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.