Kitchens in pubs and bars have come a long way in recent years, with operators investing more money into their back-of-house infrastructure to reflect the importance of food sales to their businesses. At the Commercial Kitchen Show, FEJ’s editor Andrew Seymour caught up with two renowned operators at either end of the pub spectrum when it comes to scale — Greene King and The Alchemist — to discover the forces and factors shaping their daily work.
It doesn’t matter whether you run 10 pub kitchens or 1,000, the same level of attention to detail is required to ensure that chefs have the set-up they need to deliver the menu from an environment that is comfortable and practical to work in.
That is certainly something that resonates with Seamus O’Donnell, executive chef at The Alchemist, who was there when the brand opened its first site a decade ago having originally been part of Living Ventures where he started as a head chef. The Alchemist estate is now closing in on 20 sites, including Aether, a new concept that currently has its maiden location in Liverpool ONE but which could be expanded depending on its success.
O’Donnell admits that every kitchen the chain has opened “works slightly differently” and he looks to take learnings from each one to constantly improve them. Before a new site is opened he will receive the dimensions of the kitchen footprint and will then work out what it can fit into the space.
“Sometimes I’m very lucky and I get my ’square’, other times I get an L-shape or a shape that doesn’t even have a name! The chefs need the correct equipment to work with so it’s about trying to fit it in and deliver our menu. We are very lucky as a team in that it is very much give and take — we work together to try and deliver an operational unit at the end of the day. I’ll go back to my kitchen fitters, they’ll design it from scratch and then maybe we’ll shuffle some things around. But it’s quite a quick process. We can be given a blank canvas and have a kitchen designed in two weeks.”
O’Donnell says he is always keen to seek the ”inner thoughts” of his chefs when it comes to future improvements in the kitchen or design tweaks — and the importance of a chef’s eye for detail is something that Greene King’s Craig Brookfield holds in high regard, too.
He is kitchen design equipment manager at Greene King and has spent more than 25 years in commercial kitchens. “I suppose my time in the whites in the kitchen has given me great insight and when we’re looking at kitchen design, putting in pieces of kit and designing templates, it gives me that background and knowledge. The chefs are our most important people in the kitchen so being able to share that with them and design a kitchen around that is key to what we do.”
Prior to Greene King, Brookfield worked for Mitchells & Butlers after it acquired the Orchid Group five years ago, who he was with at the time. When he joined up with Greene King, which today runs 3,000 pubs, the business operated 18 separate brands but that has been consolidated to around nine core brands in the past year.
Given its background of predominantly wet-led pubs, the company has invested heavily in making sure it tailors the right food offering to each brand and location. That naturally has implications for the infrastructure. “Every kitchen starts with a template, but it’s how you get that into some of the sized kitchens we’ve got which is the compromise — it’s the biggest challenge we face.”
As you’d imagine for a business with Greene King’s scale, there are a number of key stakeholders that all support and influence the kitchen operations. Although he is the only one within the business with his job title, he works under the umbrella of food development and is directly plugged into the senior food development team.
“That’s where all the food ideas start,” he says. “I will then work closely with the guys in property, supporting those delivering the development plan and the budgets that they’ve got. I’ll also delve into our boots on the ground, so our food ops coaches and managers that are out there in the business, that walk the kitchens and know the business better than me.”
Developing a food offer
When the first Alchemist opened at Spinningfields in Manchester, it had room for 30 covers. The site has since been refurbished to expand it to 130 covers, bringing it in line with other properties in the company’s portfolio.
“That really tells you everything about how the food offering has expanded,” says O’Donnell. “The menu has developed and it is more of an all-day dining venue now compared to where it used to be. I would describe the menu as an eclectic mix, it’s not tied down to any one genre, it’s just a really good environment to eat and drink.”
There is no doubt that standards in pub food have increased dramatically, with a clear emphasis on variety, fresh ingredients and quality. In response, the big chains have had to invest in providing the right cooking platforms and capacity to be able to meet demand.
After-care is a massive part of it for us. It’s how we react to it that matters because we need to make sure our first-time fix is not affecting the operation”
“I think we inherited quite a lot of football pitch-sized kitchens that were built in the nineties and the noughties — it was that period where you had a brigade of eight to 10 chefs in a kitchen,” says Brookfield. “Nowadays it is the flip side of that, we don’t have the luxury of all those bodies in a kitchen. So if you take one of those big kitchens for instance, we’ll look at the design in terms of the footsteps for the chef and how we can condense it so that everything’s in touching point as opposed to working from one end to the other.”
One of Brookfield’s proudest achievements has been the enhancements made to its Chef and Brewer brand, where it has “brought the kitchens into the 21st century” by specifying equipment that is allowing it to deliver a modern menu. “The kit in those kitchens was dated — it was probably around 20 years old and served a purpose back in the day, but it was hindering them big time.”
Setting out priorities
With thousands of sites and multiple brands to consider, the business can only realistically focus on a certain number of things at a time when it comes to its kitchens. One of those, as you’d perhaps expect, is sustainability.
“The key emphasis really is around cleaner, greener, more energy efficient and we’ve already dipped our toe into the water with some of that kit — we’ve got some live trials going on at the moment,” explains Brookfield. “It’s around cooking equipment, how we deal with food waste, how dirty water exits the building — all those things that might come into play in future years as regulations are enforced.”
Energy savings and cost reduction feature prominently on The Alchemist’s agenda, too. It has brought energy efficient grills into the business and benefitted from demand-driven extraction systems that respond to the level of cooking activity taking place.
“They are activated by heat and smoke and save an awful lot of energy, as well as saving the fans themselves because they are not running all day and only being turned off for six hours. It’s important to try and elongate the shelf life of them,” says O’Donnell.
Catering equipment lifecycles
When you’re running multiple kitchens, longevity of equipment is a key consideration. The Alchemist has procedures in place to ensure regular health checks and maintenance.
“One of the things I am very proud of within The Alchemist is that the head chefs care about the equipment they have,” says O’Donnell. “If you give them a good standard of spec to begin with, that they’re proud to work with in your kitchen, they will clean it and care for it. I’ve got a kitchen in Leeds that’s been open three or four years now and I walk into it and it looks brand new. That’s testament to the chefs that work there, and it’s testament to the equipment. That makes things easier, so we build kitchens to last.”
At Greene King, where the size of the estate is significantly larger, the challenge of creating a culture where equipment care is held in high regard is an even fiercer challenge. “After-care is a massive part of it for us,” says Brookfield.
“It’s how we react to it that matters because we need to make sure our first-time fix is not affecting the operation. There is nothing worse than a piece of kit being down for days or weeks on end and that kitchen team can’t deliver what they need to.”
Talking shop: Craig Brookfield, kitchen design equipment manager at Greene King
“We will open the door to anybody if we think the equipment is viable and we’ll trial it in the test kitchen first. Then we’ll do a live trial on site for a number of months to assess the suitability and whether it is robust enough. There is no closed door to any supplier, we are open to looking at new stuff all the time.”
On the characteristics it looks for in new equipment….
“I guess we can sometimes over-complicate kit. With some of our brands I kind of explain it to manufacturers that it needs to be ‘bomb-proof’ because that’s the kind of kicking it will get in some of the businesses. You’re not always going to walk into a kitchen where there is a proud team that looks after what’s in there, and it’s nice and shiny.
“Unfortunately we do have kitchens where equipment does get a lot of abuse so the kit has got be robust, it’s got to stand up to the test and in some instances, it should not be over-complicated. Innovation can be the next new thing that’s coming round the corner or it can be working on a piece of existing kit to lift it to the next level.”
On how wide it casts its net for new catering equipment…
“We have built up a lot of relationships and rapport with a lot of people in the UK, but we also have other people working for us that will challenge further into America and other parts of the world to see what’s out there and they are then tasked with bringing that back to us. If we set up an open day we’ll run a kind of speed dating session for suppliers to show us their products.”
What’s on The Alchemist’s shopping list?
As The Alchemist has expanded, its executive chef Seamus O’Donnell has moved to ensure that its kitchens receive equipment upgrades when necessary, with a particular focus on energy efficiency, sustainability and usability. The company has brought in fridges that recover temperature more quickly and grills that are more efficient to run, but it will only entertain the concept of greener equipment if it is user-friendly to operate.
“I am very lucky within The Alchemist that we have everything we need,” insists O’Donnell. “I work for a great bunch of directors who understand the kitchen needs to operate and what we need to operate. There isn’t anything I don’t have that I desperately need. It tends to be about where the menu takes me — that’s when I’ll need a new piece of equipment.”
Surely there must be one item on his wish-list that he would like to add to his kitchens if he had to give an answer? “Well, I would like some ice cream machines to develop the menu a bit further, but the challenge is trying to find the space for them!”