Fuller’s focuses on kitchen innovation to drive food sales

Fuller's Ambach suite

Fuller, Smith & Turner, the London brewer boasting a strong and growing estate in the south, particularly within the M25, is putting its money where its mouth is to create kitchens worthy of delivering the fresh food offer it is winning acclaim for. FEJ finds out from the man in charge of its kitchens why the time has come to take a long-term view on equipment specification.

Paul Dickinson has been with Fuller’s for four years and in that time there is one set of statistics that epitomises the pub group’s evolving attitude towards kitchen investment than any other: it used to spend an average of £40,000 on a kitchen design; nowadays that figure is closer to the £200,000 mark. A typical investment is about £120,000 — and that’s just kit for the kitchen rather than bricks and mortar or flooring.

This ringing endorsement of the way in which the kitchen operation has become central to the family-owned, London-listed brewer’s business isn’t an overnight fad, however. It has been a gradual process of development, led by Dickinson in his role as head of food for Fuller’s managed inns business, that has involved demonstrating and proving how modifications to the kitchen can enhance the offering.

“We are a brewery and food is all new, so when you sit in an investment meeting and show the chairman or the managing director a new kitchen and say “I need £150,000” they’ll ask how that’s so. Now they have seen what you get for that, they buy into it and they believe in it. It really encapsulates the whole approach of Fuller’s towards innovation: once they have seen something and understand how the operation works, it becomes easy to invest, and that has been key.”

Before delving into the finer details, it is necessary to briefly take a step back. Dickinson arrived at Fuller’s from Restaurant Associates, where as executive chef he gained valuable experience in the fine dining and high-end corporate dining markets. While it might sound a million miles away from the pubco arena, he has carried with him the ethos that if you aspire to deliver the best product you possibly can, you need the right equipment and operational set-up to make it happen.

Dickinson and his colleagues — the food team consists of 12 members, including nine executive chefs — have worked incredibly hard to not only reinforce the ‘fresh food’ philosophy that Fuller’s has always held dear, but take it to a whole new level. His view is that delicious fresh food can be produced at a reasonable price but if you really want consistency from what you are producing then the quality of the equipment is paramount. This point makes even more sense when you consider that each property in Fuller’s managed pub portfolio operates its own menu. “I look after 182 pubs and there are 182 menus — it is not standardised, far from it,” says Dickinson.

There is no better illustration of Fuller’s aspirations to use the best available technology on the market than the selection of cooking suites from Ambach for the last few major refurbishments it has completed. The Ali Group-owned brand is more likely to be seen in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant or five-star hotel such is its reputation, but the fact it can support the culinary needs of a pub chain says as much about the flexibility of its offering as it does Fuller’s desire to invest in the best equipment.

Having had exposure to Ambach suites in previous roles, Dickinson already had a solid understanding of what the company’s cooking ranges could bring to the table. “They are durable, good to clean down and the maintenance of them is very simple in the sense that you don’t have to plug something into a computer to work out a diagnosis. The most important thing is they are reliable and that is essential because to deliver a fresh food offer, at volume and at quality, you need the kit to do it.”

Fuller's Admiralty kitchen

Fuller’s has increased the amount it invests in its kitchens over recent years, leading to a growth in food sales.

Additionally, he notes, putting a brand such as Ambach at the heart of the kitchen attracts the calibre of chef that knows they are being given the most effective and efficient environment to perform. After all, what point is there pursuing such a dedicated fresh food policy if there is no quality around the cooking process due to a lack of confidence or competence in the kitchen.

As part of the engagement process with Ambach, Dickinson and some of his colleagues, including members of the purchasing team, visited the brand’s state-of-the-art factory in Bolzano, Italy to discuss their technical requirements and operational objectives.

That was an important part of building trust with the brand and the personnel behind it, he says. “The great thing about Ambach is they have got the people, the experience and the resource, but they have also got the technology. So they can produce 3D drawings, talk you through them and if they don’t know something they will find out. What they do is submerge themselves in your environment and that is key. We learnt a lot during our visit and we went through everything. With Fuller’s it is always about quality then price, never price then quality.”

Fuller’s is Ambach’s first serious chain customer that hasn’t come to it by way of consultant specification. The manufacturer’s MD, Maurizio Vianello, insists the meetings and factory visits that took place prior to the first unit going into site reinforced the fact that both parties were on the same wavelength. “Once we got around the table and discussed ideas, we quickly saw that we shared some key values concerning the business and the quality of the food. Fuller’s are a premium brand within the pubco sector so it is a very good partnership.”

Sites that Ambach has been put into include The Admiralty in central London, The George IV in Chiswick, One Over The Ait in Brentford, and The Lock, Stock & Barrel in Newbury. The Blue Boat in Fulham Reach and The Sanctuary House hotel near St. James’s Park are next on the agenda.

While a brand such as Ambach naturally comes with a price tag that might scare some pub groups off, the manufacturer’s UK country manager, Alistair Farquhar, insists the product more than pays for itself over its lifetime. “Why spend on a piece of equipment that is going to last a year or a year-and-a-half when you could spend on something that will last six or seven years or more. There is a higher upfront cost initially but over the duration, the customer is going to get a longer lifecycle out of its equipment.”

I look after 182 pubs and there are 182 menus — it is not standardised, far from it” Paul Dickinson, head of food, Fuller’s

Fuller’s has been specifying the Ambach Chef 850 suite, a premium modular construction that encompasses an innovative module connection system which suites the equipment seamlessly. This allows the user to switch the order of the cookline or bring in new appliances if circumstances change. “The good thing is that if we do go and change the menu to a different concept in six months then all we have to do is change one piece of kit rather than redesigning the whole kitchen,” says Dickinson.

Ambach has also worked with Fuller’s to develop additional accessories pertinent to its business. This includes stainless steel batter boxes that attach to the front of fryer and resting fish racks that provide a deposit for the fat while keeping the product warm.

A whopping 72 kitchen projects have taken place at Fuller’s in the last four years as it has invested heavily in new and existing sites. It is likely to complete another 30 this year as it strives to raise the benchmark for contemporary pub food further. Its efforts are certainly paying dividends. Food sales from its managed pubs grew 10.4% last year, with the company citing the “superb performance” of its food business as one of the reasons why the business delivered such strong results for 2014.

The set-up of each kitchen that Fuller’s creates or refurbishes is heavily dependent on available space and volume requirements, but it believes that if the prep areas, cooking platforms and pass are correctly designed from the outset, the rest will follow. Around 30 of its managed pubs have even begun embracing sous vide, which has proved to be an ideal method for cooking food overnight or simply just holding it in locations where space is tight.

When asked to name some of the catering equipment brands he has a high regard for, Dickinson reels off names such as Rational, Foster and Vitamix Vita-Prep. Durability and robustness are important, he says, but so too is the willingness of manufacturers to respond to market feedback. This is where he claims Rational stands out from the crowd. “I have used Rational for most of my cooking career and they have nailed it because they are listening to chefs. Chefs are giving the feedback and they take it on board. Some of our pubs will have three Rational ovens, some have two, smaller pubs will just have one. But an average pub has two of them in it and they are integral to us.”

Fuller’s is a chain that knows exactly what it wants from a supplier and understands the value of working with the right partners. It is an approach that is clearly getting results.

The Admiralty: kitchen Spec sheet

Situated at the heart of London’s tourist trap and proud of its status as the only pub on the world-famous Trafalgar Square, The Admiralty is not surprisingly one of Fuller, Smith & Turner’s flagship sites. Opened in September 2014, the property spans three floors and has quickly earned a reputation for serving up an authentic taste of the capital.

The Admiralty

The Admiralty, opposite Trafalgar Square, is one of Fuller’s busiest pubs.

The chefs specialise in delicious hand-crafted pies made on site and served with tasty mash and gravy, while the rest of the food menu boasts traditional favourites such as beer-battered fish and chips, hearty sausage and mash, and Hampshire-sourced steak burger. All this is produced in The Admiralty’s basement kitchen, which was kitted out with the latest foodservice equipment to cope with the high volume of traffic expected to come through the doors.

Although the kitchen footprint is tight and narrow, the central positioning of the pass creates a clear hot area on one side of the kitchen and a cold area incorporating refrigeration, storage and warewashing on the other to optimise the workflow.

Key items of equipment in The Admiralty’s kitchen include:

– Ambach (Cooking suite)
– Foster (Refrigerated cabinets)
– Hobart (Hood-type dishwasher)
– Rational (Combi ovens)
– Sharp (Microwaves)

Fuller’s in figures

Managed pubs: 182

Tenanted inns: 206

Annual sales: £288m

Sales growth: 6%

EBITDA: £55m

EBITDA growth: 6%

Growth in food sales 10.4% (managed pubs)

Kitchen staff: 850

Capital expenditure: £38m

Increase in capital expenditure: 29%

Source: Fuller Smith & Turner Plc, annual report 2014

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