The Butcombe Brewing Company won the Operator of the Year for Menu Development during last year’s Kitchen and Equipment Awards Week. FEJ caught up with Alice Bowyer, group executive chef of its parent company The Liberation Group, to discuss how it has used lockdown to strengthen its reputation for quality, seasonal fare and find out which kitchen equipment plays a starring role in its food strategy.
While most of the pub trade has suffered periods when sites have been entirely closed over the past year, The Liberation Brewing Company was one of the few operators that didn’t see its business grind to a complete standstill.
With 20 sites across Guernsey and Jersey, and a further 40 in the south of England through its Butcombe Brewery division, the pandemic has been something of a juggling act for the business, as its executive group chef Alice Bowyer explains: “We were in quite a unique situation in that because we were operating over three islands, three different governments, three different laws — at some point one of the islands was open when the other two were closed and vice versa. So we were probably trading in some form or another more than most companies were.”
Bowyer worked all the way through the various lockdowns and the situation presented her with an opportunity to fine-tune the company’s food strategy and create a range of seasonal offers that will be tasted by customers in the months to come now that the industry is back open fully.
Like most operators, the group reduced menus after the first lockdown last summer but it worked hard to keep things fun by focusing on comfort food, sharing platters and harnessing the feel-good vibes associated with being back in a pub again.
“It was about creating that ‘wow’ experience because that’s very much our outlook on menu development — we try and have the pub classics and reassuring flavours to make the customer feel like it’s just great to be back in the pub again. But also we try to exceed expectation on the presentation, the taste and the flavour and everything else. So we kept it small but we also did loads of cool, innovative stuff and a lot of outside food offers — smash burgers, lobster rolls, pizza, paella. And in the Channel Islands, in particular, there’s such an opportunity with all the local seafood.”
The return of customers this time around has brought a similar approach, albeit the group has pretty much added everything back onto the menu that it had pre-Covid, including weekend brunches, afternoon teas and lunch. There has also been a big focus on trading up, side dishes and sharing desserts as it looks to capitalise on pent-up demand from customers relishing the chance to enjoy indoor hospitality settings again.
“We’ve had a lot of time to think and strategise menus and so we’ve been able to throw everything at it,” she says. “We have quite a strong food brief and there are some key bullet points for everyone to work towards, such as local, quality and ethical produce. That helps bring a bit of structure and ensures we’re not going off on different tangents.”
Delivery has been a huge area of growth for many operators during the pandemic but The Liberation Group opted against branching into that space.
“Initially last year my first concern was our teams and their safety and then as time went on I think we had so much to do with the recent acquisition [of 21 Wadworth pubs] last year, the influx of new team and just getting things ready that we spent the time on the menus and preparing to reopen,” explains Bowyer.
“It was a conscious decision not to get into delivery really. I think we could have done it in some places in hindsight, but I’m glad we spent the time on the menus. I think we will be better off for concentrating on that now that we have reopened.”
We’ve been working at some pace in the last three or four years and I think we’ve taken this opportunity [during the pandemic] to just take a breath and really take our food offer to the next level”
Bowyer joined Butcombe Brewery as development chef in 2016 and was promoted to group executive chef for The Liberation Group two years later when it acquired the business.
Prior to that she held a similar role at brewery chain Bath Ales having initially honed her kitchen skills in the London restaurant scene.
Today the group comprises almost 130 pubs, around half of which are managed and the rest tenanted. Her work in the kitchen directly benefits 60 or so managed sites, but her team are on hand to provide tenanted operators with any advice or support they need.
Much of Bowyer’s day-to-day role is focused around menu development but there is also a strong element of coaching involved because of the collaborative approach it takes to recipe creation. “The head chefs, the managers, the operations team — they all have their say,” she explains. “I suppose we are unique in that despite the size of our company we still look at each business individually and what we think would work for that local environment, rather than just one food offer that we put in everywhere.”
Its head chefs are encouraged to create their own recipes, cost them and train staff, supported by resource from the central team when it is needed.
Bowyer has a team of four frontline executive chefs and they all spend a considerable time in its pub kitchens on what she calls the “really reactionary stuff” and carrying out seasonal menu development.
If Covid has had an impact on the way that Bowyer and her team develop menus, it has also altered the way they utilise kitchen equipment.
“I think we’ve used the kit really smartly,” she reflects. “Obviously we use combi steamers a lot and there is an overnight cooking function on there, which we use for our ham and eggs. We do a whole ham on the hock, rolled and slow cooked overnight, and then served with eggs, chips and piccalilli. That’s the sort of thing we do to try and reimagine a pub classic. We have tried to use our kit as smartly as possible to be efficient, so it’s easy in service because we’re expecting to be really busy this summer.”
How strongly does she feel about having the right catering equipment to support menu delivery?
“It’s everything,” she says. “Particularly in the pub game, we work to quite tight labour controls. We are here to make money and without the right kit we’re absolutely stuck. It allows us to work smarter and more efficiently. As a side note, we work quite a lot with The Burnt Chef Project and one of the things that I think creates poor mental health is bad kitchens — if they’re not working or you haven’t got the right tools to do the job.
It takes a bit of getting used to sometimes, to go from gas to induction, but the chefs absolutely love it and we will continue to invest in that as we go forward”
“So we’re really hot on that and making sure that our kit works properly, it gets fixed and we’ve got good, sturdy equipment that can cope with the volume and demand that we have in the pub world, so it’s absolutely vital to us. We’re always looking at new ways that we can do stuff.
“At the moment I suppose we’re going back to basics — we’ve got a lot of stuff going on with fire, we’ve got a concept in Bristol that’s about to start with a robata grill and we’re going to have a big open fire feature within the kitchen and create a level of theatre. And we’ll be doing yakitori, steaks, whole fish on the grill and wood-fired pizza ovens outside.”
Kitchen equipment specification is a fundamental aspect of the job and Bowyer is heavily involved in setting out the initial vision and structure. The Liberation has carried out a number of refurbishments over the last few years and has seven on the go at the moment after it bought 21 Wadworth pubs last year.
Pub kitchens need to be built for volume and any discussion on new equipment will always come down to how well it can cope with demand.
“With fresh food as well, you can’t have it all heavy prep — you have to have it balanced and so there is so much consideration that needs to go in with the output of the equipment. For instance, we’ve got a couple of soft-serve ice cream machines and we do our own Mr Whippy, which is really great, and the output of those machines is something else — they can do hundreds of ice creams an hour. There are other things, such as a little plancha grill, that you know you’re not going to be able to get very much out of that but that’s fine if it’s only a little portion of the menu.”
While Bowyer describes combi ovens as the workhorses of the kitchen, she admits the business would be lost without great fryers. “We’ve spent quite a lot of time finding the right fryers because you need ones that you can put quite low to part-cook chips and then something that can be really hot to fry them properly, but the main thing is their recovery time for when you are really busy and you’re just dunking potatoes in there all the time.
“Good quality blenders and food processors are also absolutely key. We try and spec the same kit as much as possible everywhere, which is difficult because I think over the years we’ve found it hard to upgrade kitchens because the electricity power isn’t right or because the kitchen might be very small. But 90% of the time they’re going to have as much of the same kit as possible.”
Over the past three years, The Liberation Group has been investing in more electric and induction kit, which Bowyer says has made a huge difference to its energy savings.
“It’s a massive cost saver and not having gas burners on all the time also takes a lot of the heat out of the kitchen. Our chefs have really benefited from that and they really love it. It takes a bit of getting used to sometimes, to go from gas to induction, but they absolutely love it and we will continue to invest in that as we go forward.
“We’ve been working at some pace in the last three or four years and I think we’ve taken this opportunity [during the pandemic] to just take a breath and really take our food offer to the next level. We’ve added a lot of menus, a lot of outside offers and we’re rolling all that out with loads of different things across all the islands.”
Covid might have kept The Liberation Group’s kitchens operating to a minimum over the last year, but this is one chain that has done everything in its power to ensure it comes out of the blocks fast.
Bringing through kitchen talent
The Liberation Group used the pandemic to relaunch its entire training programme. As part of that investment it will be engaging with colleges with the aim of offering apprenticeship opportunities to individuals looking to enter the industry. “Our aim is to have at least one apprentice in every kitchen,” explains group executive chef Alice Bowyer.