Pub chain Fuller’s is targeting £100m a year from food sales — after spending £20m upgrading its kitchens over the past five years. FEJ hears how it has put a sustainable catering strategy in place that gives chefs an unprecedented level of kitchen ownership.
Brewery group Fuller’s has earned a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking chains in its sector when it comes to food, having invested heavily in state-of-the-art equipment for its kitchens during recent years.
The roll-out of high-end Ambach cooking suites — not traditionally the kind of brand you’d expect to see in a pub kitchen — has provided its kitchens with access to the most powerful catering equipment around, while the creation of a formal Chefs’ Guild programme has increased the standard of professional cooking throughout its business and done wonders for staff retention.
Head of food, Paul Dickinson, joined the firm in 2011 and set about devising a food structure for the chain, focusing on processes, quality and ingredients within a clear framework. In that time, food sales have rocketed from £40m to £74m, and the overriding goal is to hit £100m.
“The food GP grew because we were buying the right product at the right volume, working with suppliers to get things through,” he says, reflecting on how the operation has improved. “And the other key factor has been skilled chefs. When I joined Fuller’s you were either kitchen manager or chef — we now have seven grades of chef. I have got 1,259 chefs and 150 vacancies. We now have a classical kitchen set-up, which is what we needed by the time we got to investing in the kitchens.”
Dickinson acknowledges that when he came up with the idea that Fuller’s mission should be to become “famous for food”, it was a “big, audacious goal” but said it was necessary to set the bar high in order to move the business to the next level.
The company, which runs 400 pubs, mainly in the south of England, has focused on meeting demand for traditional food with a modern twist, while instilling greater depth, skill and passion to its brigade through structured training.
Speaking at the CESA Conference, he recalls: “I remember my first kitchen experience at Fuller’s. I had a pan, they wanted crispy skin on chicken, on fish — that chicken ain’t coming out of that pan, it is going in the bin with the chicken! So we invested heavily — we have now spent £20m on kitchens; we have invested in just over 145 kitchens in the last five years. An average kitchen costs £120,000 excluding flooring, walls and all the rest of it.
“And the kitchens are modelled to cook by the grades of the chefs we have. So we have got a good pass — the pass dictates how many plates and covers we can change or how many plates we can deliver every 15 minutes. There is madness and methodology to everything we do. In a pub company where you used to have a cheese sandwich with onions on the bar wrapped in cellophane, it has been transformational.”
The Fuller’s Chefs’ Guild that the company created three years ago provides a focus for the ongoing development of all chefs, from kitchen assistant to executive chef level. It defines Fuller’s brigade structure and the technical, management and leadership standards expected of each member of the food team.
When I joined Fuller’s you were either kitchen manager or chef — we now have seven grades of chef. I have got 1,259 chefs and 150 vacancies”
“When you go into our kitchens now, you have got chefs who are proud. We pay for all their chef whites, their shoes, their aprons, the laundry, and that makes the difference when it comes to retention. You go into the kitchens now and you don’t have to turn the ovens on to warm up — we have got tempered air, so it’s hot and cold. All these things make a difference.
“It’s all been about people, it wasn’t about driving profit. If you have people cooking properly in a trained environment, and controlled and developed in a trained environment, they will deliver the profit. The £100m, we might be there, we might not — I can’t say because we are in a closed period — but I think the cool thing is these chefs are now cooking and working with the right equipment.”
The introduction of a ‘Chef of the Year’ programme — now in its fourth year — provides further evidence of Fuller’s efforts to empower its chefs. It is open to all 1,200 chefs, with eight senior finalists and eight junior finalists taking part in a cook-off that sees two winners flown to America to spend time in the kitchens of some of the most acclaimed restaurants around.
“Last year two chefs went to Per Se for three days and Daniel Boulud for three days. After the last shift on the third night, Daniel sat them down in the restaurant and gave them a $1,500 dining experience. He was blown away by what we had created in sending the guys to New York. I sent my group exec over, just to look after them, and he actually ended up working all the shifts. But that is the goal: go and learn what goes on in other places and come back with ideas.”
Meanwhile, Fuller’s scholarship programme, which comprises three levels, has harboured 700 participants in six years, with almost 50 head chefs passing through the scheme. Dickinson says retention rates are higher among those that undertake the scholarship and that it is not unusual for those that have left to return to the business after realising just much autonomy they have.
“When you work for Fuller’s you own your kitchen. It is not one menu, I have 210 menus. We have a way we manage them all, but they own their kitchens and they can talk to their customers.”
Every Fuller’s kitchen is different. Some will do just £500 a day on food while those at the other end of the scale make £10,000 a day from their kitchens. All pubs have a core menu consisting of traditional dishes that punters like, but every season chefs are encouraged to build and introduce special dishes. Relevance, price, distinctiveness and awareness are the key areas it measures its offer on.
An average kitchen costs £120,000 excluding flooring, walls and all the rest of it, and they are modelled to cook by the grades of the chefs we have”
“We have given our chefs ingredients to take it to the next level,” insists Dickinson. “70% of our supply chain is British and local — that does include Ireland and Northern Ireland as well because they do some really great beef. It is really about understanding what we have in our garden in order to execute for our customers.
“The ownership of the house is driven by chefs’ signatures. The blackboard is owned by the house. They can look at the weather and they have a massive dish repertoire by meat, by fish, by starters, by mains, and that is the difference when the house owns it. Then with the core classics you have got to just follow that spec. People want consistency in fish and chips. There is nothing worse than going into one pub and having a little thing of tartar sauce and you go to another and get half a kilo. We don’t want those customers asking for more tartar sauce because that’s not efficiency, so we balance things out and we engage with our chefs.”
In London, where 80% of staff are non-English speaking as a first language, chefs are free to bring a touch of their home markets to the menu.
“For example, we have got some amazing Nepalese staff in East London and on a Wednesday night they will do Nepalese curry, then for the rest of the week they’ll do what food is relevant to that pub. I am not going to do curries all over the estate because I haven’t got the workforce or the authenticity, so we need to make sure we are doing what the customers want.”
Fuller’s has found a formula that offers its chefs a sense of self-sufficiency and its customers the best of both worlds — local specials and classics done consistently. When it does finally reach the £100m food sales mark, Dickinson and his team will be perfectly entitled to raise a glass.
Fuller’s kitchens cook up £16m worth of Sunday roasts as British favourite reigns supreme
Kitchens operated by Fuller’s generated an astonishing £16m in revenue from the sale of Sunday roasts alone last year. Sunday is still the busiest week day for food sales, with the traditional British favourite continuing to go down a storm with customers. It typically sells 9,000 roasts across the 100 or so pubs that offer them on a Sunday, with the company buying in half a million kilos of potatoes.
Like-for-like food sales at Fuller’s, which runs nearly 400 pubs in the UK, have increased by 1.6% in the past six months, the company revealed in its recent half-year results.
Simon Emeny, chief executive at Fuller’s, says: “Our chefs have met the rising trend for healthy eating by doubling the number of vegetarian and vegan dishes in their repertoires. During the period, we also ran a month-long Fuller’s Veggie Kitchen at The Fence in Farringdon, which was a huge success with its immersive veggie experience, while The Stable continues to deliver an excellent vegan offer, which has proved popular with customers.”
Emeney says that Fuller’s has also now completely implemented an integrated recipe and stock system across the business, which is paying dividends. “[It] gives us improved visibility of food stocks and margins and has helped minimise food waste without impacting creativity and innovation,” he comments.