The return to the pub is finally under way in all four regions of the UK, but how can operators adapt to continued restrictions and changed customer expectations? John Porter discovers the latest trends and products.
Nobody would suggest that measures imposed to tackle the pandemic over the past year have been anything other than an existential challenge for the great British pub. Industry analyst CGA estimates a net loss of around 2,000 pubs and bars since the initial lockdown. However, as the sector reopens, consumers may, at least, have been reminded, in the words of the song, "that you don't know what you've got ‘til it's gone".
Des O'Flanagan, co-founder of PubAid, the umbrella organisation for pub charity fundraising, agrees: "It's hard to find any upsides from the pandemic, but we did see pubs across the country forge closer links with their communities, whether they were ‘pivoting' to provide local residents with essentials, delivering hot meals to the elderly or vulnerable, or hosting online quizzes to keep people connected.
"Our annual pub awards, this year renamed as Charity Pub Heroes, received 115 entries from pubs who had helped their communities during lockdown, a 25% increase on our last competition in 2019."
The digital revolution
In England, having initially been allowed to trade from outdoor areas only, and now reopening inside with continued restrictions in place, some questioned whether pubs retain their essential appeal when the ‘drop-in' element is reduced.
Media reports of a beer shortage in the first two weeks of alfresco-only reopening seemed to provide the answer, although in reality it was a limited number of premium beer brands that saw demand outstrip supply, with CGA's analysis showing consumers treating themselves by trading up in their choice of drinks.
In terms of restoring the familiar ‘order at the bar and find a seat' pub model, Jane Jones, director of marketing at pub group Fuller's, believes that the response to Covid has accelerated the use of digital solutions such as order-and-pay and contactless payment. However in marketing terms, the company's focus in bringing customers back has been on the core pub offer.
Jones recalls that when pubs reopened in July 2020 after the initial lockdown, "everyone was focused on aspects like sanitising stations, so we focused on the experience that you can only get in a pub: a pint of really cold beer, dispensed though a cask or keg."
She adds: "Digital is in place to help, whether it's the ability to book your table online, that you're quickly and easily checked in and shown to your table, and can order and pay from your table. The aim is that you can get into the pub, be seated and order your first pint all within two or three minutes.
Food has initially proved more of a challenge than drink. The cool April weather was not exactly conducive to a leisurely meal, with many pubs seeing snow in the first few days of reopening. However, with so much investment in outdoor areas, there are high hopes that alfresco eating will come into its own, even when customers can choose to eat inside.
London landlord LabTech has signed up the Farrier, a new pub and restaurant at Camden Market, which includes an extensive outdoor area. Maggie Milosavljevic, LabTech's commercial director, says: "The outdoor element has always been a popular component, but for obvious reasons the availability of alfresco drinking and dining is no longer just a nice add-on."
Ollie Patterson, general manager and co-founder of the Farrier, says: "We've introduced Sunday sharing roasts, which can be ordered for the whole table, to create all the comfort and ambience of a home roast minus the hard graft, prep and dirty dishes, something we're all keen to escape following the last year."
Peter Innes, customer marketing manager with Brakes, says: "If operators invest in making their outdoor spaces more conducive to alfresco dining and less weather dependent by using pods, blankets, fires or heaters, consumers will be far more comfortable with eating outdoors.
"Making the core menu available to people who dine outside is the most obvious and, in theory, the easiest way for pub operators to tap into this demand, but it can put pressure on the kitchen. Having dishes that are easy to prepare and carry outside will ease this pressure."
Having dishes that are easy to prepare and carry outside will ease this pressure
In this spirit, breads and wraps specialist Mission Foods suggests street food-style dishes such as Cajun chicken quesadillas, pulled pork tacos or lamb kofta filled pittas, while Brioche Pasquier believes outdoor afternoon teas with mini sandwiches, scones and bite-sized pâtisserie could be popular.
Pub takeaway and delivery
Such dishes can also be easily adapted to takeaways, with CGA reporting that sales of deliveries and takeaways quadrupled during the year following the first lockdown. Many expect this flexibility in consumer expectations to continue.
Licensees Debbie and Tony Baisden took over the Rayleigh Arms in Terling, Essex, in July 2019, and since lockdown "our takeaway offer has basically kept us going," says Debbie. Alongside stone-baked pizzas from a wood-fired oven, the pub offers fish and chips and a burger menu, which includes piri-piri and veggie options.
There are also plans to introduce a deli bar serving filled bagels and toasted paninis, with a focus on local produce such as cheese. "There are a lot of cyclists that come through the village, and it gives them a reason to stop," she says.
Nigel Parkes, commercial operations director for Creative Foods, agrees that while pubs have understandably been cautious in menu planning, "the one significant change we've witnessed is around home delivery and take-away, where we've seen customers using our existing product lines in dishes that can easily be regenerated for delivery or takeaway."
Toph Ford, brand director at Restaurant Brands Collective, which develops delivery and dine-in food brands for hospitality operators, points out that "traditional pub menus are not perfect delivery menus", suggesting that pubs should look for "operationally quick and easy to prepare items, which will travel well and deliver a great customer experience."
Ford recommends cuisines with lots of flavour punch as best for takeaway food, including Indian, Mediterranean, Mexican and Americana-inspired dishes, including handheld dishes and bowl food, such as rice dishes and salads. Ford advises: "Make it really easy for people to choose their meals by packaging items together. Encourage them to spend more by having a range of easy-to-add-on extras too."
Scott Oakes, commercial manager for bakery brand St Pierre, says: "The rise of food and drink to go is perhaps no surprise considering the way in which many operators have been forced to pivot and develop a better takeaway service during Covid-19 restrictions."
Alongside handheld food such as burgers and hot dogs, which are "quick and easy to prepare, and easy to serve," products such St Pierre's On the Go range of individually wrapped bakery products including croissants, pain au chocolat and waffles "gives pubs the perfect opportunity to tap into this trend".
David Ashton, UK sales and marketing manager for Jersey Dairy, points out that "one of the most traditional and enjoyable types of takeaway is a simple ice-cream. Aiming at quality and adding bespoke touches in the form of original toppings can make this sort of offering stand out from the crowd. Try maple syrup and pecans, for example, or sliced fresh strawberries with a dark chocolate drizzle, or Manuka honey and toasted almonds."
Veggie pub options
Whether eaten in the pub, outside or ordered for delivery, demand for plant-based menu options is set to continue. Ben Davy, culinary development chef at Meatless Farm, says: "There is a huge variety of plant-based products available to foodservice now, meaning you do not have to reinvent your menu; you can create your usual dishes but just swap in plant-based alternatives.
You do not have to reinvent your menu; you can create your usual dishes but just swap in plant-based alternatives
"Our portfolio includes everything from plant-based burgers, vegan-friendly jumbo sausage rolls and ready-to-heat lasagne."
Claire Roper, head of marketing and innovation foodservice at Quorn Professional, says: "Customers are actively demanding that delicious meat-free dishes are added to menus. The dishes need to be exciting and full of flavour to capture imaginations. Lack of choice and innovative ideas frustrates consumers of plant-based foods when eating out of home."
Recognising that post-lockdown customers will be looking for an experience as well as food and drink, in November 2020 Players Social, a new kitchen bar in Spitalfields Market, London, installed four outdoor Grand Champion tables from Shufl UK, as well as three of its new Bank Shot rebound shuffleboards.
Ben Hodges, Players Social managing director, says: "We expanded our existing outdoor space by converting some of the unused market stalls into heated booths featuring the Bank Shot tables. It was really well received, but of course everything went on hold prior to Christmas. Now we can offer socially distanced, well-ventilated Covid-safe gaming again, undercover and protected from the elements."
As pubs reopen, KP Snacks advises operators to "revisit their snack range and consider where profit opportunities might lie," offering the following advice:
Credibility Stock a range of best-selling snacks and NPD to meet all your customer needs, from ‘hunger fill' to ‘treat' to ‘better for you'.
Availability Ensure your range is always available to purchase.
Visibility Give snacks high visibility – 37% of customers purchase snacks because they noticed them at the bar. With table service, compensate with snack menus.
Restaurant Brands Collectivewww.restaurantbrandscollective.com