Fast-growing restaurant and bar chain Loungers credits a more system and process-based approach to menu development for ensuring its kitchens have been able to keep pace with the rapid expansion of its business.
The firm, which operates the Loungers and Cosy Clubs brands, had around 60 sites two years ago, but relentless growth in the period since has seen the size of the estate double.
Antony Bennett, head of food at Loungers and the man who oversees its group-wide kitchen activities, was brought on board in 2016 and he says the sheer pace of its roll-out programme means it has had to adapt the way it develops its kitchens and menus.
“When I joined it wasn’t so much a system-based company, it was very much ‘we’re going to open loads of restaurants, let’s do it’,” he said. “I came in to try and help put a process in, so for me it is the process side that then delivers the end product to the guest, which is more bums on seats, which is then profitability as well.”
Last year the group launched no less than 28 menus across the two brands – an “exhausting” schedule that led to Mr Bennett and his team concluding that things could be done differently in future.
“It was almost like one every couple of weeks, so we have had to change as a business to realise that you don’t always have to do a new menu; actually what you can do is look at what you are currently doing and do it better by speaking to your existing supplier base, or bringing some new ones in, and just thinking about how you then deliver the item or the section if the menu as well.”
Mr Bennett remains hands-on when it comes to food and menu development, but is quick to credit the experienced team he has around him for conceiving new ideas and executing menu roll-outs.
One of the challenges has been ensuring that the Loungers and Cosy Clubs have their own food identity.
“We know Loungers are a very casual, relaxed place where you can have a coffee, a breakfast or you can have steak, whereas with the Cosy Club we spent a lot of time making that very eccentric and British — ‘splendid’ was the word that we used, so we wanted to make the food reflect that. As a result, that was a much easier way to approach menu development rather than just ‘vegan’s big right now’ and ‘gluten free is great’ because trying to be everything to everyone is very difficult when we haven’t got one particular food to focus on.
“So we went back to the drawing board with Cosy Club, got out some really old cookbooks — 50-60-year-old ones — and really had fun with it. We have got some real classics on there that and have tried to take elements of that pre-1970 stuff and reflect that into the dishes. So once you have got that base you can then decide which type of dishes you want to develop and then go from there.”
Mr Bennett said the chain has increased the level of training and support for chefs. All of its kitchens now contain full cookbooks and step-by-step cooking guides, complete with visuals, while chefs have access to more resources to help them deliver consistent dishes.
Mr Bennett was speaking on the ‘Menu Innovation for Multi-site Operators’ panel at the Casual Dining Show.