Outdoor cooking has been embraced by a whole host of operators, from top golf clubs to pubs and bars, and from popular restaurants to universities, all keen to take advantage of an al fresco dining trend that has gained pace in the UK market during recent years.
But whereas outside dining once meant dragging out a domestic barbecue and sticking it back in the shed once summer has ended, the market is now far more sophisticated.
“In a specially commissioned independent survey, Cinders Barbecues found that one in 12 people would always opt for barbecued over kitchen-prepared food, if eating out at a pub or restaurant on a fine summer’s day,” reveals the company’s marketing director Karen Swift.
“That means there is a big market for those with an al fresco operation. However, the British weather is hugely unpredictable, so it pays to have a barbecue like the Cinders Classic, which can be put up in minutes if the weather is good, and also be up and running and cooking in minutes thanks to its LPG power and unique, fast-heating grilling surface.
“25% of people who were interviewed in our survey said they would love to see pubs and hotels suddenly popping up a barbecue as an additional food choice when the weather turns out beautiful. Cinders has that pop-up barbecue and would say, on the basis of its research, that this has to be part of a well-equipped outdoor cooking set-up.”
Additionally, one of the main customer needs, according to Cinders’ research, is for food to be cooked swiftly. 18% of respondents to its survey said they get frustrated if food takes a long time to cook. And a quarter said that having to queue for their food ruins the al fresco experience.
“This need for swift food service is one reason why the Cinders’ Classic barbecue has been designed in such a way as to cook food swiftly, yet thoroughly and to perfection. It takes just minutes to turn food around and the barbecue can easily turn out 1,000 burgers in a day’s session.”
Ray Hall, managing director of RH Hall, which distributes the Crown Verity brand in the UK, says the huge versatility of some barbecue systems is driving uptake among a wide range of foodservice operators.
“Some simply require a standalone barbecue that can easily be moved for service in different areas and is built to last — while others have worked with our Food Solutions team to create a complete outdoor kitchen set-up, including refrigeration, prep and handwash facilities, with some even incorporating bespoke graphics to promote their outdoor menu options.”
When specifying outdoor cooking equipment, operators generally don’t have the space, design and ventilation constraints they face when it comes to indoor kitchens. What factors do they therefore have to pay most attention to?
For a start, they need to decide where to site their equipment to put on a show, but they also have to make sure that the queue that forms does not adversely affect the dining experience of other seated diners, particularly if they are using a slow barbecue that keeps the queue waiting a fair while.
Nick McDonald, commercial director at catering equipment supplier Rexmartins, says operators need to be confident that their outdoor cooking suite is capable of delivering sufficient volume in a short space of time.
“Nobody appreciates being kept waiting for that mouth-watering burger or hot dog! This means that a gas barbecue, for example, should offer sufficient power and plenty of cooking area. It is wise to compare power ratings and cooking grid sizes of different models. A lightweight barbecue might be fine for feeding a few people in your back garden but it won’t be sufficient for a busy pub or hotel. Operators should also think beyond the cooking process. A decent outdoor cooking suite can include wine chillers, food fridges, storage cupboards and handwash units.”
The menu needs to complement the existing restaurant offer so that although they are viewed as separate operations by the customer they actually work hand in hand from a business perspective”
Those cooking with solid fuel also need to be aware of emissions legislation in their area and check whether they are in a Smoke Control Area, before they start cooking.
Antony Ward, brand manager at Hendi, says a well-equipped outdoor kitchen generally consists of a showpiece oven or grill alongside substantial preparation space and handwash facilities.
“For busy operations, additional refrigeration may be required especially if the main kitchen is some distance from the outdoor area. Utensils and cookware should also be considered — it may be that instead of using normal pans from the kitchen the operator needs to invest in cast iron or other heavy duty cookware.
“Whether the venue is a balcony, courtyard, garden, roof or field the operator needs to ask what they want their al fresco kitchen to offer — it should be so much more than stereotypical barbecue food. They also need to decide what sort of al fresco dining experience they want to create as this will inform the other equipment required, such as outdoor seating and patio heaters for example.”
Grill manufacturer Synergy recently introduced an Outdoor Cook Station following the success of its indoor grill.
Commercial and marketing director, Richard Ebbs, says: “When using an outdoor grill, many catering professionals are unable to decide whether gas is the most convenient, if charcoal produces a better flavour or if electric is the most reliable. The Synergy Grill can offer the benefits of all three, along with stress-free, high-quality cooking without compromising on the food quality served.
“Unlike traditional outdoor units which lose heat rapidly, thus requiring regular restoration of coals, the Synergy Grill outdoor unit is able to maintain a powerful, consistent heat thanks to a combination of fuel injection air gas technology and natural ceramics. Thermal shock resistant bars also allow chefs to cook a higher volume of food, safe in the knowledge that the temperature will remain consistent.”
Just like a regular kitchen, outdoor dining areas should be well thought-out, achieve a good flow and, most importantly, be capable of delivering the standard of food that customers expect from a visit to a restaurant.
“Due to the nature of outdoor cooking areas, almost all of them are on display to the customer and, as such, should be treated like an open plan, front-of-house kitchen,” agrees Steve Morris, sales director at Jestic Foodservice Equipment. “Equipment should be reliable, robust to protect it from the elements and, crucially, offer a design that makes it stand out, grabbing attention and engaging the customer in the cooking process.”
Jestic has just introduced two wood-fired pizza ovens from Italian manufacturer Alfa Pro to its portfolio. The Quick and the Quattro Pro offer all the showstopping design and cooking potential of gas-fired alternatives, but thanks to heavy duty castors and the simple, wood-fired power, chefs can move them to an outdoor cooking area during the summer months.
“As one of the nation’s favourite foods, authentic pizza is one of the most popular choices, especially when dining in an al fresco environment,” insists Morris.
The other question is how intrinsically linked outdoor cooking equipment should be to indoor kitchen operations.
Cinders Barbecues claims it has built its 35-year success on the realisation that the indoor kitchen and al fresco operation have to be interlinked.
Karen Swift says: “Barbecue diners want side dishes to complement their food and this means bringing dishes out of the kitchen to sit alongside the barbecue. A whopping third of those interviewed in Cinders’ independent research survey said that “not enough thought is given to side dishes” by chefs running barbecues.
To assist chefs, Cinders has developed optional extras for its barbecues — one of which is a pan support that enables food to be kept warm over the barbecue, whether that food is side dishes or burger buns.
“The latter may not seem as important, but nearly a quarter of people hate being served a cold bun with their barbecued food. Additionally, if pubs and restaurants are to give diners the pop-up experience they’ve indicated they would like to see whenever the weather is good, it has to be planned in conjunction with the standard menu, so that a switch of staffing resource and food ingredients can be made. This might mean moving staff from internal kitchen to patio or beer garden and determining which dishes might be dropped from the normal menu, so as to maximises sales outdoors and not put any strain on the kitchen.”
Hendi’s Antony Ward says that in addition to enhancing the food offer, and turning once unused space into a revenue centre, an outside kitchen can also relieve pressure on the main kitchen at busy times.
“The menu needs to complement the existing restaurant offer so that although they are viewed as separate operations by the customer they actually work hand in hand from a business perspective,” he says.
A decent outdoor cooking suite can include wine chillers, food fridges, storage cupboards and handwash units”
The right barbecue range should give foodservice operators the versatility to link their outdoor and indoor menus, or have a completely separate outdoor operation that they can put into action whenever it is required.
“Proximity to refrigeration, prep areas and handwash facilities is paramount if using a barbecue only and many operators will choose to enhance the traditional barbecue items with salads and side dishes, which will be prepared using the indoor kitchen,” says RH Hall’s Ray Hall. “However, should space and budget be available, a more permanent outdoor kitchen can be created, allowing operators to provide a full menu that is isolated from their standard offering.”
With the climate in the UK unpredictable at best, some businesses are looking for dual purpose catering equipment rather than investing in separate outdoor cooking equipment.
“This multifunctional equipment allows chefs to move appliances such as pizza ovens from the kitchen, where they are used throughout the winter, to the al fresco dining area for the warmer months,” says Jestic’s Morris.
“It’s for this reason that the Alfa Quick and the Quattro Pro both come as standard with heavy duty castors. An innovative design, constructed from a robust, yet lightweight stainless-steel frame, in a honeycomb design, makes the appliances easy to move when required, while a hardwearing, powder coating protect from corrosion and rust caused by being left out in the elements.”
Operators that really take time to maximise their outdoor cooking space should see their profits bloom.