INDUSTRY INTERVIEW: Greene King’s Karen Bosher discusses kitchen lessons from lockdown

Karen Bosher, managing director, premium, urban and venture brands

Before Greene King began reopening its pubs this month, it spent lockdown developing a delivery and takeaway service that was rolled out through its Metropolitan Pub Company. Karen Bosher, managing director of premium, urban and venture brands, discusses how that project gave it a valuable insight to the challenges it could face as sites get back on their feet again and why kitchen innovation, flexibility and speed are taking on new meaning in the current climate.

You’ve been heavily involved with your Metropolitan Pub Company division in terms of initiatives around takeaway and click-and-collect. That began with the opening of 10 sites for walk-in takeaway and delivery — with those 10 also serving as dark kitchen operations for 19 other sites. It must have been a great feeling to get some of the business back open.

Yes, it was absolutely fantastic to welcome the team back. They were really keen to get some sort of service out to the community spaces, but we’ve had to really time ourselves because we’re taking the wellbeing of the team as well as the guests very seriously. Getting that operation set up right wasn’t a straightforward path. We had to really consult with them and work through how we were going to do it so that they felt happy to volunteer to come back.”

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How did you select the pubs and kitchens that opened to provide those services?

We used a number of different avenues. Given the physical nature of the estate, we’ve chosen the easiest ones to open first, which we believed would give us some really good learning in terms of the templates faced and how they would operate to provide those services.

We also took some guidance from other partners about where they felt there was likely to be demand, particularly for the click-and-collect and delivery service businesses — so where they were starting to see a requirement for the styles of products that we’re able to put into the market.

But far and away the biggest consideration was accessibility and being able to do that in a safe way that meant that the schemes could get used to the idea of the new style of pub operation that we were going to have. So that’s how we went around it.

Safety of staff and social distancing back-of-house must have been a big consideration when planning for this…

Yes, definitely. I think it’s one of the key challenges actually — how do you operationalise your offer whilst maintaining safe social distancing?

Having realistic but high hygiene measures and quick ways to keep sanitising that environment and avoiding crossover in the kitchen is really imperative.

With Metropolitan, we have our highest qualified cheffing skill base for Greene King. These are gastropubs, therefore they tend to be larger open plan kitchens, but we are using the protocols and some of the learning that we’ve established there to move into some of our smaller kitchens. It is allowing us to use that useful learning with real expertise.

When we get more to the line chef-style businesses, we’re going to have to be far more disciplined in terms of how those individuals are guided through that environment”

When we get more to the line chef-style businesses, we’re going to have to be far more disciplined in terms of how those individuals are guided through that environment.

We may have to reduce cheffing quite dramatically because of the limitations of space, particularly in places like the London businesses. And it’s really important we can run those spaces properly. They’re quite difficult little kitchens in some cases. We’re learning a lot from the guys because they are really giving us a lot of feedback about what’s achievable and what isn’t.

Have you encountered anything yet that has surprised you or forced you to rethink the way you might deliver food or bring the chef teams together?

I think what’s really inspiring and what’s come out of this is how much innovation can occur so quickly. We know that we are working in a really entrepreneurial sector but I think that when people’s backs are against the wall in the way they have been over the last nine weeks, and we’re trying to come up with safe, scalable solutions, it’s amazing to think about what is within the art of possible.

And I’m sure that some of these practices, which will be deployed for immediate considerations, will become part of our ongoing and long-term planning in terms of how we design our kitchens and our pub environments.

As somebody who really enjoys innovation personally, and the team that I work with really enjoys it, I think that all of a sudden we’re seeing all the possibilities now that our confidence is up that we can operate in a safe and sustainable way.

In terms of the delivery and takeaway side, do you still see that continuing once pubs are open permanently again, or is it very much a temporary programme?

Before all of this kicked off we were in several trials actually, both on delivery and what we refer to as the order-and-pay, click-and-collect model.

So the future has just arrived much sooner in a bigger volume than we reasonably expected. So we’re speed-dating that model right now and we’re sufficiently encouraged that we will embed that through most of our businesses because we think that the customers will guide us here in terms of the demands they make on us.

But certainly one of our considerations is how this service model works in a pub environment, through the kitchen more acutely than anything.

I think we’re learning that we can handle both sides, so I think if it gives us capacity, if it gives the customer some comfort if they love the pub experience but they’re not confident yet to return to the pub environment, then we will hopefully be able to deliver to both sides of that whilst we move through this spectrum of moving back to a new normalised pub experience, which inevitably we will do at some point.

What was the reaction  from your customers? Was there a good uptake in terms of takeaway and delivery?

It has been absolutely outstanding. We have really reinvented our experience in Metropolitan. We’re baking bread, we are pickling various bits of produce, we’re making jam. We’ve got great supply chains in Metropolitan and, actually, being in those areas there are products that we can supply through the pubs that customers are otherwise really struggling to get access to.

There was quite a salutation about a strong bread flour arriving that they could buy and take home. So setting up those deli areas has given us a new dynamic and created a bit of a conversation, so I think they’ve really welcomed that.

Pub kitchens are renowned for getting good food out pretty quickly to their customers. As you’ve moved into the takeaway and delivery side, has this enhanced that?

Well, it’s certainly stretching our skill base. We’ve got a phenomenal bunch of chefs who are really skilled and great at doing the food they do. They’re all operating on different levels, but they do a great job of getting the food out, and they get it out really quickly.

One of our considerations in this whole thing was about how it will affect our speed of service. But we saw some really positive guest feedback last week saying that even though the menu was cut slightly, the speed of service was maintained.

What has been the main challenge throughout this process?

Apart from the social distancing challenge, I think that actually moving from a plated operation into a boxed operation, or a sustainable packaging operation, has been the single biggest challenge because you don’t want to compromise your quality to the guests.

And I think everybody’s been hankering after that fish and chips that they’ve gone without for nine weeks. So the last thing you then want is to have some sort of soggy mess arrive in a box while they’re sitting out in a park space.

So we take that really seriously and the chefs have really stepped up and done a great job of operationalising that whole plan. But we’ve been quite considered about how we’ve done it because we have seen examples where people have rushed to ‘solutionise’ that and maybe quality in the process has been compromised at the sharp end.

One of our considerations is how the delivery service model works in a pub environment, through the kitchen more acutely than anything”

We were very keen to make sure that that was maintained. The other thing I would say is about the cleaning down process mid-session, which is also going to be quite imperative.

A sustainable and hygienically cleaned kitchen that is always meeting the requirements of the risk assessment is going to be quite a big challenge. So working really smartly in those spaces is a massive consideration and we’re learning a lot from these plans.

As you reflect on what has been an unprecedented couple of months, what is the biggest thing you have learnt?

It’s going to sound a little bit clichéd but I absolutely do mean it: do not underestimate the power of people. Because when we put a call out to the Metropolitan team and said we’re going to open 10 pubs, we did not have to ask twice. And actually for every idea we gave them — and bear in mind we had been green-housing our thought processes for quite a few weeks — they came back with three better ones.

So listening to your team, working with them in the environment, and doing practical things is the most enlightening thing that you can do. We’ve been really heartened by the loyalty of our regulars but also people that we’ve never seen that have been prepared to give us a go. That gives me a lot of hope for the future of pubs in the UK.

Karen Bosher was speaking during a recent episode of Market Talk. View the full interview HERE.

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Andrew Seymour

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