Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Customers, as we all know, can be a contrary bunch ... Fuller's Tenants Extra, September 2014.

Customers, as we all know, can be a contrary bunch. They’ll insist they want to enjoy food and drink in a traditional pub atmosphere, but then complain if they can’t book a table or if they feel disturbed by the chatter of customers enjoying a pint at the bar. They’ll say that they want to enjoy the classic pub dishes, and then moan that the menu doesn’t change often enough.

Menu innovation is always a challenge for pubs. Every dish is someone’s favourite, but there is a need to reflect evolving food trends and offer something different to those looking for a change.  Even the most popular pub meals can be refreshed occasionally. Suggestions for ringing the changes with the five most frequently featured dishes on pub menus – based on the data compiled by industry analyst Horizons - include: 
  • Burgers:  As well as the ever-popular beef and chicken burgers, vary the burger menu with regularly changing varieties such as pork & apple, lamb & mint or even a spicy Thai fishcake served in a burger bun. Offer different toppings and accompaniments with burgers such as local cheeses or home-made coleslaw:
  • Fish & Chips: We all need to vary the fish species we eat to boost sustainability. Speak to your fish supplier to find out which white fish are good value, and spotlight not just the variety, but where and how it’s caught, on the menu;
  • Steak: Using less familiar steak cuts can offer better value, such as the flat iron steak taken from the shoulder. A good catering butcher will be able to prepare such steaks to your specification and advise then best way to cook them. Offer variety with accompaniments, such as sweet potato fries as an alternative to chips; 
  • Sunday Roast: It’s hard to beat roast beef as a family Sunday favourite, but offering a regularly-changing choice, such as lamb, pork or gammon, will keep customers interested. For groups dining together, carving a roast chicken at the table adds a touch of theatre;
  • Sausage & Mash: Locally-made sausages, and speciality varieties such as chorizo or US-style hot dogs, can easily transform standard bangers and mash into a gourmet sausage menu.
Beyond the best-sellers, the latest Menurama survey of trends across pubs and restaurants from Horizons shows new influences appearing on menus. While the prospect of including flavours from Japan or the Middle East, both of which are seeing strong growth, may initially seem daunting, it needn’t be. A splash of wasabi or a sprinkle of tagine spice will liven up a burger, pie or stir fry and put a pub’s menu right on trend.

Hot dogs have seen the biggest increase in the number of menus they now feature on, with pork ribs coming in second.  Both reflect the growing popularity of US diner, barbecue and smokehouse-style dishes, and can be easily added to pub menus. Deli-style salads, coleslaws and speciality breads can also be used to add a Stateside touch. 

On the dessert side, salted caramel is one of the fastest growing flavours tracked by Menurama, having grown 12% in popularity year-on-year.

Finally, it’s not just the food itself that can be easily refreshed – look also at what you’re serving it on. Boards, planks, platters and buckets are all alternatives to the traditional china plate. Some street food vendors have even been noticed serving food on ‘trash can’ lids – but pubs may feel that as ideas go, that one’s a bit rubbish. 

This column originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Fuller’s Tenants Extra

Planning ahead is vital for any business ... Fuller's Tenants Extra August 2014

Planning ahead is vital for any business, but it can also leave licensees with something of a split personality. At this time of year, all the forward focus is on autumn and winter, with pubs urged to start planning hearty stews and pies for the menu, pre-order their winter warmer ales and, of course, start filling up the diary with those all-important Christmas bookings.

Front-of-house – otherwise known as the real world – it’s a very different story. If there’s any justice, the sun is shining, the street outside rings to the joyous cries of children enjoying the school summer holidays, and the bar is packed with pale customers wearing ill-chosen t-shirts and inappropriate shorts.

Having geared up for the summer campaign back in May, it’s no surprise if pubs’ seasonal  shine has faded a bit by the time August rolls around, but now is the peak time for summer sales.  Whether it’s tourists hoping to experience traditional pub culture, office staff hoping to get in a few long lunches while the sun shines, or regulars aiming to make the most of summer evenings and weekends while they still can, it’s worth brushing down the garden tables and servicing the ice machine to keep customers coming back.

There are, of course, never any guarantees with the British weather, but in food terms, there’s plenty you can do to keep the offer fresh for a final push on summer food sales through August and into September:
  • Lighten up – chips with everything is fine, but offer lighter alternatives to the spuds as menu choices. Steak with a salad or bangers with savoury rice instead of mash will appeal to customers looking for lighter summer dishes as well as adding a seasonal touch to the pub food classics;
  • Seaside specials - freshly caught grilled or pan fried fish is popular in summer, and best value varies according to what the fishing boats are landing. Build flexibility onto summer seafood menus with specials boards and catch-of-the-day dishes, and stay touch with suppliers on which species are on offer;
  • Focus on families – finding somewhere relaxed to eat with the kids is the holy grail for many parents at this time of year. Make sure children’s menus are available on tables alongside the main menu, and promote your family food offer prominently on banners and boards;
  • Chill out the wine list – ice cold whites and rosés are likely to be more popular than robust  reds during the summer;  reflect this on the wine list, and if you include drink recommendation alongside dishes on the menu, update these to factor in the warmer days;
  • Take it outside - if you’re lucky enough to have an outside area big enough to cook in, supplement the Sunday lunch session with a barbecue. Cooking steaks and burgers outside shouldn’t affect the main kitchen, and will appeal to families and groups who can’t face a full-on roast;  
  • Fruity finish – fresh fruit salads and fruit flavoured ice creams will have more appeal to some customers than pies and crumbles during the warm weather. Make sure the dessert menu reflects summer trends.           
This column originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Fuller’s Tenants Extra  

I recently sat in on a round table debate ... Fuller's Tenants Extra, July 2014

I recently sat in on a round table debate which saw a group of chefs discuss various aspects of kitchen practice.  Since I was present in order to take notes and turn the discussion into an engaging magazine article afterwards, I was required to keep quiet rather than chip in – something which, as my friends and colleagues will testify, doesn’t always come easily.

However, with those around the table representing pubs, hotels, fine dining, quick service restaurants and workplace catering, there was no shortage of robust view expressed. One interesting aspect was that, despite the different types of businesses they worked in, there were certain topics on which there was more or less total agreement.

One of these was the general unsatisfactory calibre of new entrants to the industry emerging from catering colleges up and down the country. Now, I always take this type of debate with a fairly large pinch of salt. There is no profession in the world where a group of old hands sitting round a table don’t insist that standards have fallen.

The quality of skills training in the catering industry has been a topic of controversy for decades. If colleges focus on the traditional craft of restaurant food preparation, they’re criticised for not recognising the reality of today’s market, but when they teach students how to programme a commercial microwave they’re accused of lowering standards.

One point that was well made in the debate though, was that was that the high cost of ingredients means that trainee chefs have rarely had enough opportunity to ‘practice’ the  art of turning a joint of meat or whole fish into plate-sized portions.

Understanding yield is at the heart of a profitable menu. Most suppliers will quote a price by weight, but If a chef doesn’t know how many portions he can expect to serve from a kilo of cod, or if the quoted weight of a leg of lamb includes the bone, he has very little chance of hitting his GP.

A whole beef striploin might seem better value than buying pre-portioned steaks, but trimming the fat and gristle could reduce the yield by 20% or more. There are some fish species where the fillets represent only around a quarter of the weight of the whole fish.

There is definitely room for closer working relationship between pubs and their food suppliers.  If kitchen skills, as well as preparation time, are in short supply, good communication can help bridge the gap:

  • Share your menu with key suppliers so they understand how the food is to be served;
  • Order cuts individually rather than by total weight –e.g. 20 x 8oz sirloin steaks’;
  • Give suppliers details of how produce is to be served, e.g. ‘potatoes for baking’ or ‘white fish fillets for deep frying’ so they have a clear idea what you need; 
  • Measure the additional cost of the supplier doing the preparation  against the reduced waste and time saved;  it may work out cheaper to buy fish ready-filleted or a joint with the bone removed;
  • Mistakes happen; check the weight and cut of deliveries against what was ordered, and advise suppliers of any discrepancy as soon as possible.
This column originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra

I noticed recently that politicians have started ... Fuller's Tenants Extra, June 2014

I noticed recently that politicians have started referring to the economic downturn of the past few years as ‘The Great Recession’, presumably because that makes it sound more like a natural phenomenon and less like something that we as voters might expect our elected representatives to do something about.

Regardless of what we call it, licensees need no reminding that low consumer confidence and cautious spending have been a feature of the eating out market for some time, and so will welcome any sign of improvement.

Industry analyst Horizons has recently launched Eating Out-Look, a new quarterly survey of consumers and foodservice professionals. The initial findings indicate that consumers are beginning to increase their spending on eating out, and interestingly, the operators surveyed say that fewer consumers are now cutting back on starters and desserts.

Marketing wisdom tells us that it’s far easier to persuade an existing customer to spend a little more that it is attract a completely new customer. As the economic recovery picks up, an extra course added to the front or back end of their meal makes a big difference to the bottom line.

One way to encourage that extra spend is to make sure that starters and desserts offer as much to interest customers as the mains, which is something pubs occasionally let themselves down on.  Let’s start with the starters. Staying with Horizons data, their regular Menurama survey of eating out menus shows that the most commonly seen pub starters in 2013 were:

1 Soup
2 Prawn cocktail
3 Chicken wings 
4 Nachos
5 Breaded mushrooms 

Some of these are no surprise. Home-made soup is a great way to reduce food waste by using surplus vegetables, meat trimmed from man course cuts and other leftovers. Prawn cocktail may be a pub grub cliché, but classic dishes are classic for a reason, and it remains a firm customer favourite.

Dishes such as chicken wings and breaded mushrooms are a pub’s ‘flexible friend’, working just as well as starters and they do in sharing platters, while the popularity of nachos reflects ‘grazing’ trends as well as the growth of Mexican food influences.

When it comes to ‘afters’, the most commonly listed desserts on pub menus are:

1 Ice cream/ sorbet                                       
2 Cheesecake
3 Chocolate brownie
4 Cheeseboard
5 Sticky toffee pudding

The popularity of ice cream, which can be served by itself or as an accompaniment to other desserts, is clear, while cheesecake, brownies and sticky toffee pudding all appeal to the indulgent nature of the pub food occasion.  The cheeseboard offers something to customers without a sweet tooth and is also a popular sharing or bar snack option.

To boost sales of starters and desserts, try these ideas:
  • Use menu descriptions that appeal to customer interest in food provenance, such as ‘soup made with seasonal British vegetables’, ‘apple crumble made with locally-grown fruit’ or ‘a selection of regional cheeses’;
  • Use specials boards to update customers and offer variety, such as soup of the day or ice cream flavour of the week; 
  • Highlight at least one healthier option on both starter and dessert menus, such as salads and fresh fruit;  
  • Incentivise your staff to ask customers if they’re having starters or desserts, with simple rewards such as a bottle of wine for the most sold over a  month;
  • Offer two- and three-course deals at a set price, especially at quiet times of the week
This column originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra 

If all goes to plan... Fuller's Tenants Extra, May 2014

If all goes to plan, the World Cup should see customers besieging the bar. With extended opening hours for all England games confirmed by the Home Office, and all fingers crossed that we progress past the group stages in Brazil, the tournament is shaping up to be a significant driver of wet trade this summer.

Food can present a more challenging issue for pubs during big sporting occasions. Alongside the logistical issue of deploying staff to serve food when the bar is busy, unless the business is lucky enough to have a completely separate restaurant area, the atmosphere during the biggest games is unlikely to be conducive to customers hoping to enjoy a quiet meal.

The tournament’s early and mid-evening kick-offs, at 5pm and 8pm or 9pm UK time, will also – pun intended - eat into the usual peak food serving periods for pubs which decide to show more than just the England games.

Football and food aren’t mutually exclusive, though.  Every pub which shows sport is familiar with the ‘two-pint punter’, a customer who has a beer during the first half, another during the second and then slips away. Persuading some of these seat-huggers to eat will help to make their visit to your pub during the World Cup far more profitable.

Ideas for driving food sales during the tournament include:

  • Make a virtue of a trimmed-back, simpler menu by promoting it as a ‘Football Feast’, Use posters and chalkboards in the run-up to the tournament to ensure customers know you’re serving food during the big matches;
  • Focus on easy-to-serve, hand-held food such as burgers, hot dogs, pizza slices, skewers and chips & dips;
  • Gear up for the busiest times by having food ready to serve in the 20 minutes before and after the game, and the half time period;
  • Create bespoke sharing platters using buffet foods to serve during   
  • Offer a patriotic English tapas menu during England’s games, with mix-and-match choices such as battered fish goujons, scotch eggs, individual pies, and regional specialities such as sausages and cheese;     
  • Theme your snack foods to the other big teams playing in the tournament, such as pizza for Italy, burgers for the USA and cheeseboard for France;
  • Host nation Brazil loves barbecues, so use outdoor areas to offer Brazilian-style skewered meats and fish served with spicy sauces; 
  • Offer a pre-match meal deal, such as two courses for a set price, to customers who book in advance.
There are also a couple of notes of caution to think about when planning your World Cup food offer:
  • Table service during games may seem like a good idea, with platters of food and pitchers of beer brought to customers at their seats.  However, think about how your pub will look during a busy game, with customers standing around tables and blocking the path through the pub. A platter-and-pitcher collection point at the bar for the duration of the busiest games may be a better option.
  • Reserved tables can be a source of annoyance to customers who make the effort to arrive early to get a good seat for the match, only to find empty tables they can’t sit at. If you’re taking pre-match bookings for meals, think about booking customers in at least 45 minutes before the match so they’re seated when the walk-ins arrive.

And one more thing: Come on England!
This column originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra           



There aren’t many places where people regard you with deep suspicion .... Fuller's Tenants Extra, March 2014

There aren’t many places where people regard you with deep suspicion when you offer them free food and drink, but in my experience industry shows are high on the list. Faced with a room full of suppliers keen to persuade them to stock their particular brand of pork scratching or herbal liqueur, most licensees are reluctant to accept anything handed to them for fear they’ve committed themselves to a contract.

So, when I recently found myself manning a beer and food matching stand at a series of pub roadshows, I had an uphill struggle to persuade some of the licensees walking purposefully past me and attempting to avoid eye contact that all I wanted them to down was sample some of my suggested pairings.

However, I’m pleased to say that once they gave it a go, almost all the several hundred licensees enjoyed the food matches I’d suggested for some very different beers. However, very few of them had tried food pairings in their own pub, whether with beer or wine, which suggests the trade is still missing an opportunity.

Customers eating out at the pub are after an experience more special than they could have at home. A few well-chosen matches from the beer range or wine list will make the meal more memorable – and if it’s done right, can be very profitable for the pub too. A couple trading up from their usual bottle of the house wine to three different wines-by-the-glass or a beer with each course will have spent more and still go home happy.

To get you started, here are some suggested matches for beers from Fuller’s range:                         

·         London Pride – the richness of the company’s flagship ale makes it an ideal accompaniment to roast meats, so serve with Sunday lunch.  

·         Chiswick Bitter – the refreshing tang of session bitter Chiswick goes perfectly with a cheeseboard or ploughman’s.

·         Bengal Lancer  - this traditional IPA is more than a match for the spiciness of a curry or Thai dish.

·         Organic Honey Dew – the zest and citrus notes of a chilled Honey Dew pairs it nicely with fish and chips, and you can also try adding a drop to the batter.

·         London Porter – this award winning traditional beer style goes beautifully with mussels and other seafood, and also works well as an ingredient in a steak pie.

·         Chimay Gold - the balance of sweet and bitter notes in this BelgianTrappist beer makes it an excellent dessert beer, complementing a rich sticky toffee pud or creamy cheesecake. 

·         Frontier Lager – the clean, refreshing flavour of this hand-crafted lager is a perfect balance with grilled meats, such as steaks, burgers and barbecues.

I’ve focused on beer, but there are also plenty of opportunities with wine to match the menu. The key, as ever, is to tell customers what you’re doing:
  • Print a suggested beer and wine match with every dish on the menu
  • Devote a staff training session to food and drink matching to give staff the confidence to make recommendations.
  • Hold a beer and food matching night with a three or more course menu matched to different brews.
  • Recommend different wines by the glass with each course at Sunday lunch for a fixed price.
  • Above all, make it fun. There are no right or wrong matches, just different opinions, Encourage the debate!

This column original appeared in the March 204 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra  

The view that our customer service style in this country could benefit ... Fuller's Tenants Extra, April 2014

The view that our customer service style in this country could benefit from the approach of US operators isn’t one that always convinces me. My usual response to the suggestion that I should “have a nice day” is to say “sorry, I’m afraid I’ve made other plans.”

While every pub has to decide its service style and focus staff training on delivering high standards, I like to think that good pub staff understand the essential difference between a pub and a restaurant.  That’s important because, in pricing terms, it seems the line is becoming more blurred.  The average price of a three course meal on a pub menu is now £18.67, compared to a £20.66 average in restaurants.

The figure comes from the latest Menurama survey, which looks at the prices being charged on menus across a range of sectors, from noodle bars to burger joints, as well as pubs. It reveals that while the average price of a main course in a pub has risen by a sharp 10.7% year-on-year, the average price for main course in a restaurant has fallen by 3%.

While pubs and restaurants are rapidly moving closer together in terms of price, the Menurama figures also show that pub food classics are growing in popularity in the wider eating out market:
  • Rib eye and sirloin steaks are featuring more frequently on menus
  • Traditional roasts - beef and chicken - are becoming more popular, showing how important the Sunday lunch session has become to many types of restaurant.
Which raises the perennial question, what is the difference between a pub and a restaurant? Regular readers, those who cut out my columns and lovingly paste them in a scrapbook, will point out that this is a question I’ve asked before, and as before, I’m not sure there’s a simple answer.

Being able to walk in of the street and order a meal without a reservation is a useful rule of thumb, although there are now trendy urban restaurants where queuing is part of the experience, just as there are pubs where you definitely need to book at  busy times.  

Fortunately, my tried and trusted view that you ought to be able to enjoy a pint in a ‘proper’ pub without being made to feel awkward or pointedly handed a menu still largely holds true.  It’s better to keep a few tables free of cutlery and improvise if things get busy, rather than lay all the tables and send the wrong message.      

Regular surveys show that pubs remain UK consumers’ favourite place to eat out. We may not be able to offer a clear definition, but we‘ll vote with our feet if we feel we’ve been misled.  On the other hand, offer us good pub food served by friendly, well-trained staff and we’ll definitely have a nice day. Just don’t feel you need to mention it.
This column originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra