SPECIAL REPORT: Why Young’s is no longer afraid to spend big if the kitchen fits

Chris Knights, group executive chef

Every chef has at least one big kitchen disaster story to tell and for Young’s & Co’s group executive chef, Chris Knights, the tale that springs to mind dates back to a few years ago when the business acquired a new site in Islington, overlooking the Regent’s Canal.

The kitchen it inherited was fully equipped with all the kit it could ever need and, in order to get the brigade ready ahead of its re-launch, it organised a training scenario with real customers, which involved serving 50 covers for lunch and 60 for dinner, followed by a further 70 and 80 the next day. But, as the enthusiastic new team started to cook off the lunch service, the gas suddenly blew out and the service had to be shut down after five covers. Fortunately, an engineer was on-hand to restore the power, but as the team set about making amends for the dinner service, the same thing happened again.

The problem persisted and after two days of trying to get to the bottom of it, the company finally discovered that the gas interlock was somehow piped into the pub’s boiler system, which itself kept breaking down. Every time the boiler switched off, so did the gas to the kitchen.

“There was pretty much two or three operations managers, an ops director, the MD, engineers and account managers wandering around wondering what on earth was going on,” remembers Knights. “Eventually, after two or three days, we got it sorted. It was certainly a disaster at the time and one that will always stick with me!”

Food sales contributed to Young’s revenues rising 8% to £246m last year.

Fortunately, such painful anecdotes are few and far between, which has a lot to do with Young’s developing into being one of the most astute food-driven pub businesses around. Sales were up 8% to £246m last year and a lot of this was to do with a successful food strategy and new investments aimed at increasing the emphasis on food.

That in turn has boosted drink sales. Young’s, which also counts Geronimo Inns within its estate, has completely transformed its kitchens in recent years as it has endeavoured to respond to the more adventurous appetites of consumers and attain a market-leading position in a sector that is changing day by day.

“I think if you thought about pubs 10 years ago, it was all about microwaves, bought-in Yorkshire puddings and chilli con carne that could go into a water bath, whereas now we are all about fresh British seasonal foods,” says Knights. “It is all about proper cooking equipment, it’s around stoves, it’s vacuum bags and circulators and ovens for roasting, and patisserie and fine ingredients. Pubs were always known for an average roast or a meal that went into a microwave, whereas now a lot of pubs — not just Young’s — are doing amazing things for the sector.”

An average investment on a new-build CAPEX project would be in excess of £100,000, including the extraction, with an extra £10,000 to £15,000 on light equipment”

The spark for what happens in many of Young’s kitchens comes from a state-of-the-art food development facility based in Wandsworth, London. Every inch of the space that Knights and his team have at their disposal is utilised to develop menus on a one-to-one basis with individual pubs, work with chefs and showcase new equipment.

Originally, half of the test kitchen replicated its new investment pubs, but it has just overseen a revamp that means it now has a full kitchen reproducing that environment. “We get quite geeky around circulators and how high the vacuum needs to be on a vacuum pack, or if it’s a new recipe on the Thermomix or anything like that,” says Knights about the prospect of exploring new kit.

Young’s will work with licensees to develop their menus on an individual basis.

Young’s has been particularly innovative in the pub sector thanks to the launch of Burger Shack, a concept it conceived 18 months ago to diversify its offering and meet demand for a fast-casual offering. The company owns two roving American Airstream trailers with fully-equipped kitchens, while at least seven of its sites now have Burger Shacks adjoined to their premises, typically in places that were formerly used as outside BBQ areas.

“We have just opened up one at The Weyside in Guildford, which is in excess of a couple of hundred thousand pounds of investment because they turned the car park into a modern garden with a full Burger Shack and Bar,” he says. “And more recently we opened up our first two permanent sites, one at The Alexandra in Wimbledon, which was a loft conversion and is performing extremely well, and one at the Fire Stables in Wimbledon, which is actually the first standalone business. It is performing extremely well, too.”

Young’s owns two mobile American Airstream trailers fitted with the latest commercial kitchen equipment.

Knights, who was speaking at the Commercial Kitchen show earlier this year, says the chain is putting its money where its mouth is to make the model work. “We are now investing in excess of £20,000 to £30,000 into our Burger Shacks just to cook our burgers. Our philosophy is ‘do it once and do it well’ — make sure the kitchens are well-equipped to deliver the right product at the right price point to delight customers.”

Over the last two years we have just made more of a point of having a standardised kitchen equipment list”

Young’s attitude towards specifying the right equipment and being prepared to pay for it extends to its core pub estate of more than 250 sites as well. “An average investment on a new-build CAPEX project would be in excess of £100,000, including the extraction,” reveals Knights. “That’s mainly around heavy kit with an extra £10,000 to £15,000 on light equipment — the Thermomixers, circulators, water baths and those sorts of things.”

One ongoing challenge for pub chains such as Young’s is how to accommodate kitchens in buildings that were never designed for them. “Pubs can be funny-shaped buildings, the kitchens are normally at the smaller end of it and so we don’t always get the room that we need. We have had to be very innovative on the kit that we use in terms of refrigeration and cooking capacity. Certainly the lay-outs of the kitchens now are a little bit more standardised, though. If you went back five years ago it was a mix and match of different equipment and different lay-outs whereas over the last two years we have just made more of a point of having a standardised kitchen equipment list. That also goes for kitchen design as well. It works for us to be flexible at a local pub level because not every menu is the same within our business; we have to be able to diversify.”

Young’s kitchen philosophy

Chris Knights, group executive chef at Young & Co’s Brewery, says that when it comes to working with catering equipment suppliers, it is paramount that they understand the business and can offer valuable advice on relevant pieces of kit or innovation, without over-complicating matters. “I think a lot of things are over-complicated nowadays and it is about keeping it simple,” he says.

In terms of investing in new kitchens, Knights firmly believes it’s a case of ‘do it once and do it well’. “You’ve got to do it properly the first time around, not do it half-heartedly; let’s give [pubs] all the space, all the equipment and everything else they need at the first point and let’s not be afraid to spend the money. We were, and we used to be, but that’s certainly not the case anymore now.”

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