There was a time when pubs were only known for their wet-led offering but that trend has been completely turned on its head in recent years. Many managed and unmanaged establishments are now investing greater sums in creating kitchen operations capable of churning out food as quickly, and at the same quality, as their restaurant counterparts. But what trends will drive the pub kitchen of the future?
The unrelenting rise of the gastro pub over the past decade has become symbolic of the way in which the foodservice sector can rapidly change shape. Pub grub used to be looked down upon, but the market has moved on from those days and the most sophisticated operators are now producing menus as enticing as any good restaurant in a bid to grab a geater share of wallet spend.
This new-found approach would not be possible without greater scrutiny, and indeed investment, on back-of-house infrastructure capable of standing up to the task. Many of the largest pub groups now regard food as the most profitable component of their business and that in turn is ensuring a constant and unrelenting focus on new innovation throughout their estates.
Take Fuller’s for example. It has completed 72 kitchen re-fits in the past four years as part of a strategy that has driven double-digit growth in sales. Head of food, Paul Dickinson, recently told FEJ that it has more than quadrupled its kitchen budget during that time as it has seen the benefits of investing in the right design and equipment. “In the early days we would spend £40,000 on a kitchen design, whereas now we are spending around the £200,000mark. An average investment is about £120,000 and that is just kit — it’s not bricks and mortar and Whiterock cladding.”
Fuller’s expectations have also changed as a result of this. It used to accept that its equipment would have a very short shelf life, but it now looks for a much longer return on its investment. “We’ve now got proper chefs with experience who can look after the kit and get long-term use out of it,” he says, noting that he’d expect at least 10 to 15 years’ use out of the kind of premium cooking suites it is now specifying.
Menus vary enormously, of course, and while at one end of the spectrum there is the full gastro experience, at the other there’s a basic offering of basket meals. The type of kitchen installed in a pub therefore depends almost solely on the food offering.
Some high level trends can be identified, however, and one that almost always crops up is space. “Pub kitchens look for maximum output from minimum footprint, and to utilise the equipment as much as possible,” says Paul Hickman, development chef at Lincat, one of the biggest suppliers of foodservice equipment into the pub sector. “This often means going for versatile products that can be used to create a variety of dishes.”
Speed of service remains a top priority for pubs, particularly at peak periods where the orders are coming thick and fast. Some kitchens have found a way around this by producing food in batches and using hot-holding cabinets to make sure delivery is quicker.
“Equipment that can produce food quickly and of a high quality is vital,” continues Hickman. “That’s why our clam griddle has been specified by Wetherspoon, as it cooks food up to three times as quickly as a standard griddle, with double griddle plates heating both sides of the food simultaneously, delivering fast, repeatable results. “
Laura Abbott, business development manager at Electrolux Professional, believes there is little difference between pub kitchens and standard commercial kitchen operations in terms of their size, but points out that they can differ significantly in specification.
She says: “In a pub kitchen, the key is to have equipment that can withstand an environment with the potential to be particularly unforgiving. The constantly changing menu and output requirements also need to be factored in when specifying equipment, but at the same time it has to be simple for the operators to use, clean and maintain. Multi-use appliances, such as combination ovens, are becoming all the more important in assisting operators to refresh their menus regularly without the additional capital outlay.”
Steve Hobbs, managing director of Grande Cuisine, says pubs have got to make the best use of space within the kitchen, which means maximising workflow capability while minimising energy consumption across all points of service. “These are challenges experienced across all foodservice environments,” he says. “Equipment and kitchen designs are less varied in larger groups that also provide set menu lists, as their overall requirements are less varied.”
One of the biggest challenges from an equipment perspective, suggests Sam Starling, group marketing co-ordinator at Parry, is that with few new pubs being built at present, purpose built-kitchens are few and far between. “As a result, most of the work going on in pub kitchens involves either the piecemeal replacement of individual items or a refurbishment,” she says. “In the case of the latter, the equipment specified will depend very much on the nature of the menu and the food offer. Equipment has generally got smaller, so in the case of a refurbishment this will either free up space or, if the menu requires it, allow for more equipment.
“As in many other areas of the foodservice sector we are seeing increased demand for bespoke stainless steel fabrication as pub operators look to make the most of all available space. Stainless steel is durable, easy to clean, low maintenance, able to withstand high temperatures and safe for food preparation.”
It would probably be better for suppliers if the big groups decide to split their estates into divisions that will have autonomy to purchase and service their pubs”
Williams Refrigeration has been selling into the pub sector for more than 30 years, but says it has never seen such strong demand for new equipment due to the growing focus placed on food sales.
Malcolm, Harling, sales and marketing director at Williams Refrigeration, says this is quite a shift from the way that the market used to operate.
“The tendency has been for some chains to repair rather than replace existing equipment over recent years so the investment in new equipment has been reduced — but ultimately this has incurred a higher volume of repair bills.
“There is more scrutiny on capital expenditure relating to new equipment and its operating and lifecycle costs. Manufacturers are becoming more able to demonstrate this level of detail. Service level agreements are also commonplace to guarantee delivery and after-sales service support to help maintain productivity from the operator and extend the life of the equipment.”
Lincat’s Hickman agrees that the sector has matured considerably, with operators now challenging their buying teams to drive as much efficiency from the kitchen as possible. This is certainly evident among chains with thousands of sites. “Some pub chains, such as M&B and Marston’s, now have departments dedicated to green issues and finding ways to maximise the energy efficiency of the kitchens. In addition to this, long working hours of pubs and increasing utility bills means pubs are looking for any areas where money can be saved.”
There was a time when Lincat’s Silverlink 600 and Lynx 400 back bar ranges were adequate for most pubs, but as the emphasis on food has increased it has seen sales of its heavier duty equipment soar. Its Opus 700 range is one line of equipment that has been put into many pub kitchens throughout the UK.
Hickman says: “We have worked closely with clients to develop the range to meet brewery specifications, and have become specialists in this area. We hold contracts and specifications with most of the major pub groups in the UK, including Spirit, Marston’s, Wetherspoon, Greene King, McMullen, Whitbread, SA Brain, Punch and Inventive Leisure.
“One of our pub chains takes over 60% of our product range — which equates to 355 out of 600 products. The top five products purchased by them include Opus 700 fryers, Silverlink 600 induction hobs, Opus 700 chargrills, automatic water boilers and Opus 700 griddles, which just goes to demonstrate the variety and breadth of products used by one pub chain alone!”
Jestic Foodservice Equipment employs a dedicated national sales manager to serve the pub sector as it represents such a large portion of its business. Sales director, Steve Morris, says the days of pubs getting by with a simple fryer, six-ring burner and griddle couldn’t be further from the state of affairs today.
“The importance that is now being placed on the food offering is having a direct impact on the equipment being purchased,” he comments. “We are seeing more and more pubs, both independent and chain/group outlets investing heavily in quality equipment, which in turn is resulting in pub kitchens being able to compete with their restaurant counterparts. “As the trend for open plan, customer-facing kitchens begins to take hold in the pub sector, we are beginning to see an increase in demand for certain lines of equipment. Currently our best sellers to the pub market are Wood Stone pizza ovens, Rotisol rotisseries, Henny Penny Evolution Elite fryers and Winston C-Vap holding drawers.”
Research house Allegra Strategies says that in the last quarter of 2014, some 84% of adults visited pubs for meals or snacks, the highest level that it has ever recorded. It’s little wonder that pub groups are taking their annual kitchen investments extremely seriously.