Publicans at Punch Pubs & Co are getting some of the best food training support available thanks to the company’s investment in a state-of-the-art development kitchen at its Academy facility in Burton upon Trent. Prior to the lockdown, Andrew Seymour travelled up to meet catering operations manager Chris Webb and menu development manager Andy Briggs as they put more than 50 publicans through a special kitchen training session to find out how the set-up is transforming its business.
Before we talk about the Academy Kitchen and food development kitchen, tell us a little bit about the food and menu structure at Punch.
CW: We have got four concepts that we work on and we do those twice a year, as well as a full menu change for Christmas. There are about 105 pubs that physically use our menus currently. I think we have got over 170 pubs on our managed partnerships, but they don’t all do food. Then there are around 20 pubs from leased and tenanted that use the menus, too.
The food development kitchen was launched about 18 months ago and gives you a dedicate facility to create new menus and test concepts. What did you do before it was in place?
AB: We were going from pub to pub and using the actual kitchens. We used one in Birmingham that was reasonably sized and did quite a bit of food, but it had storage space for us to be able to drop boxes from our food supplier for us to sample.
Another pub that we regularly used had a walk-in fridge and was probably the nearest pub to where myself and Chris were based at the time. It was ideal as it didn’t really do food until night time, so we could ring them up with a couple of days’ notice and arrange to go in for a few hours without disturbing them.
How did the decision to create your own food development kitchen come about?
AB: We asked the question once we realised that both of those pubs we were using were being sold to Star Pubs, and we were quite amazed when they said ‘yes’ if I am honest! They asked us what we wanted and we put it all down on paper and we more or less got what we were after.
Were you heavily involved in creating the specification of the training kitchen?
CW: Yes, we were. One of the problems when we were using the actual pub sites was that space and time constraints meant we were compromising what menu items we were showing to publicans. It ended up being a case of just showing them the key dishes that they needed to see because we needed to be in and out fairly quickly.
What we wanted was something that would get the publicans cooking because that’s what they told us they wanted to do. When you are training publicans you have got to bear in mind that they are used to being on their feet all day, so just sitting in a classroom with a slide deck doesn’t cut it. So the key thought when we were looking at the design of the development kitchen was to replicate the cooklines that they were used to in their pubs.
We knew the development kitchen couldn’t have any specialist kit in it because we don’t put it in the pubs. We are confident that if we can cook it here in the kitchen, they can replicate it on the customers’ plate at their own sites.
What does a typical week for the facility look like?
AB: Myself or members of the team are in there most days. It goes through a six-month cycle really. At the start of the menu cycle, we’ll have companies coming in and presenting to us, so a lot of work is done around new product development and trends, and we will have taster sessions. Then it is our turn — we will get in the kitchen with the product and we’ll develop it so that it fits our menu for our customers.
The key thought when we were looking at the design of the development kitchen was to replicate the cooklines that publicans were used to in their pubs”
Once we have done that, we go through a series of presentations involving the food team and the catering development managers. Each CDM will champion a menu or concept and work with me to develop that. After that process is complete, we’ll go through a cycle of presentations and key stakeholder sign-offs.
CW: It’s a collaborative effort between Andy and the new product development side, and myself and the CDMs, in terms of the dishes being operationally deliverable. Andy gets his NPD hat on and looks at what we can do, and we come in and assess how it could translate to the pubs. Andy describes us as ‘being his conscience’.
Presumably it has made the process of menu development more streamlined and slicker?
AB: Yes, we are getting quicker, faster and smarter each time we do a menu process and everything that we do is a journey. We are never at the end — we are just getting better and smarter each time because we have got the facilities for it.
In the past, if we were looking at signing off a menu, we would have had to order the food into a pub, present it and put it into a time plan. But if somebody says to me today, ‘I’m not sure about this, can we do it differently’ or ‘can I see it?’ then I can go downstairs and do it. Within an hour you’ve got what you want.
CW: It certainly makes us more nimble, we are just able to really interrogate the dish and test it. And if we buy dishes in we can dedicate real time to making sure the product is robust enough out in the trade.
What has been the feedback from publicans that have used the facility?
AB: They think it is great. Just getting them into the kitchen was a big step for us. We can now show them real cooking, they learn and they go back feeling in a better place. We’ll get people into the training kitchen who wouldn’t normally step inside a kitchen because it is too hot, or they don’t know what they are doing, and this is where we can upskill people.
CW: We had the area managers in recently, they saw the new menu and they were all on board with it. We had them getting their hands dirty and doing the dishes, which meant they could see and understand everything, which we simply wouldn’t have ever been able to do before.
AB: We have also started running some workshops, including sessions for those that are struggling with stock. We bring them in, give them the reasons why they could be facing that challenge, and then conduct a practical session on reading the specs, using the scales and doing the measurements. It has been really well-received.
What constitutes success in the market for you?
AB: We’re driven by gross profit and it’s really about the sales and profit margins in what we do. From my point of view with menu development, it is great when you get a dish that is new on your menu and it nudges its way into that top 10. That’s always a ‘wow’ for me.
We’ll get people into the training kitchen who wouldn’t normally step inside a kitchen because it is too hot, or they don’t know what they are doing, and this is where we can upskill people”
Three menus ago we brought in a Cambodian street food curry, which was a vegan curry, and the success of that was unbelievable. What made it a success was that we didn’t just leave it as a vegan dish. We gave it an option — it was prawns and chicken — so although it was a vegan dish you could add protein onto it. 60% of our sales ended up doing that.
What are you expecting to be the key menu trends this year?
AB: There are links with each menu change. Last year it was vegan and a little bit of health. This time I would say we are still increasing and improving the vegan dishes that we have. The biggest thing for us is health, with it being spring summer, and obviously the Asian-style food. We haven’t started really looking at autumn-winter yet, but I can see the Asian bit becoming more prominent.
Are you using the development kitchen as a platform for testing new catering equipment and cooking techniques?
CW: It is something we are working on and I am currently looking at introducing induction. The pods in the training kitchen feature induction and for our smaller kitchens we are working on a kitchen template that is all-electric, but is a linear line.
I am talking with companies at the minute about the equipment to fit that lower-end food offer because one of the challenges we have is getting the kitchens right. We have got a couple of commando sockets in the kitchen for us to plug in additional kit to trial and I’m waiting on some kit arriving from suppliers at the moment.
Would you say there is much evolution taking place on the cooking equipment side within your pub kitchens?
CW: We try and keep the same base equipment, but induction is something we are looking at because services for gas and electric are always a challenge. We are looking at what new kit is available and there are trials to be done. We are now in a position where our templates are properly nailed down and I am working with our property department on what the next steps are — which potentially includes whether we buy centrally.
There was a time not that long ago when you’d never have put induction in the same sentence as pub kitchens…
AB: The price of the pans used to scare you, never mind the price of the induction hob! It is more efficient though, and more economical because if there is nothing on it, it goes off. It also provides instant heat.
Are you seeing enough innovation in the catering equipment market?
CW: There is always room to see more and you hope that there is something revolutionary just around the corner.
We are doing quite a bit of work at the minute on oil quality. It is an expense you can’t avoid but we are working with Olleco on how we teach publicans to cascade properly, good oil management and all those sorts of things. It is a focus area for myself and the team at the moment. We are looking closely at how much oil is used frying chips.
If you multiply that across 105 sites, suddenly you are talking about some big numbers. It is all about quality — our goal is quality food on a plate to the consumer. That is the ultimate objective, so it is about what levers we can pull to achieve that. Oil is a massive one.
So are you looking to bring in new solutions that will bring the cost of oil consumption down?
CW: We are at the start of that journey with oil. There is some kit out there that self-filters but the cost of it at the moment is prohibitive. Until I have done the case study into what we are spending and how much we can save, it is difficult to say more. Once I have got some figures we will be in a position to put a business case together.
Your training sessions really allow the publicans to get behind the hob and create dishes in the same sort of environment they have in their pubs. That must really endorse your original reasons for wanting a facility like this?
AB: Yes, the kitchen enables us to get out the key messages about the quality of the food and deliver the menus to the publicans. It just allows us the space to be able to do it properly and not just scratch the surface — I think that is the key element. We have got such a wide audience that we are educating that it allows us to break things down and show them how to do it correctly in the right environment.
CW: I think the publicans also take some comfort when they see our kitchen and realise it is just what they have got within their pubs. That is really important. When the company decided they wanted to spend that money on the training academy and food development kitchen it also gave us comfort as well because it showed we are serious about food.