Building from the back propels Pod’s kitchen productivity forward

Pod, Leather Lane store, London

A fully-working kitchen packed with fast-moving foodies creating fresh salads and nutritious, hot breakfasts and lunches has always been at the heart of healthy grab-and-go chain Pod’s business model. But, as the company’s new food director tells FEJ, its equipment and processes are firmly in need of an upgrade to keep it ahead of the market curve. 

Sean Burlinson originally wanted to be a building surveyor, so it should perhaps come as no surprise that the challenge of creating kitchens with optimal flow and space is something he visibly relishes. And as the newly-appointed food director of healthy eating chain Pod, he is poised to get the chance to put a lot of his ideas into practice over the coming weeks and months.

Set up 10 years ago, when fresh, healthy food-to-go was hard to come by, the chain took its inspiration from the speedy ‘made-to-order’ delis of Manhattan to create a proposition that quickly became a favourite with nutrition-conscious customers. Some 22 stores, all in London, have followed in the decade since, but while its reputation remains as robust as ever, it’s not lost on the firm that a number of its key rivals, including Leon and EAT, have been opening new sites at a faster rate and expanding.

Finance director, Tim Bartram, was promoted to the hotseat last summer, shortly after ex-Nabisco and Pepsi man, John Postlethwaite, was hired as chairman. Together they have restructured the leadership team and set out a strategy to grow the business.

Burlinson, who previously worked in development chef roles for BaxterStorey, Harris + Hoole and Spirit Pub Company, has a central part to play in this plan. As the man responsible for selecting and specifying the kitchen equipment that Pod uses, he will ultimately determine what the future of the chain’s kitchens look and act like.

We have six induction hobs on the go at breakfast, and my thought process is that we will end up with three and have a more streamlined and efficient production operation”

FEJ catches up with him in the sanctuary of the chain’s Leather Lane branch, where he reveals his days are currently split between spending time in the development kitchen and visiting stores, and testing equipment at the demo kitchens of prospective suppliers.

Burlinson is only six weeks into the role but he has wasted no time in reviewing the nuts and bolts of the chain’s production methods. The first job, before anything else, was simply to understand the operational impact of the back-of-house area on its business, he says. “I have broken it down into three key categories: the process, the product and the service side of things,” he explains. “There will also be a fourth one, which is the innovation. But the innovation will come once we fix the process.”

Although Burlinson has barely had time to catch his breath, it’s apparent that the back-of-house process as it currently stands is too labour-intensive and the equipment Pod uses is no longer right for the way the business is now. “The big challenge is how we improve speed of service because ultimately we are about fast, healthy food,” he says.

“We are good at the healthy bit, but at times we struggle with the fast bit. So it is about going to suppliers and saying, ‘okay, we have got this problem, how do we solve it?’ It is about looking at everything; improving the process and improving the ingredients to make everything faster, which will then have a knock-on effect for service.”

Sean Burlinson, Pod

Sean Burlinson at the chain’s Leather Lane store in London.

Apart from its base sauces, which are all provided by a long-term supplier, everything else is mixed, packed, built and cooked onsite. As a result, each kitchen produces pretty much all the breakfasts, salads, baguettes and sandwiches, and co-ordinates their own delivery services. It can be a heavy workload and Burlinson is keen to ease the strain on kitchen staff.

“We are reviewing everything at the moment,” he says, “right the way from the equipment to the menu items. One of the big things that has come out of it for me so far is that we have nine different salad bases that the teams have to build from core products, but then you have three slaws where the difference between them is just one or two ingredients, but the ratios are all different. The first thing we have done is propose three brand new core bases, which through slight tweaks can become our main range currently. That alone will drive efficiency in our kitchens because it means you can prepare in bulk.”

Pod’s eggs, which are a massive breakfast seller, are made to order using plates and frying pans. Average turnaround time is only a couple of minutes, but the chain suspects that a simple change such as creating a base egg which can be topped, rather than mixing all the ingredients in one pan, would make life considerably easier while maintaining the quality that customers expect. “We have six induction hobs on the go at breakfast, and my thought process is that we will end up with three and have a more streamlined and efficient production operation,” says Burlinson.

Efficiency, uniformity and ease of production are all themes that Burlinson continues to come back to. His days at Spirit, where he served as a menu development chef for brands such as Flaming Grill, taught him that if you get the equipment innovation part right, and simplify the processes, you ultimately end up with a happier kitchen team and a more consistent product.

I want to be able to stand there, turn and have everything to hand. If I take more than three or four steps, my kitchen is badly designed”

And he has no qualms about putting the onus on suppliers to come up with the answers. “Part of my role is supplier relationships and understanding who we can go to in order to solve problems. We shouldn’t have to have our teams in the back of the kitchen solving these problems for themselves. We need to solve it for them.”

Pod has traditionally sourced a lot of equipment through Nisbets, says Burlinson, and while he acknowledges the Bristol firm offers a “great portfolio of products”, he is keen to widen his potential supply base. His knowledge of brands and products from previous roles is solid and in his first month in the post he reached out to suppliers such as Electrolux, Hatco and Jestic, who have not let him down in the past.

When it comes to new equipment solutions, Burlinson’s priorities are clear: “We have got to find a more efficient way of re-gening our food, a more efficient way of holding our food and then an efficient way of serving our food. Ultimately, that could be one piece of kit — and I am hoping that’s what someone such as Hatco or Winston (Jestic) brings to the party — as long as we can do all of those processes in a more efficient way than we do currently.”

Like other operators in the grab-and-go market, the cross-over between breakfast and lunch can prove a real pinch-point for the business. If things go the way that Burlinson thinks they might, Pod could eliminate the use of induction hobs at lunchtime altogether (a typical store will currently use 12 hobs now) and build the operation around some form of regen cupboard or oven, bain maries and rice cookers. “What we want to avoid doing is adding complication. The challenge is to make it simpler and drive consistency without changing the quality or expectation of the output.”

Pod shelf Leather Lane

Pod is reviewing its equipment inventory to improve speed of production.

Pod is aiming to have a proposed new kitchen design ready by the end of June and, if it works successfully on a live site, it will decide whether to implement it as part of a refurbishment programme or, if the impact is so pronounced, roll it out across the estate regardless.

“Again, it is going to be about putting a business case together and making sure that it has a positive impact on labour and quality,” Burlinson concludes. “Everything we do has to make our customers happy and come back — the whole ethos of Pod is delivering good, healthy food that you want to eat every day.”

Kitchen talk: Get the flow right

According to Pod’s food director, Sean Burlinson, there is only one thing more important to the smooth running of a kitchen than the catering equipment that populates it, and that’s the flow.

“All of the kitchens I’ve worked in, the first thing I have looked at is the flow of people. It might come from my building surveying mindset, but I want to be able to stand there, turn and have everything to hand. If I take more than three or four steps, my kitchen is badly designed. Those are principles that I have got to apply to the Pod offer and that’s a really interesting challenge for me. It is all about making the engine work. The kitchen can look as great as you want, but if the engine on it is rubbish, it isn’t going to work.”

Pod’s 22 kitchens can vary in size from 30 to 100 square metres, so in some cases the footprint can be incredibly tight, especially when the servery is included within those dimensions as well. “The challenge is that the big sites don’t come up that often and they are very competitive when they do,” says Burlinson. “That is why we are looking at a ‘small, medium, and large’ kitchen scenario. We need to establish what a small kitchen looks like and how many products we could get into it based on our future plans.”

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