a less busy time

·         Get saucy: There are some Indian and Oriental cooking sauces available through wholesalers and cash & carries. These can make menu staples like chicken and fish much more versatile without the need for specialist skills in the kitchen

·         Spice it up: Specialist spice mixes such as Moroccan or Chinese can simply add an exotic touch to dishes such as lamb and pork

·         Theme nights: Test the market for new menus by holding a theme night celebrating Italian, Chinese and other cuisines. Themed music and appropriately dressed staff all add to the occasion

Foodservice consultant Horizons has identified Japanese, Brazilian, Lebanese and Caribbean brands in its ‘ones to watch’ list of growing restaurants. It’s only going to get more global out there – are you ready to compete?
This Kitchen Porter column appears in the April 2013 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra . 

This is, you will be devastated /delighted (delete where applicable) to learn .. Inapub April 2013

This is, you will be devastated /delighted (delete where applicable) to learn, my final Pub Food with Porter column for Inapub. 

I’ll still be working on features for the magazine, but the powers-that-be have decided that you, the reader, would benefit from being exposed to the opinions of a more diverse range of industry voices, as well as appreciating insights from professionals working within the pub food sector.

The fact that said industry voices will knock out 400 semi-literate words for nothing is neither here nor there. All I’ll say is: “Deadlines, Matt. What does a chef know about bloody publishing schedules?”

Anyway, I’d like to leave you with a thought on generalists vs specialists. Evolution tells us that over time, generalists will win out. Pigeons, for example, thrive more or less everywhere, while penguins are never more than a warm snap away from extinction.

My old pal Jim Winship, director of trade body the Café Society, insisted recently that “the pub is seen as more traditional, which is less attractive to the young, while the café has changed completely,” and added “the café could be the saviour of the high street, making it a social hub rather than just a place to shop.”

I’m not sure that Jim is going in the same venues that I am, but high street pubs have reinvented themselves. Crucially, they are generalists of the nation’s town centres, doing as good a job as not only the coffee shop, but also the sandwich bar, pizzeria, curry house and chippie.

While the past few years have clearly seen pubs close and cafés open, figures from CGA and the ALMR show that the number of licenses in town centres is increasing, The talk is all of ‘different day parts’ and ‘chameleon concepts’, with the focus changing by the hour. Traditional boozers are few and far between, while bars with a diverse range of food and drink thrive. It’s the cafés that are the penguins of the high street, and they need to keep a close eye on the weather.    

I’d like to say how much I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to have a direct relationship with the Inapub community over the past 18 months, and as the tears flow/champagne corks pop (delete where applicable) above all I have to stress that this should not, under any circumstances, be construed as a reason to stop offering me free meals in pubs or sending me samples of stuff you’d like to see on pub menus.

Cheers. Next month… well, your guess is as good as mine.
This Pub Food With Porter column appears in the April 2013 issue of Inapub.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

We should probably admire the glass-half-full attitude ... Inapub March 2013

We should probably admire the glass-half-full attitude that that David Chubb of accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers brings to his role.

Chubb, a business recovery partner specialising in the hospitality and leisure sector, recently speculated that the fact that the insolvency rate in the pub sector is roughly level year-on-year, while the rate in other sectors is falling, “may suggest that the sector is stabilising and this is the normal rate of failure to be expected in a quarter”.

Leaving aside the fact that insolvency specialists calling themselves ‘business recovery partners’ is a little like Count Dracula calling himself a ‘blood donation adviser’, it requires a special kind of cock-eyed kind of optimism to take the view that that it’s fine for to pubs to expect a higher failure rates than any other business sector.

Thankfully, it’s also an attitude that’s starting to seem old fashioned. The days when pub companies built tenancy turnover failure rates of around a third into their recruitment estimates, if not quite gone completely, are fading. Admittedly, change isn’t happening without a certain amount of government arm-twisting, but alongside those structural reforms, pubs have been quietly reinventing their place in the market.

Douglas Jack, the widely-followed hospitality analyst with Numis Securities, recently categorised the current state-of-play as a “golden age” of innovation for the pub sector.  He told the Financial Times that pubs “have always been adaptable. They keep surviving and they reinvent themselves. They've moved to food and they are doing it better than restaurants and at better value for money.”
This view is supported by industry analyst Horizons, whose research shows that pubs now account for 20% of eating out occasion, and that pub operators have been steadily taking market share from the branded restaurant players, a trend forecast to continue during 2013.

I’m not, for a second, suggesting that running a pub is anything other than hard work, and I know some businesses fail despite the enthusiasm and dedication of their owners. But in a market where pub food is the first choice for many consumers when eating out, planning for higher levels of failure seems to be the wrong approach.  

On the menu this month:  On one of my regular jaunts into London’s glamorous West End, I was enjoying a pint and a spot of light jazz at the recently-refurbished Hippodrome on Leicester Square. One of the bar snacks caught my eye – for £2.50 patrons can enjoy salted pork crackling served with an apple sauce dip. Sorry, but that’s just pork scratchings with a posh name. Stop showing off.
This 'Pub Food with Porter' column appears in the March 2013 issue of Inapub 


What makes a great pub? Fuller's Tenants Extra, March 2013

What makes a great pub? These days, a warm welcome, a well-kept pint, good food and generally high service standards are more or less the price of entry – any pub not getting the basics right is unlikely to still be in business.

So what is that makes a business stand out?  The short answer is, of course, that it’s mainly down to personal taste, and one man’s Pub of Perfection is another’s Hostelry from Hell. All of which is fine, and what a dull old world it would be if we were all the same, as my cross-dressing Uncle Matt used to say as he donned his ginger wig.  
However, with everyone from trade magazines to tourist authorities queuing up to hand out awards to pubs, there also need to be criteria for picking one pub over another. I have to hold my hand up here, having been involved in judging, and even organising, my share of industry awards.

When shortlisting for the now-defunct Pub Food Awards, I always had a ‘restaurant’ pile. Any business which, based entirely on my own personal assessment of its entry form, had crossed the line from pub to restaurant, was consigned to this reject category. It was arbitrary and probably unfair, but when you’ve got to reduce several hundred entries to a shortlist of four you need a system.
I’ve been pondering the problem again recently while visiting the businesses shortlisted for Pub of the Year by the Croydon and Sutton branch of CAMRA. The guidelines, understandably, reflect the real ale lobbying group’s policies, so while there’s a focus on atmosphere and encouraging a wider use of pubs, there’s no mention anywhere of food – which is one of the best ways of drumming up a more varied customer base.

Fair enough, I’m just a foot solider in the CAMRA ranks and I’m more than happy to reach a view based on the criteria I’m given. However, as I sat in one of the shortlisted pubs carefully assessing my half of bitter, Mrs P looked up from her bowl of chips, glanced around at the well-used fixtures and fittings, and offered the view that the pub in question could do with a bit of a facelift. She went on to add that she wouldn’t be in any hurry to come back, because it didn’t feel ‘clean’.
The pub in question is highly acclaimed by beer aficionados and has, I have no doubt, impeccable hygiene standards. However, given that one of CAMRA’s criteria is that a pub should be ‘female friendly’, should I mark it down on the basis of Ms P’s observations?

Another good question, but one which professional discretion means that I can’t answer here, any more that I could possibly comment on the merits  of the two Fuller’s pubs on the Croydon and Sutton shortlist. Other than to say I’ve enjoyed a couple of excellent pints of Pride. Cheers.
This 'Kitchen Porter' column appears in the March 2013 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Along with a set of Beer Goggles and a fully working Beer Compass...Inapub February 2013

Along with a set of Beer Goggles and a fully working Beer Compass, no visit to the pub should be undertaken without a functional set of Beer Cutlery. While these may resemble your fingers, under the magic influence of a pint they become wondrous utensils which enable you to consume foodstuffs that you wouldn’t go near in the cold light of day.

Twiglets are high on my personal list. I can normally get by quite happily without troubling my insides with sharp, pointy breadsticks smeared with Marmite, but after a single sip of best bitter they become irresistible.

The Beer Cutlery equivalent of moving onto hard drugs is clearly the Kebab. It may take a few pints, but there comes a point when even the most fastidious gourmet realises that the only way to put a dent in their gnawing hunger is to ingest unidentified grilled meatoid cubes, garnished with limp salad and a chilli sauce with the half-life of strontium.

However, I’m pleased to let you know that I’ve discovered the pub food equivalent of the Holy Grail – a dish that tastes amazing when you’ve had a beer or two, and actually excites the taste buds even more when you’re stone cold sober.         

The gastronomic treat in question is the Cheese & Onion Toastie served at The Hope in Carshalton, which is the current CAMRA Greater London Pub of the Year and, for me, a bracing 15 minute stroll from home. A few days before Christmas, I tried one while marking the festive season with a couple of mates. The combination of expertly-toasted crusty bread, melted mature cheddar and lightly sautéed onions was sublime.

So sublime, in fact that I doubted myself, and crept back to the Hope in the sober dawn of 2013 to give the Toastie another go – and it was just as good accompanied by an orange juice. This is pub food as is should be, and all the better for being served in a ‘real’ pub.   

On the menu this month: As one of the unfortunate one-twelfth of the population with a birthday in January, a month when no one has any money and most people seem to be dieting, I’m used to low-key celebrations. Little gestures make all the difference, so amidst a flurry of emails from pubs and restaurants offering various birthday discounts, it was nice to get the offer of a free ice-cream sundae from M&B’s Toby Carvery. That’s makes a birthday feel a lot more special than a five quid off voucher..    

This 'Pub Food with Porter' column appears in the February 2013 issue of Inapub

When I feel the occasional need to offer a pub a spot of constructive criticism...Fuller's Tenants Extra February 2013

When I feel the occasional need to offer a pub a spot of constructive criticism or comment on a recent experience on these pages, I normally preface any remarks with “of course, this wasn’t a Fuller’s pub.” There’s no need to bite the hand that feeds you.

Sadly, in this case of my most recent experience, I can’t say that. One Saturday lunchtime in January, Mrs P and I were out and about on various errands and fancied a sandwich. We  popped into a Fuller’s tenancy, and having obtained a pint of Jack Frost and a glass of the house white, we sat down to look at the menu.

We read it carefully, turned it over, read it again, and finally held it up to the light, just to double check that we hadn’t missed anything. No sandwiches. Fair enough, we live in a democracy and there’s no legal obligation on any pub to serve sandwiches  - but it seemed a bit odd.

While we were rethinking our lunchtime strategy, I had a bit of a delve in the table-top leaflet dispenser. A second, smaller menu emerged, entitled ‘light bites and smaller portions’. This, I thought hopefully, might be just the sort of document to list sandwiches. This proved not to be the case.
However, by this stage I decided I’d got the hang of the pub’s approach to its food offer, and I investigated the dispenser further. A third leaflet emerged, and this time we’d hit the jackpot – the sandwich menu.

I was clearly not the only confused customer. While we were in the pub, a couple of families with fairly young children arrived. One of the mums went to the bar and began to place a complex order which involved a number of half-portions of dishes on the main menu. Halfway through the barman stopped her and explained that they could only offer smaller portions of certain dishes.

“Er…we have got a light bite menu…er.. somewhere” he said, shuffling various papers fruitlessly on the bar. Eventually, I handed the customer the copy from my table, and she headed back to for some difficult renegotiating with the children.

Now, I know that top menu design gurus will tell you that including too much information can be confusing. However, the pub in question offers around a dozen main courses and a few extras. It wouldn’t be a major challenge to include the entire food offer, incuding the sandwiches and light bites, on a single menu.

I’m not naming names, and as it happens, the sandwiches were freshly made and excellent quality. I had the sausage and onion, and Mrs P the cod goujons, since you ask. But, it’s worth bearing in mind that the British Sandwich Association estimates that the out-of-home sandwich market is worth about £6bn a year. If customers can even find your sandwich menu, how will you get your slice of the business?

  This 'Kitchen Porter' column appears in the February 2013 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra

Friday, 18 January 2013

I recently had the opportunity to drink a £200 bottle of red wine - Inapub, January 2013

I recently had the opportunity to drink a £200 bottle of red wine. Not all by myself, I hasten to add.  Even at around £20 an alcohol unit, that would undoubtedly contravene any number of government guidelines aimed at preventing my liver becoming a public nuisance and a burden on the taxpayer.

No, having been given the precious bottle in return for offering an acquaintance some advice on PR, I bought four decent steaks and gave it a go over dinner with some friends. How was it, you ask? Well, as it happens, it was floral and fruity, with notes of blackberry and liquorice. Was it worth 200 quid? I have no bloody idea.

My palate is calibrated around the £8 a bottle mark, on the basis that a six quid bottle ought to be OK and a tenner is pushing the boat out.  It would be stretching a point for me to claim that my £200 bottle of Chateau Whatever gave me 20 times the drinking pleasure of a £10 rioja.

I know that by the time you read this the festive season will be well and truly over, and any vague aroma of sprouts wafting around in the bar will be attributable to customers rather than the kitchen. However, as I write this Christmas is looming and in idle moments, I’ve been pricing up pub’s Christmas menus.

There’s quite a range of pricing available, ranging from Wetherspoon’s £8.75 turkey dinner – Christmas pud for afters is £2 extra - up to an independent pub in the area that’s taking  bookings for a four course Christmas Day lunch at £65 a head.   Clearly, there are obvious differences in the two offers, including the fact that customers expect to pay a premium to eat out on Christmas Day itself.

Fundamentally, though, what’s on offer in each case is a few slices of roast turkey accompanied by veg and sauces, just as every bottle of wine is fundamentally 75cl of fermented grape juice. The difference in the price that a customer is willing to pay mainly comes down to subjective judgements about value, quality and service.

In the cold reality of January, understanding what is that makes your offer stand out can be about much more than know what’s on the plate or in the glass.

On the menu this month: While I checked out Wetherspoon’s Christmas menu, what I actually had was a burger. The latest JDW menu goes a long way towards addressing my long standing gripe that many pub menus don’t tell you enough about what you’re getting. It’s a modular approach, with standard and gourmet options, sauces on the side and plenty of choice of toppings. Just the thing for fussy families. 
This 'Pub Food with Porter' column appears in the January 2013 issue of Inapub

Now, we all know that chefs occasionally need to employ a touch of artistic licence - Fuller's Tenants Extra January 2013

Now, we all know that chefs occasionally need to employ a touch of artistic licence. After all, ‘ground and spiced beef, lightly grilled and served with a rarebit topping on a freshly-baked ciabatta base” sounds a lot more interesting than a ‘cheeseburger’.
As we’re celebrating all things cheesy in this issue of Tenant’s Extra,  I thought it was worth sharing the explanation  given to me by a well-known chef as to why beer is a much better match with cheese than wine.

Apparently, it’s all to do with the fact that, on a molecular level, cheese and beer are very similar. Cheese is made from milk produced by cows, as well as other ruminants such as goats and sheep, which feed on grass. The primary ingredient of beer is wheat which is, basically, just domesticated grass - so the two complement each other perfectly
Now, I’ve no idea whether that’s true or not. We’d both had several beers at the time he explained it to me, but he definitely sounded convincing. It’s also hard to disagree that a nutty, mature cheddar or a creamy stilton, accompanied by a pint of best bitter, is one of life’s more uplifting experiences, and certainly beats a cube of cheese served up with a lukewarm chardonnay.

A few years ago, I also became involved in one of the great Cheese Mysteries of the Ages – the origin of the Ploughman’s Lunch. The BBC was looking into the origins of the staple of pub menus, and asked me to do some research.

Although there are some historical references, notably in Sir Walters Scott’s memoirs, and clearly   ploughmen have always eaten lunch, sadly there is no evidence of it having been a cheese-based dish prior to the 1960s. The Ploughman’s as we know it appears to have been invented as a marketing ploy by the amusingly-named British Cheese Board.

I’m delighted to report that the Cheese Board is still in business, and  its website at  has some excellent information on cheese and beer matching  for pubs looking to pep up their pairing skills beer. Beer writer Melissa Cole suggests a series of specific matches on the site, including Fuller’s Golden Pride with extra mature cheddar – “a classic pairing of two great British institutions”.

The Cheese Board site also features some general guidelines on pairing cheese and beer from beer sommelier Nigel Sadler:

  • Pair delicate beers with young, fresh cheeses
  • Pair malty beers with nutty, aged cheeses
  • Pair highly hopped, bitter beers with tart, sharp cheeses, especially Farmhouse cheddars
  • Pair strong, sweet beers with blue cheeses
  • Pair fruit/spiced beers with fruit cheeses.
And  to finish, my favourite cheesy song: I’m a sucker for a bit of operatic rock, so it has to be ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ by Meatloaf. Altogether now: “The sirens are screaming and the fires are howling way down in the valley tonight…” Sheer poetry 

This 'Kitchen Porter' column appears in the January 2013 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra