THE BIG INTERVIEW: Star Pubs food chief on the secret to creating profitable pub kitchens

Luke Davies, food strategy and implementation manager 1

Star Pubs & Bars, the leased pub business of Heineken, is among the biggest investors in kitchens and equipment right now thanks to a finely-tuned strategy created to help licensees develop their culinary offering. FEJ catches up with Luke Davies, the man responsible for defining the business plan, to learn more about the formula that Star is using to equip its kitchens and upskill staff.

Tell us about your role — what does it involve and to what extent is it shaped by what’s happening on the food side of things with Star at the moment?

My current role is food strategy and implementation manager, which means I am responsible for creating the plan for food. I go out and listen to the needs of our licensees, our chefs out there in the operations, and also our area managers, property team, estates team and our leaders, too. From those conversations I then devise the plan. You have also got to listen to what is going on in the wider environment, so I do a lot of research with food suppliers, market analysts, catering design experts and independent training chefs to stay ahead of the curve. That’s the planning part but it is also my job to create, so I write the tools, build the training plans and create all the initiatives that are needed to deliver that support. Finally, I manage the implementation side of it, which involves coordinating the training and making sure everything is communicated and marketed correctly.

How do you ensure that this work is achieving the results you are aiming for?

We spend a lot of time evaluating it, of course. The goal is to absolutely have the best food support offer in the leased and tenanted market place and I think we are certainly approaching that now. In the first 12 months I think it was about getting ourselves into a really strong position compared to our competitors in the market place that have a lot of full-time catering and food development execs. Certainly in the last six months — and we’ve just held our second two-day training event and have another one planned for October — we’ve got to a position where we can say that not only are we trying to bring support up to a good level, but it’s now time to really be the best and lead the way with food support for licensees in the leased and tenanted environment.

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What proportion of the Star Pubs & Bars estate is offering food at the moment?

It was around 70%, but it’s recently increased to 74%. We are 9% higher than any other national leased and tenanted pub company in terms of that percentage. There are a few regional pub companies that have a slightly higher percentage of their pubs doing food, but they have nowhere near the kind of scale that we have got with more than 1,000 pubs.

What factors have led Star to focus on food sales and increase the support available to its pubs?

I guess it is just looking at the way the market place and consumer trends are changing. When you look at the high-performing food-led pubs that have got a modern, well-conceived, relevant food offer, they are clearly the most commercially-successful pubs and the most sustainable pubs. It is important that we share the learnings of those successful food pubs with other licensees in order to make them even more commercially successful and sustainable in the long term. We see food as a crucial part of the retail offer for a pub in the modern environment, especially with the battle for the leisure pound. The competitors are no longer just the pub down the road — the whole retail environment is very important to us.

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Star recognises that pubs will only be able to improve food sales if they specify the right kitchen equipment, says Luke Davies.

Star is committed to up-skilling its BDMs and management team in food development. What skills are most needed and how did you go about identifying these?

I spent a lot of time in trade when I first started in the role, listening to BDMs, estate managers, the property team and the leadership team, but also the licensees and the chefs out there. We could have taken the approach of focusing on a particular skill or tool and drip-fed those in, but we decided to go about things slightly different, which was to create almost a new brand called ‘Star Food’. Anything food support-related comes under the Star Food banner and we launched the whole thing with a big two-day training event for all 70 of our senior support roles where we just completely focused on food, looked at new kitchen equipment, created templates for our CAPEX plan and introduced a new network of independent training support chefs. We also introduced off-shelf menus for licensees and provided advice on kitchen compliance, food trends and food quality training.

You’ve announced plans to improve food support through a £250,000 programme. How will this be invested?

It is divided into four main areas really. One of those is food training and we offer a five-day cookery skills foundation course, which is fully funded by Star Pubs & Bars and goes right back to basics. We do soups and sauces, stocks, pasta, rices, pulses, meat, fish and shellfish. It works well for licensees that are perhaps not from the industry and taking on their first pub, as well as licensees that might want to move their food offer up the scale in terms of premiumisation. The course works out at an investment of more than £1,500 per learner and we have put 32 licensees through the two of those that we have held so far. We have another one coming up in October. We also fund professional artwork for menus, which is a significant expense, and we use a team of six or seven independent training support chefs to assist licensees. We will fund 100 two-day visits this year from these qualified chefs and at around £500 a day that’s also a significant investment. The fourth thing is the launch of a series of new tools, such as a menu development guide, a recruitment toolkit for chefs and a guide on selling food without a kitchen. All of these things are designed to support licensees in developing their food offer and becoming more profitable.

There are a few regional pub companies that have a slightly higher percentage of their pubs doing food, but they have nowhere near the kind of scale that we have got”

How are you managing the situation for pubs that might have a legacy kitchen of some kind but need to upgrade it to move their food offering forward?

When it comes to upgrading those pubs we will spend £20m this year on CAPEX and we will provide transformational CAPEX on 75 sites — last year it was more than that figure as well. The way we approach it is that we look at the type and style of food that the licensee wants to do within the segment that they fit and then assess whether it’s going to require a high level of culinary skills or whether it’s more of a mainstream offer. We will then look at the anticipated volume.

How do you plan the kitchen design and investment?

We have six templates that we work from based on volume and style of food, and we have a minimum kit list for each of those kitchens. We sit down at the brief stage and work through which segment it is going to be in and what the volume is, which enables us to establish the kit and equipment that is needed, and we stick to that very rigidly. What normally happens in the leased and tenanted market is that the pub company will pay for the fabrics, such as the walls, the floors and the extraction, and it is up to the licensee to furnish it with catering kit and equipment. But our fixture and fittings policy is different to that as we invest in the kit and equipment for the kitchens. The fryers, ovens, griddles, fridges and freezers are all funded by capital expenditure on CAPEX jobs. We only buy commercial-grade kit and equipment. My experience of the leased and tenanted trade in general is that kitchens are under-invested in and you do find a lot of domestic fridges, freezers and microwaves out there, but we only buy commercial-grade equipment. The kit will either be medium duty or heavy duty depending on volumes.

Do the six kitchen templates give you enough flexibility?

What it gives us is a minimum kit list, so if the licensee’s plan or vision was to have a front-of-house pizza oven then that is something we would look at on top of that on a site-by-site basis. We feel it is very important to have that minimum list. The worst thing that can happen in these situations is that you set a budget for the kitchen and then licensees feel they’ve only got a limited amount of spend and they have to do their best with it. It’s much better to demonstrate the minimum duty and grade that is required and then look at additional needs on a case-by-case basis.

Is the minimum kit list set out by equipment type or do you drill down to specific brand?

We just go by duty. We work closely with YCE Catering Equipment and Airedale Catering Equipment, and we split the country up between them. At the moment we are doing quite a bit of data gathering on kit and equipment, and looking at brands such as Falcon, Lincat and Blue Seal ovens in particular. They are brands that I have used throughout my career and I think they are go-to brands for the managed pub industry because of the value they offer.

Star Pubs & Bars

Star provides dedicated food training and consultancy support for its licensees.

Are you finding that the type of kit that you need for the kitchens is changing versus what you would have needed in the past?

Consumers haven’t lost the habit they developed during the recession of looking for a great deal, but there is a high demand for premiumisation and a greater level of education around food. So whereas in the late nineties, pubs talked about de-skilling kitchens and making things as simple as possible, it is now more about menus that might require more skills than they have done in the past. This could mean the difference between a mirror-top grill and a chargrill, or making sure we have got the equipment to prepare a perfect pie rather than a microwaved pie, and fryers to cope with gluten-free fish and chips as well as standard fish and chips. What hasn’t changed so much is that the top 10 selling dishes in pubs remain the same. You still need to have a brilliant Sunday roast, a brilliant burger and steak, and a brilliant fish and chips.

Are you finding yourself spending more time focusing on kit?

Yes, I work extensively with our property team and with our catering equipment suppliers Airedale and YCE. We did a kitchen emersion training day with YCE where we brought all the property managers and project controllers together and spent a day focusing on the different types of ovens that are available, including fryers, grills, chargrills, microwaves, Merrychefs and Thermodynes. It is an ongoing process to make sure that we are getting the best possible value and functionality from the right kit and equipment.

We have six templates that we work from based on volume and style of food, and we have a minimum kit list for each of those kitchens”

What does the future look like in terms of support for licensees?

I think food is an area that requires a lot of skill and licensees are going to continue needing support. This is not a flash-in-the-pan investment, it will continue to be made year-in year-out as we help our licensees develop their food business. We have had some really good successes so far and we are really proud of the support offer that we’ve developed over the last 18 months. It has spring-boarded us into a position where we can say we have created something industry-leading here.

Kitting out pubs the unconventional way

Foodservice operators in the casual dining and pub sectors continue to look for points of difference in their food offering and one way that some are achieving this is through investments in contemporary catering equipment, such as stone-based pizza ovens, charcoal grills and commercial BBQs.

Is there any appetite from Star Pubs & Bars to go down this route, or is it more focused on harnessing traditional cooking equipment as the means for delivering its menu?

“The most important thing for us is to make sure we have a great plan for a general retail offer and then we would look at additional needs beyond that,” answers Luke Davies, food strategy and implementation manager at the chain.

He cites a Star pub called The Eagle’s Corner in Nottingham as a prime example. It has a front-of-house stone-based pizza oven, which you’re unlikely to find in other Star pubs. “We decided not to put a traditional template kitchen into The Eagle’s Corner because its offer wasn’t going to be around pies and steaks. It was more important to invest in the oven, the saladette and the other things that went around it. We’ve got all sorts of different styles of food out there, from smokehouse American-style barbecue pubs to gourmet burger pubs, but the majority offer traditional top 10 pub-style menus.”

Another pub that looks poised to invest in a pizza oven is The Red Lion, on the banks of the River Thames in Shepperton. It has just finished the first stage of a project in which it created a £160,000 St Tropez-style pub garden, and bosses of the pub now plan to bring in an outside wood-fired pizza oven to serve the area when stage two of the scheme commences next year.

Star cuts Nisbets pricing deal

As part of the food support it offers in the leased pub sector, Star Pubs & Bars recently struck four supplier agreements in response to licensee requests for help on pricing. Negotiated using owner Heineken’s buying power, the arrangement includes a deal with Nisbets for consumables.

“A big objective with these arrangements was to make sure that the products were of the right quality from a national perspective and the service levels were right, but we also wanted to make sure that we were going to be saving our licensees some bottom line margin — national pricing available at a local level,” explains food strategy and implementation manager, Luke Davies.

“The aim is to help licensees save money, there is no financial objective in it for Star Pubs & Bars, all the benefit goes to the licensee. We have been given a great off-list discount from Nisbets and any new accounts that come across are offered the opportunity to take a voucher from Nisbets for additional savings, too. What we wanted with Nisbets was an agreement for the more week in-week out items — washing up liquid, cloths, mops and chefs’ uniforms.

“All those consumable items are a major cost and so there are major savings to be made. If they want to buy any heavy duty equipment or furniture then the process with Nisbets is that the licensee phones up its specialist pub team and negotiates the price.”

Kitchen support: The licensee’s view

Graham Anderson, of the, Eastfield Inn in Bristol, is one of the licensees to receive chef consultancy support as part of the Star Food programme. He found it invaluable: “This type of training is really, really good, particularly so for pubs that are just starting up, struggling with their food offer or changing it in some shape or form. It is very targeted to the individual pub concerned. The trainer listens to what you need to get out of it and helps you get there. It was great to have the training, we will make a lot more money as a result.”

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