What will kitchen operations and menus look like when pubs begin to reopen again — especially if social distancing and capacity measures need to be respected? Nathan Evans, food operations manager at SA Brain & Co, recently discussed the scenario-planning it has been carrying out to ensure its kitchens can operate under any eventuality.
Not surprisingly for someone whose role is inextricably linked to the kitchen, Nathan Evans can’t wait to don his chef whites and get back behind the stove again.
As food operations manager at 200-strong pub chain SA Brain & Co, his role encompasses everything from food safety and skills training to menu development and kitchen projects.
“No two days are the same in the role — it’s quite varied,” he says. “One day I could be sat here talking about kitchen design, the next day I could be talking to EHOs about what we’re doing with our latest stores and things like that. Or ultimately, I could be sat there eating lots of food, which is probably the better part of the job!”
Up until recently, the only kitchen that Evans had seen during lockdown was the one in his house, and he admits that being away from the action is taking its toll. “I’m really missing that interaction of going into a kitchen and feeling the buzz of service, the business and the people and the questions. If anything, I’m missing the questions!”
Evans is one of a handful of Brains figureheads that have not been placed on furlough during the crisis and he has been using the time to plan and test menus for when the company’s sites are ope again.
Experimenting with dishes on domestic equipment brings its own set of challenges, but there is also the question of trying to construct menus when a firm date for reopening isn’t guaranteed.
Consumers have effectively already missed spring in its pubs and a good proportion of summer will likely be over too, however there might still be a demand for lighter, summer-led dishes in autumn or even winter. At worst, any menus created during this period can always be stored for next year.
“We’re still trying to balance the two [seasons] and get a good blend, and it’s the same with the specials bank. We’ve categorised all of our dishes into spring-summer or autumn-winter, so we’re able to then flex appropriately if we need to,” he explains.
Before everything happened with lockdown, Brains was firmly down the path of a three-year strategic business plan, and the food department is a key part of that. Its approach is now geared around the simplification of its food offer and “putting the pub back in our menus”, as Evans describes it.
Over the years, the pub sector has leant heavily towards a restaurant-style food offer and become wrapped up in gastro pubs and bistros. Brains will be the first to admit that it got dragged in that direction too, but a significant piece of guest research commissioned last year provided the clarity it need.
“It was very clear. The message that came back was ‘you’re a great British or Welsh pub, therefore stop playing at being a restaurant and just be a pub’,” reveals Evans.
Some 90% of the 106 managed houses within the Brains estate operate a food trading platform. That could be anything from a front-bar service offering pies, pasties, sausage rolls and pizzas to a premiumised dining experience and local community-style menu.
I’m really missing that interaction of going into a kitchen and feeling the buzz of service, the business and the people and the questions”
Although that is largely controlled centrally, part of Brains’ strategic approach is to shrink the core pub menu but provide a broader range of specials, allowing its managers to retain more autonomy over their offer and support dish rotation.
“It’s all well and good having everything centrally controlled and managed, but you then end up trying to force pubs into boxes, which often limits or caps potential revenue,” explains Evans.
“It also limits you to your clientele base because you’re trying to fit everything into one box. Although we’re still putting elements of control into the bank, they’ve still got a really broad range of specials that they can choose from and flex, and we’ll continue to grow that throughout the year.
“New dishes will come on, rather than this ‘feast and famine’ approach where you get two points in the year for spring-summer and autumn-winter when you dump a load of dishes on them and expect them to go, ‘oh great, give us four hours of training and we’ll nail that. Brilliant!’
“We’ve taken a different approach to that. We rotate and add every month. It allows us to work with suppliers seasonally. It allows us to work better on pricing. But ultimately, it gives back that autonomy to the pub managers to be able to own a bit of that business.”
As for the kitchens, templated kitchen design is not a model that you will find in Brains. It is something it has examined but the shape and layout of its buildings have typically made it difficult to implement a unified approach or standardise kitchen specification over the years. That is changing, though.
“We’ve put together a kind of skeleton plan. Most of our kitchens have that kit. But when you start looking at our asset register, the range of kit we’ve bought over the last 20 years is exceptional. We don’t have any two kitchens the same — in layout or the kit they use.
When you start looking at our asset register, the range of kit we’ve bought over the last 20 years is exceptional. We don’t have any two kitchens the same”
“However, in the last two years, where we’ve done investment or refurbishment, we have stuck to a specific piece of equipment and a specific layout that says the fryers always have to be next to a freezer, so you can get products into the fryers. And they always have to be next to the chargrill so the person doing that [can access them easily]. So we’ve sort of created this ideal world and invested in about 10 kitchens in the last two years, so we’re on a journey.”
The short-term objective now is to prepare pubs for when they can reopen again and that means thinking about the challenges that social distancing will present. There are daily calls between management and operations to discuss how the picture might look.
“We’ve effectively identified a 10-point criteria list that allows us to rate every business that we’ve got to allow effective social distancing. And we’re working on the premise that we need to work on a worst-case scenario and then anything better than that is, obviously, better. So we’re working on a situation where we believe that social distancing is probably going to be in for at least another 12 to 18 months.
“Even on release of lockdown, we’ve got a corporate social responsibility to enforce that. Then that means you’ve got capped capacity of your business, because overnight we’re not going to double the size of the footfall in our pubs. You’ve then got the challenge of vertical drinking, so is it going to work or not? And being pubs that are 60% wet-led that poses us a big challenge as to how we can service that.
“We’ve got a priority list for our 106 pubs that shows which pubs we can open first with the restrictions we think might be in place and the ones that will have to come to last, and the measures we’d have to do by each pub to make it feasible. And then there’s also the big task of having to source PPE, because our thoughts are that the consumer is going to be very aware of face masks, hand sanitiser, handwashing, flows of the business and how they get in and out with social distancing, so we’re currently working to source all of that PPE.
“I think business is in a good place so that when we get the nod we pretty much know what we need to do and the order in which we need to do it to get those pubs back open in a safe manner.”
The menu streamlining will certainly assist with this approach, giving the company an opportunity to ease guests into the smaller menus while handing pub teams some control over what they’re putting on. With its product stocking range effectively halved, a significant amount of space and workflow is freed up.
The second step will be to look at what kitchen infrastructure it has and how it can run a kitchen operation with segregation measures in place.
“Part of our plan is to figure out what is a one-, two- or three-person operation? We’re thinking the last resort would probably be to move kitchen equipment around. We’re thinking about what is realistic for that business, and if we had to reopen under social distancing what is our capacity?
“What does that now do to that equation? We’ve got X amount of covers, with X amount of menu items, that’s now a one-person kitchen operation…. you then have the added complexity of if that pub does click and collect takeaway then that ticks into another area. So we’ve done this whole calculation that tells you what this pub is going to be able to do.”
Working to a ‘worst case’ scenario should at least reduce the chances of the chain encountering any surprises as the market begins to recover.
“We have to make sure we give guests and consumers confidence that we’re taking this seriously, but we also want to give them a range of dishes that is compelling enough for them to want to come out.”
Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, Brains certainly can’t be accused of failing to prepare.