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.