PANEL DISCUSSION: Menu innovation challenges for multi-site operators

Keeping menus innovative and profitable is an ongoing challenge for pub and restaurant operators. At the recent Casual Dining Show in London, consultant, chef and author, Jay Morjaria, chaired a panel of some of the top executive chefs in the business as they discussed what goes on in their development kitchens. FEJ had a front row seat to capture the conversation.

ON THE PANEL:
– Antony Bennett, Head of Food, Loungers
– Glenn Evans, Head of Food development, Las Iguanas, La Tasca & La Vina
– Chris Knights, Group Executive Chef, Young’s & Geronimo Pubs

The challenge for any multi-site operator is rolling out menus across sites — and how you manage to innovate and roll out at the same time. Glenn, with Las Iguanas, La Tasca and La Vino being different to one another, how do you keep on trend while rolling out that innovation across several sites at the same time?

Glenn Evans: It is a challenge, I am not going to lie. It is 63 restaurants, three brands, but all the same amount of work in terms of the process you have got to go through to put the dishes on the menu. I am lucky I have got some great support in terms of an operational development chef, who is brilliant from an operations point of view. He keeps me on my toes, he keeps it realistic as well in terms of delivery, and also he has got a great interest in development. He has sort of taken the role of La Tasca and La Vina away from me — I can just have the influence, make sure it is going in the right direction, and I can prioritise Las Iguanas, being the larger multi-site brand.

If you look at specific genres of food — South American for Las Iguanas — you have got a lovely big pool [of ingredients] to chose from and it is so diverse in terms of what we can go and do. You don’t have to allude to trends in the industry, we can just keep coming up with brand new ideas from different countries. We just want to try and stick to the roots that are coming out of those countries in terms of authenticity and provenance and using authentic product and ingredients, but at the same time give it that Las Iguanas, La Tasca or La Vina twist.

And Antony, what about the challenge of not just staying on trend, but making it profitable? How do you find that process?

Antony Bennett: We have got two brands: the Lounge brand, which is our bigger brand with 117 sites, and Cosy Club, where we have got 21. We have a broad menu so it is a little bit different for us. We have to appeal to the masses and we have to cherry-pick one or two of the big emerging trends and then try to roll that out, so in terms of making that profitable you really have to narrow that down. I have been at the company two years and when I joined we had 60 sites and now we have pretty much doubled that. And when I joined it wasn’t so much a system-based company, it was very much ‘we’re going to open loads of restaurants, let’s do it’.

I came in to try and help put a process in, so for me it is the process side that then delivers the end product to the guest, which is more bums on seats, which is then profitability as well. I am still very much hands-on with food and the development is what I do, but I am very lucky like Glenn in that I have a good team behind me in terms of the operation. They knew more about the brand than I did when I joined, so you rely on people that have got good experience and then you bring those ideas and they help you roll that out.

What is the scenario in the pub food market when it comes to making the offer count but still staying on trend?

Chris Knights: Trend is massively important. I think the difference when it comes to our ethos and our strategy with the Young’s and Geronimo pubs is that there is not a model that fits all. We are predominantly London-centric but it is about the individual business rather than the brands Young’s and Geronimo — they are there to underpin a great value, premium atmosphere, premium service and premium product. We invest a lot of time into our people, so we meet with every one of our 180 head chefs once a month to inspire them around seasonality and trends, and why it would be the right choice for them to have it on their menus, to drive sales and to drive profitability. Because there is not one thing that is going to fit all, the individual aspect is actually the key.

From a chain point of view, the idea is that you can go to any site and the menu will be consistent. But for you the service is really important…

Chris Knights: And the product is as well, but it is where the opportunities are within the local market. If you are in Kentish Town and you have got a slightly more foodie clientele, the health and wellbeing lifestyle choices that customers are making are in abundance, so it would be only right that we have a menu more fitting to that customer profile. But they do all follow a strategy and there is clarity when it comes to what their pub menus should be. We like our chefs and general managers to have that interpretation, entrepreneurialism and take ownership of the site, and identify what those opportunities are and encompass trends to drive sales.

We are a managed pub company with 180 pubs, but of courses there are processes. It is not that they choose their own suppliers or they diverse in different styles and ranges of cooking. There is a clear strategy, a defined strategy, and we invest a lot of time in them. And like Glenn and Anthony, we are fortunate enough to have an amazing team that are out and about in pubs every single day working with the head chefs to drive that food offering.

Antony, when you are redesigning menus, what is the process for getting there? You have got your innovation to think about, trend reports, marketing, sales — how do you then go about translating that through to dishes that are executable?

Antony Bennett: In terms of the Crazy Club menus, it is quite a new brand, not everyone knows it although to be fair it is on the high street, whereas the Lounge concepts are in neighbourhoods. You wouldn’t necessarily see them in London, but we have got some around the commuter belt. The first thing we did was split the two in terms of the concept. We know Loungers is a very casual, relaxed place where you can have a coffee, a breakfast or you can have steak, whereas with the Cosy Club we spent a lot of time making it very eccentric and British — ‘splendid’ was the word that we used, so we wanted to make the food reflect that.

We went back to the drawing board, got out some really old cookbooks — 50-60-year-old ones — and really had fun with it”

As a result, that was a much easier way to approach menu development rather than just ‘vegan’s big right now’ and ‘gluten free is great’ because trying to be everything to everyone is very difficult when we haven’t got one particular food to focus on. So we went back to the drawing board with Cosy Club, got out some really old cookbooks — 50-60-year-old ones — and really had fun with it. We have got some real classics on there and have tried to take elements of that pre-1970 stuff and reflect that into the dishes. So once you have got that base you can then decide which type of dishes you want to develop and go from there.

What about from an ingredients perspective? How important is that aspect of it when it comes to innovation?

Antony Bennett: You want to make sure that an ingredient is used two, three, four times in the kitchen and you don’t want to have a rogue ingredient — I’m very good at picking one ingredient and using it once! And that’s when the guys come in and say, ‘come on, we are not going to use it up!’

Glenn Evans: As Anthony said, we have to try and get the most out of single-use ingredients and spread them across the menu, not so much that it is in every dish, but being clever with it. In terms of innovative dishes and ingredients, we work with some unique suppliers and also import directly from Brazil, South America and also Spain. I’m quite lucky in terms of the larder that I can tap into! Once we have got the ingredients to play with, that’s when we can really go to town in terms of what we can do and being really experimental with it. We will have four or five cook-offs with our exec board. Our MD is very entrepreneurial, he likes to be involved from stage one and develop the dish all the way through to final cook-off because he understands the consumers and he understands how we want it to be and how we want to present it.

The lines between pubs and restaurants are blurring. Where does innovation come from for you, Chris?

Chris Knights: You need to remember who you are. We operate pubs and we operate at the premium end of the market. Really our innovation comes from everywhere — we are heavily dictated by the British seasons, so our menus can change on a daily basis. We have the tools, the systems and the processes within our businesses to change on a daily basis, although we predominantly do it on a monthly basis.

We meet with every one of our 180 head chefs once a month to inspire them around seasonality and trends, and why it would be the right choice for them to have it on their menus”

It really comes down to how we interpret and use those ingredients four or five times on the menus and I think you just encompass what’s going on within the industry without completely hanging your hat on it. So the healthy wellbeing lifestyle choices that people are making are not a trend, it is culture, it is here — and you have to look at how you can use it as a sprinkling on your menu so that maybe your soup today is a fantastic roasted heritage pumpkin with turmeric, and it just so happens to be vegan as well.

What lessons have you taken away from your menu development activities over the past year?

Antony Bennett: We have gone through a process where last year we launched 28 menus across two brands or two concepts and it was exhausting — it was almost like one every couple of weeks. So we have had to change as a business to realise that you don’t always have to do a new menu; actually what you can do is look at what you are currently doing and do it better by speaking to your existing supplier base, or bringing some new ones in, and just thinking about how you then deliver the item or the section of the menu as well.

There are some big occasions that drive menu development — Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, for example. Are there any other areas outside the obvious ones that you see?

Glenn Evans: We could go to town on Day of the Dead, but we don’t — our marketing department will pull a piece together for our internal customer database and social media and we’ll do a deal for that day to get the actual footfall. We don’t develop specific dishes for those occasions, we put all of our work into spring-summer, autumn-winter, and Christmas. And the other big one, for one restaurant, is our New Year’s Eve menu at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank because it is in such a prime position. We can go to town in terms of whatever we want to put on that menu premium-wise, and that’s exciting because you are not just dealing with your mainstream casual dining consumer. We get to play with some really exotic and premium ingredients. It is like being an independent for one night.

In terms of trends and menu-developing, what changes have you seen over the years?

Chris Knights: I think everybody’s knowledge of food is far superior than it used to be. You only have to look at TV, social media, books — it is here, there and everywhere. But what that does mean is obviously the consumer becomes more educated on food, they understand particular cuts of meat and ingredients. I think the biggest one for us now is about simplicity and authenticity, because it is quite easy to go too far above and beyond. Give me a treacle tart any day that’s the most amazing buttery pastry, it’s crisp, there is the right balance of sweetness and acidity with a dollop of clotted cream, and there couldn’t be anything better than that. The execution is the wow factor.

The more interesting ingredients — not weird and wacky — certainly play a part in menu innovation. The biggest one that we are seeing, and where we are seeing volume-led sales come through, is the treacle tarts, the ham, egg and chips, and the scampi and chips. These are dishes that are commonly associated with the pubs 20 years ago when it comes to their quality, but it is about how you take that product and interpret it into our premium food strategy. So what might be a frozen scampi and chips would be a made-in-house monkfish scampi with crushed peas and lovage and a chopped egg tartar sauce and beef dripping chips. The innovation is within itself, it is just a more premium product.

What is the pace of change like when it comes to introducing new menus, both from a product and pricing perspective?

Antony Bennett: Pricing is obviously really important — you have got to have one eye on that at all times but we are quite fortunate at Loungers and Cosy Club that we are focusing on the ingredients and the quality. When I joined there wasn’t really any recipe cards or cookbooks but fast-track two years and we have got full cookbooks with step-by-step guides and icons for how you cook it. We have also engaged all of the chefs in terms of the training — so we train them, then they train it out. Over the past 12 months we have introduced something called ‘dish of the week’, and every week each member of staff can actually order it through the till and then watch a training video of how to make it, with all the key attributes and finishes, which brings real focus to it.

Is everything made fresh on site or do you have a centralised kitchen where you make certain things and then send them out to the sites?

Glenn Evans: We are really lucky to have a good skill base in our kitchens. We are easily put into that same bracket of our competitors, casual dining sector, where a lot of the chefs are not chefs, they are food handlers, they are opening up bags and reheating stuff. I am proud to say we have got a really good set of skilled chefs in our business and I want to maintain that for as long as I can, so at the moment we produce everything in-house. Our percentage of fresh is probably 75% to 80% and we buy in complex manufactured ingredients products to complement those fresh ingredients. Now we know that it is not going to get any easier in the future — we have already lost a lot of chefs through Brexit — so we are looking at other solutions, like a central kitchen, so that we can still control a lot of those fresh recipes.

We have tried it with some of our manufacturer partners who work with some of our sister brands and unfortunately we don’t get the same result. And obviously in South American dining, when it comes to the Brazilian sauces you are never going to get anything better unless it is prepared fresh on the day. The only thing that we do from a prep project point of view to help our chefs is buy in peeled onions, diced onions and pico de gallo — which is like tomato salsa but it is diced, so a very time-consuming job for our chefs. It takes that pressure off them and allows them to do a lot more.

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