David George is well-versed in what it takes to create a successful pub kitchen having spent 10 years at Greene King, where he led the group’s catering equipment specification and purchasing. But last year he swapped life with the Bury St. Edmunds colossus for a new challenge with the Pub People Company, the comparatively smaller but highly ambitious East Midlands pub outfit. FEJ editor, Andrew Seymour, met up with him to learn how a transformative approach towards menu design and equipment procurement is already delivering huge growth in food sales.
You’ve been with the Pub People Co. for nine months now. What does the role entail?
It’s an all-encompassing role that covers everything to do with catering from a total supply chain perspective — so food, hot beverage and the equipment. The role itself was something that basically came to fruition just purely speculatively. I spoke to [owners] Kevin [Sammons] and Andy [Crawford] and the company is about 20 years old now but they realised the need to get more serious about food in their estate. Their growth so far has been good, but they could see that they needed to take two or three big leaps, if you like. There are just under 60 pubs in total, of which around about 30 are catering pubs.
So what’s been the starting point for you?
My role really starts off with menu content and menu design — making sure it is fit for purpose, creating points of authority and creating reasons to visit, which they lacked. The company has built itself on a broad category of menus — they have everything from carveries to from-scratch and mainstream pubs really, but no real direction on them. So it was great for me to use my experience to date, not just the 10 years with Greene King, but also 13 years with Hardys & Hanson, so I already know the area really well, hence the reason why Nottingham has been my home for 25 years. Our pubs are based from South Yorkshire down to Nottingham, and across towards the Lincoln area. They are probably all within an hour’s radius of the head office in Alfreton, Derbyshire.
What did you find when you started evaluating the catering capabilities and infrastructure of the business?
The first stages really were to understand the capability in terms of the chefs’ skill sets as well as the quality behind the scenes — certainly in terms of catering equipment and what was the norm — and then design the menu with the catering kitchens in mind. So I took to that quite quickly and within about four months started to introduce five new menus, which were a generic menu. Scale-wise they might have been slightly bigger but the main content was the same for the five pubs. And I launched those in October and November 2016.
Is this the first time the group has used a generic menu?
Pretty much, yes. It is a managed estate and it’s quite unique in some respects; some are manager/chef patrons and some have head chefs with good skills. But the equipment was probably quite sporadic in robustness and quality. Something that I have found when I have joined other companies before is that there is domestic equipment there in some places, which is clearly not fit for purpose. So the marrying up of the menu, the content and kitchen and the capability was quite a big task, hence the reason why we extended it to just five houses first.
What sort of kit have you brought into the estate?
One of the first products I brought in was the MerryChef Eikon e3 from Manitowoc. I purchased two initially and I haven’t purchased anymore yet but it’s only on the basis that we are a small company and we need to take a ‘softly-softly, gently-gently’ approach. It’s a case of just watching the capital expenditure and spreading it over a period of time. I have also brought some Lincat in as well and for one of the houses I purchased the Adande multi-temp drawers, so we’re just testing the water a little bit on a few things.
Has the investment in new equipment been welcomed by the managers of those pubs?
Yes, absolutely, and one or two of the chefs have said it’s nice to see quality equipment being delivered into the estate. It makes their life so much easier, especially when you’ve got the likes of the Merrychef. The Eikon e3 is a very capable appliance and it delivers quality because one of the new dishes that I bought in was a new signature Steak and Doombar ale pie, which I designed. What I didn’t want to do was introduce that into a business that couldn’t regenerate it to the quality I wanted, hence the reason I used the Merrychef. I met the Manitowoc team up at Sheffield and put it through its paces there first.
Is there a firm roll-out plan in place when it comes to upgrading equipment?
I wouldn’t say there’s a roll-out plan, there is a vision to improve quality generically. I think it is going to be on a house by house basis; again one of the things that the company has asked me to do is identify the specific businesses where the biggest opportunities, and probably the quickest opportunities, lie. If we are going to invest and put CAPEX into equipment — and tableware because I have introduced new tableware as well — we need to look at which businesses potentially offers the best and quickest ROI.
I am not a guy who will suite an entire kitchen in one brand, I believe in cherry-picking the right appliance for the right fit”
You mentioned earlier that about 50% of the estate doesn’t have catering facilities. Are there plans to change that?
We have some very successful drink-only houses and they take some serious money. Some of them are market town pubs and they literally only do a bit of snack food, but they are very successful and there is no desire to change those. I am focusing on the catering part of the estate, but the vision is to strengthen that so Kevin and Andy might look to bring in some more premium catering pubs as well.
Out of the 30 pubs that do offer catering, is the food-to-beverage ratio changing?
In the five pubs where we have changed the menu already, yes, massively so. One house has increased its turnover on food by about 30%. In fairness to that one pub it was a menu change and a manager change at the same time, so the emphasis should be on both, but nevertheless the new menu was welcomed massively.
What is your view of the catering equipment market as a buyer at the moment?
It is a hard one because of the word ‘Brexit’ on everybody’s lips — prices have gone up and we have seen inflationary prices come through in early 2017. Even discussing with companies at the latter end of 2016, they were saying, ‘look, we can give you a price now but the chances are that it’s going to be going up in early 2017’. Is it therefore a good time for us to invest? It is hard to tell to be honest, but I think the one thing I do need to do is invest because I need to up the ante on the quality and the capability of some of the equipment in the estate. If increases are afoot we just have to make sure that whatever we buy is fit for purpose and has got longevity.
Longevity seems to be a popular word among catering equipment buyers I speak to these days.
Longevity and consistency are really important to us. And again, just from using my 10 years at Greene King I know what companies there are and I know what appliances there are and I am able to cherry-pick. I am not a guy who will suite a kitchen in one brand, I believe in really cherry-picking the right appliance for the right fit.
What sort of kit do you really rate at the moment?
I’m a fan of combi ovens and I am a big believer in the multi-tasking appliances, but what I don’t like to do, or tend to do, is go for the very high-tech ones because with the best will in the world we have some chefs who are very capable but sometimes they just want to put a product into an oven, hit a couple of buttons and either steam it, poach it or roast it, or maybe a couple of combinations where it will go from steam to convection. What I’m saying is that I don’t want to get too scientific because I think if you look at the skill set out there, and chef being chef, some of them still prefer the standard convection ovens underneath.
I would imagine the culture at Pub People Co. is very different to Greene King, which is a huge, publicly-listed corporate entity with 1,600 pubs?
Yes, purely because of that scale and everything that goes with it. And Greene King was very much involved with the likes of Electrolux and Lincat. I know all the companies so there is no problem with me approaching those but I will be very specific about what I want and how many of them I want, and the reasons behind it. And the reason behind what I want is the menu, so by me creating the menu I am able to say, ‘right I need this number of rapid recovery ovens, or fryers, or whatever it might be.’ It is all about tailoring it to the menu needs.
Any full kitchen refurbs planned for 2017?
Not in the short term, but I have only been with the company nine months so one of the things I will be doing is creating a mid- to long-term strategy for the company in terms of everything catering. So tentatively, yes, we might find that in our estate we have to completely overhaul kitchens or even that we acquire a business of a larger scale that we can fit a previous template into. Pub People actually had quite a few leasehold businesses with the likes of Enterprise, Punch and Greene King, and just before Christmas we acquired a local country pub called The Red Lion near Bagthorpe. We completely gutted and refurbished the kitchen in there based on our specification. We designed a new menu and then designed the kitchen based on the pub criteria.
I’m a big believer in the multi-tasking appliances, but I prefer not to get too scientific. Sometimes chefs just want to put a product into an oven, hit a couple of buttons and either steam it, poach it or roast it”
What’s your schedule looking like for the rest of the year? You’ve had successful menu changes in five pubs. Are you moving that into other houses now?
Yes, we are already moving onto some of the other pubs. The remainder of 2017 is probably going to involve cherry-picking where the best opportunities lie. We have got some pubs out there that are in quite reasonable growth, and have seen consistent growth for two or three years, so at the moment I am looking at ones that are in decline and need more focus. These are good pubs in good locations but for one reason or another they haven’t hit the mark with the local customer. So I think 2017 will be an interesting year in which we will kind of consolidate and understand where we want to put the capital expenditure to get the best return. Equipment will be at the forefront of that.
My biggest kitchen bugbear
David George has specced out hundreds of pub kitchens during his more than 25 years in the trade and seen the sophistication of catering equipment improve tremendously. But if there is one thing that irritates him it’s the ease — or rather lack of — with which appliances can be maintained.
“They need to be pretty much idiot-proof because the harder manufacturers make maintenance and cleaning of products, the less likely they are to get cleaned and maintained,” he argues. ”Quite often when I look at specification of kit I’ll put my chef’s hat on and I’ll think, ‘right, how easy can I actually clean it, how long will it take me to do it, how labour-intensive is it, is it automated?’ So from my point of view I think it is an area that still needs improving.”
Following on closely behind is the issue of running costs. “Is it green? Is it low energy? I am a big fan of that,” he says. “One of the products I designed for Greene King was a big pass unit and in there I wanted to make sure that even the Halogen lamps were all individually lit so at a down-trading time of the day you could just have one lamp burning energy instead of a whole row of them. With the constant rising cost of gas and electric, energy efficiency is important.”
Profile: Pub People Company
Name: The Pub People Company Ltd
Address: 15 Maisies Way, South Normanton, Alfreton, Derbyshire, DE55 2DS
Tel: 01773 510863
Pubs: Approx. 60
Head office staff: Approx. 25
Turnover: £11.6m (From last publicly available full accounts, for year ending 31/03/15)
Snapshot: The Pub People Co. owns and operates a pub estate primarily based in the East Midlands and provides pub management, accounting and marketing services for national and local clients.