Food in the pub industry is massive. Mintel figures put the growth at 14% over the past five years and value the pub food market at some £7.4 billion a year. It follows, therefore, that operators need to pay more attention to their kitchens than ever before. At this year’s Commercial Kitchen Show, three leading pub chains discussed the latest trends in kitchens and equipment. FEJ was there to document the action.
ON THE PANEL
– Chris Knights, group executive chef, Young’s & Co
– Kumour Uddin, group executive chef, Anglian Country Inns
– Chris Webb, catering operations manager, Punch Taverns
What have been the biggest changes in equipment since you started?
Chris Knights: The big difference I’ve seen in the sector is the generic consensus of microwave meals moving to a fresh food business where it’s all about fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Kumour Uddin: Chris is right, there’s nothing wrong with pies, it’s how you deliver them. Today’s clientele just want more transparency in the delivery of food. Doing a pie but doing it well.
Chris Webb: What we’re finding is that everything you do in pubs, people want it to be true. It has to be true pub fare. We’re doing a lot of work on the role of food in pubs. We don’t necessarily talk about being food-led, we talk about what is the role of food in the pub?
There must be a lot of pressure in your role in terms of budget being diverted front-of-house. How do you deal with that?
Chris Webb: You’re right. It’s education on my part to explain that we do need the basic kit. It’s about us being sensible about what kit we put into kitchens to deliver. Part of that is agreeing budgets on what the projected takes of these pubs are. It’s about not over-specifying — it’s the easiest thing in the world to fill an empty kitchen with lots of shiny equipment but you have to pare it right back and ask what piece of kit can I use across many parts of the menu? That’s about looking at pinch points.
“The last bank holiday a fryer went down on the Thursday before and because of the supplier’s reaction time we couldn’t get it fixed until the following Wednesday”
We can make sure that the equipment is used right across all services. A typical example is a flatbed griddle — it’s really good on a Sunday because you can turn it down really low and it makes a nice bain marie whereas a chargrill is a chargrill all day long. It’s things like that which you need to consider. It’s getting the people with the cash to understand the value of the equipment you’re putting in.
Young’s runs over 150 pubs and has developed a template approach to its kitchens. Can you talk us through that?
Chris Knights: We were in a position about four years ago where we were buying different brands of kit — one brand to do one job, and another to do another job, effectively. We’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with our suppliers to redevelop our kitchens to make sure they are universal in terms of their layout. Yes, pubs are different shapes and sizes and very hard to equip the way you need to but it was about finding one fantastic range of products and brands that was going to be able to deliver food sales growth for today and tomorrow. We’re all about pots and pans; it’s cooking on mirror grills. We’re not trying to break down the walls when it comes to technology, it’s all about our chefs tasting and trying the food as they go. It was about trying to have a universal approach while the individual pubs have their own flexibility. Yes we’re a pub group but we are about the individual pub business and the chefs have free will to create their own menus, within a strategy, and the kitchens need to help deliver that.
With eight sites, would it be fair to say that Anglian Country Inns can be even more flexible?
Kumour Uddin: Every site is individual and very different. Each site needs specific equipment and there’s want and need. If we’re setting up a wood-fired pizza concept, we definitely need the £10,000 oven but we probably don’t need the circulators, although the chef would probably like them. The chefs like all the shiny glamour but when you’re setting up a kitchen, if you’re a freehold, a lot of the money goes into the property and the budgets are more limited. But you still need to equip a kitchen that meets regulation and is efficient and can deliver a quality product. Looking forward to the future we need to make sure we can get through that five-year period and grow the business with that same equipment. Once we go through that process and we’ve got that stable business, then it’s reinvesting in better equipment that can cope with more demand so we can cut cooking times and get more efficiency and consistency. Getting consistency through equipment is the aim of the game in our industry.
What do you look for in the catering equipment suppliers that you work with?
Chris Webb: Honesty and reliability. If we’re doing an investment and the kitchen needs to be installed on a given Monday it needs to be there on that given Monday. One of the biggest issues we have is stuff not turning up or investments being delayed and because of the nature of the business we’re in people need to be flexible. People change, things move and service level agreements are a big thing we look for now. For instance, the last bank holiday a fryer went down on the Thursday before and because of their reaction time we couldn’t get it fixed until the following Wednesday. It’s about speed of reaction and reliability. Also, when designing kitchens, we tend to look at the quieter times of the week too. I found it’s really easy to design a kitchen to deliver food at pace on a Saturday night. But then you tend to need more people in the kitchen when it’s quieter. We always have half an eye on how many people we need to run this kitchen at quieter times. You can set up stations and island kitchens, but two people can’t work that kitchen, you need three or four.
Chris Knights: The most important thing is the degree of flexibility and that your suppliers understand your business. It’s relatively easy to have a generic sales push on a product, but what does this item do for me? They might say it’s going to do X and Y to your business, but actually I don’t do anything like that with my business, so that approach can get my back up and I tend to listen to people more who have taken the opportunity to really understand our pubs and try to come up with a solution.
What are the trends driving the sort of equipment you’re putting in your kitchens?
Chris Knights: Probably the biggest innovation in our kitchens is the Adande refrigeration drawers. In terms of the impact it’s had on our kitchens, when we were looking at the templates of our kitchens we noticed that there was a lot of dead space sitting underneath chrome griddles or six burner gas rings. Refrigeration in some pubs is on a very small scale and to even think about getting a blast chiller in there — that would never happen. When we discovered Adande three years ago it was definitely a big win for our team and chefs. It was able to fit into existing cooklines, it was universal in the way of it being a blast chiller to help adhere to health and safety regulations and then to assist in mise on place and service times and being a fridge and freezer.
Kumour Uddin: Space saving, efficiency, labour reduction. There’re always bits of technology out there that can slicken business just to bring the overheads down without taking away from the core product.
“Getting consistency through equipment is the aim of the game in our industry”
Chris Webb: One of the biggest challenges we have is space. We don’t have the luxury of being able to have purpose-built kitchens. We have to work with what’s there and one of the biggest challenges is speed of service, so it’s developing a serving gantry that has everything so that the chef on the pass has everything to hand. We have ones with heated drawers and a pasta boiler, so one person can stand there and not move all service. That’s proving pretty popular for us at the moment and we’ll probably look at rolling that out.
How much of the kitchen success is down to the equipment?
Kumour Uddin: Equipment certainly helps with consistency and volume. But then if you look at the London scene for example, there are street food vendors who are doing some of the best food you can get from small shacks with very, very basic set-ups. You can have the best equipment in the world but if you have a very badly designed menu it will never work.
Chris Webb: I just like to see a good bit of kit that makes delivering food that much simpler. You’ll never take the need away for skill in the kitchen but good kit can certainly help and it’s just that one thing that sits on the pass that can take away that mundane job and save time. That’s what I’m looking for. It’s about speed of service, especially with Punch, and we need to deliver that.