For a long time pubs weren’t expected to offer more than scampi fries and burgers, but the gastropub boom has brought in world flavours, plant-based dishes and more adventurous diners. John Porter reports
On the stats alone, the pub’s position as the nation’s favourite place to eat out seems secure. Mintel research shows that 71% of all consumers who dine out do so in a pub, while a consumer survey for the Meerkat Meals dining out promotion puts the pub as the top choice when deciding where to eat.
Even so, as with all eating out sectors, there’s no room for complacency as changing demographics and squeezed consumer budgets shift the ground. The growth in demand for meat-free options, expectations that healthier menu choices will be available, and consumers in cautious spending mode are all factors prompting both pub operators and food suppliers to re-evaluate their approach.
David King, marketing manager for Bidfood, believes that, “consumers are now looking for better quality food, even in the most standard of venues. We’ve seen this premiumisation trend emerge since the boom in gastropubs, which has caused a shift in people’s expectations. Customers now expect a lot more than they did five years ago.”
Nina Walker, catering development executive at Admiral Taverns, agrees that the pub food market is now “incredibly competitive”. She says: “Consumers are eating out less often, but will spend more as the experience becomes a special occasion, which highlights the importance of delivering on expectations.”
As a first step, Adrian Greaves, foodservice director at Young’s Foodservice, urges pub chefs “to bring classic dishes up to date if they want to drive sales and stand out from the crowd.” Citing the ever-popular burger, he says: “They are simple to produce yet incredibly versatile. They can be easily adapted to suit a range of dietary requirements and lifestyles as well as meeting current trends.”
He suggests alternatives, such as Young’s batter-coated, crispy fish fillet burger, served “with lettuce, onion slices and fresh jalapeños, or mix things up and add a quick kimchi slaw and lashings of sticky chilli sauce for a Korean-inspired twist.”
Small is beautiful
Trends towards all-day eating are having an impact on the way food is presented, says Duncan McKay, executive head chef at Scottish pub operator Buzzworks Holdings. “Although the appetite for traditional pub grub – such as burgers, premium bangers and mash or fish and chips – remains, people enjoy a sharing style of dining in a pub setting.
“We offer several smaller plate options for £5 each, which have proven popular among groups. By offering a variety of small plates and sharing items we’ve managed to lower the entry level cost for diners – but by encouraging groups to try several small plates together, we’ve maintained spend per head.”
Deborah Alexander, head of out of home for Macphie, points out that “sharing platters use basic sides or standard mains, flavoured with on-trend world flavours. This turns a fairly bland dish into an attractive, premiumised platter. It’s a very cost-effective way to offer new menu items.”
Fabien Levet, commercial manager at frozen pastry specialist Pidy UK, advises: “With all-day dining, it’s worth considering a range of small plates, particularly as they are a fantastic option for those looking for a lighter bite, while equally providing a main meal when served together tapas style. Customers enjoy variety and the opportunity to try different dishes, which is why small plates have great appeal.”
The sharing concept also works well when it comes to encouraging customers to consider desserts, an important way to boost overall spend per head. Chocolate specialist Callebaut offers ideas such as white chocolate and mango tartlets, as well as a loaded doughnut sharing platter designed for groups to order together.
Anna Sentance, gourmet marketing manager at Callebaut UK and Ireland, advises: “To increase incremental sales, offer mini desserts that can be enjoyed with a hot beverage, to tempt diners who do not want an entire dessert. With groups of friends and families often dining together, an array of sharing desserts on the menu taps into the growing trend of group dining experiences.”
Fries with that?
Chips are another pub menu staple being reinvented. Nic Townsend, trade marketer with Farm Frites UK and Ireland, says: “We’ve seen menus hugely influenced by the street food revolution, and one of the most popular dishes pub operators can easily create is loaded fries.” This approach can be scaled from a snack or light bite right through to a main meal.
Chris Clawson, F&B manager with London operator PubLove, ran a trial at two sites in the capital with Lamb Weston’s Sweet ‘n Savour Crispy Fries and Sweet Potato CrissCuts. The pubs used PoS to offer customers an upgrade to these products on their burger meals for £1. Clawson says: “We only ran the trial at a limited number of sites, but you could see that across the financial year that would really add up.”
The pub sandwich can also benefit from a revamp, believes Jenny Jeppsson, concept manager at Swedish baker Polarbröd. “Swedish flatbreads and thinbreads can be filled and rolled, topped and grilled, placed together with filling in the middle, or used as open sandwiches. They are incredibly versatile as far as fillings are concerned and can be served hot or cold.”
Wider consumer concerns over food now also have to be a factor in menu planning. Alice Bowyer, executive chef with West Country and Channel Islands pub operator Liberation Group, has been working with specialist fish and seafood supplier Direct Seafoods to improve the sustainability of dishes served across the group’s pubs. This has included replacing salmon with farmed trout and serving calamari made with cuttlefish.
“Cuttlefish is a fantastic fresh fish that we now use as an alternative to squid,” says Bowyer. “We have a very popular calamari dish on most of our menus, and that’s gone down really well when we’ve made it with cuttlefish.”
Steve Lyons, sales director at Thomas Ridley Foodservice, says: “Clean eating is making an impact on menu choice, with customers looking for dishes with recognisable and minimal ingredients. Operators should talk up the vegetables used in a dish, highlight that meals are ‘all natural’, and if you’re including something like a fermented slaw, describe its health benefits.”
The growth of plant-based
A recent consumer survey by Meatless Farm Co, which produces meat-free mince and burgers, found that just 15% of consumers believe pubs offer the best plant-based menu options, well behind restaurants at 50%. Founder Morten Toft says: “Pubs that lead the way and build their reputations as having great plant-based options will be able to drive covers on evenings that can traditionally be quiet. The vegetarian and meat-reducing community is very active in seeking out good places to eat.”
Nigel Parkes, marketing director of Creative Foods Europe, says: “Health is a big driver and goes hand-in-hand with the trend for vegan. Customisation is a big favourite because it allows consumers to build their own dishes from a range of core ingredients and gives them a wealth of choice. It’s great for the pub operator because they can rationalise meal components without negatively affecting consumer choice. Customisation makes the meal more interactive, fun and personal for consumers, as well as enabling them to try different flavours.”
Gordon Lauder, managing director of frozen food distributor Central Foods, says: “This demand for meat-free options has led to the creation of some great vegan alternatives for a number of pub grub favourites.” The company’s KaterVeg range includes meat-free, chicken-style pieces made from wheat and soya protein. “Food producers have developed some incredibly tasty vegan and vegetarian products – some to serve as an entire meal and others as key ingredients to be used in dishes,” he adds.
Nina Walker at Admiral Taverns sums up: “Pubs should remain competitive by changing the menu regularly to give the customer more variety. This could be through themed specials nights or weekly rotating offers, but ultimately, the focus must be on delivering good-quality, freshly prepared dishes.”
Aviko offers British-grown potato skins, which can be paired with a variety of plant-based ingredients to help pubs satisfy the demand for meat-free options. The skins can be fried or oven-cooked and stay crisp even when loaded. Aviko has created recipe ideas for toppings at www.aviko.co.uk.
McCain has responded to operator interest in menu upgrade options with the launch of Menu Signatures Crispers, a ridged edge, skin-on chip, and Sweet Potato Rustics, which satisfy the trend for ‘healthy indulgence’.
Mars Foodservice has recently added katsu curry to its Uncle Ben’s ready-to-use foodservice sauce range. Made with carrots, red peppers, coconut and aromatic spices, the sauce allows pub operators to tap into the Japanese food trend for panko-fried chicken on a bed of rice.
Brioche Pasquier’s Macarons Notes Fruitées range comes in pineapple, mango, mandarin, green apple, blackcurrant and strawberry flavours. The macarons are supplied frozen in boxes of 36, and can be served as part of an afternoon tea, as a mini dessert or offered with an after-dinner coffee.
Brioche Pasquier www.briochepasquier.co.uk/foodservice
Callebaut UK and Ireland www.callebaut.com/en-GB
Central Foods www.centralfoods.co.uk
Creative Foods Europe www.creativefoodseurope.eu
Direct Seafoods www.directseafoods.co.uk
Farm Frites UK and Ireland www.farmfrites.com
Lamb Weston www.lambweston.eu/uk
Mars Foodservice www.aimiafoods.com
Meatless Farm Co www.meatlessfarm.com
Pidy UK www.pidy.co.uk
Polarbröd www.centralfoods.co.uk/Brands/ Polarbrod.aspx
Thomas Ridley Foodservice www.thomasridley.co.uk
Young’s Foodservice www.youngsfoodservice.co.uk