THE BIG INTERVIEW: Ex-Greene King food chief David George on the issues facing kitchens today

Creating purpose-built catering environments is no mean feat these days given almost every operator is looking to achieve speed, quality and efficiency — all without breaking their budget. Having spent his life at the helm of pub-restaurant kitchen operations, former Greene King food development chief David George has set up his own consultancy to help companies navigate the hurdles they face. FEJ spoke to him to find out more.

David George has done it all during his 40 years in the foodservice industry. From his early days as a glass collector through to senior management roles within some of the country’s biggest pub groups, he has encountered everything that goes into running commercial kitchens and creating compelling food propositions.

12 years as head of food development for Nottinghamshire brewery group Hardys & Hansons fostered his passion for all things food and when the business was purchased by Greene King he took on responsibility for menu and catering development across the expanded group’s estate, with a team of 16 people reporting to him at its peak.

It is a career that has seen him gain expertise in every aspect of catering development, including menu costings, supply chain sourcing, supplier negotiation, compliance, kitchen design and catering equipment procurement, and he is now imparting that wisdom to others in the trade through his consultancy DGCC.

The “one-stop shop service”, as he describes it, came about when he was approached for advice on a kitchen project and, after making a few enquiries to trusted contacts, he realised others also wanted guidance and direction to improve their catering operations.

He is also engaging with catering equipment manufacturers that want input on product development and end-user insight, as well as food manufacturing businesses requiring help with the challenge of marrying their products up with the kind of appliances being used in the market.

While there is no shortage of kitchen consultancies in the UK, he hopes the focused aspect of the service he can provide will prove attractive to operators that want direct support with their catering operations.

 

David George spent 10 years as head of food development at pub group Greene King.

“Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of experts and consultancies out there that know a great deal, but what I have found is they will still have to outsource certain aspects of it. So they may have the knowledge of the equipment, for example, but they might not have the depth of knowledge in terms of the operational delivery of the appliances that are going in.

“Whether it’s an independent, multinational or corporate offer, I can provide them with everything they need. I don’t have to outsource anything. I have got the skill, the knowledge and the contacts, which means that if somebody wants me to create the menu, source the tableware, build the kitchen, arrange the supply chain and put their legals into place then I am able to do that.”

One of his initial projects is with pub group Everards, which is in the process of building a new head office with adjoining brewery, beer hall and commercial kitchen in Leicestershire.

“It is an immense new facility and at the moment I am working with the designers on designing the kitchen and the infrastructure,” he explains. “They are looking to build a food offer from scratch and I will be working on some beer pairing with the food, so it’s a really exciting project to be involved with. It’s quite a slow burner and because of the scale and the size of the overall business it’s probably another 18 months off launching yet.”

Other pub companies have also reached out to him for his expertise. Does he see his services being directed at that sector given his background?

You can have an amazing ergonomic kitchen with state-of-the-art equipment, but if you haven’t got the personnel to execute it you are going to lose out”

“Not necessarily. I think it was probably just kick-started that way because that is where most of my contacts are, but I am in discussion with two casual dining groups about working with them as well. And then there is also a conversation going on with a retailer at the moment for their back-of-house staff facilities. Obviously pub-restaurant is my background, but in terms of delivery and fit-for-purpose, a lot of it comes from the same pot at the end of the day.

“Everybody wants the same thing: they want efficiencies, they want quality and they want speed of execution, so it is just about tailoring what they want to deliver in terms of food and putting together the package required to deliver that.”

Ease of execution, especially in light of concerns over labour and availability of labour, is certainly high on the list of priorities for operators these days and a sign of the times, says George.

“Skilled labour in particular is an issue and it’s certainly pushing the bigger and medium-sized players into creating their own academies or kitchens of excellence. I think the labour thing is a big worry for a lot of people because with the best will in the world you can have an amazing ergonomic kitchen with state-of-the-art equipment, but if you haven’t got the personnel to execute it you are going to lose out.”

This whole topic takes on extra significance with Brexit on the horizon and that in itself is leaving companies uncertain over how to act. While some are putting precautionary actions in place to cope with any fallout, others prefer to carry on as normal and deal with any disruption if it happens.

George, who most recently spent two years as head of catering development at The Pub People Company, believes that whatever approach operators take, they have to keep sight of the customer experience.

Skilled labour in kitchens remains a challenge for all foodservice businesses, thinks David George.

“If you start to lose your footfall because you take your eye off the ball then it is only going to be detrimental to your business. Everybody can worry about the cost of goods and price increases, but you must not take your eye off the ball and the ball is the people that are coming through the doors.”

There is undoubtedly a trend towards driving efficiencies within commercial kitchen and this has dominated conversations with operators he has been talking to lately.

“There are a couple of companies I am talking to that are certainly looking for efficiencies that will help to reduce utility costs and one of the companies is definitely going to go down the route of all-electric equipment. I know a number of companies that have taken that view as well.

 

“Being a chef by trade that is a bit harsh in some respects from my point of view because that’s not about the product or the execution. I am still quite a big believer in flame cooking, personally. But I think a lot of businesses out there have seen the complications of gas appliances in terms of everything from the interlock requirements through to the extraction and even maintenance of specialised gas engineers, which just adds cost to the business.”

Where the high street is concerned, speed of execution is driving purchasing decisions, suggests George.

If you want to have something on your menu that is your point of authority, then that’s what the kitchen has got to be designed around”

“I think everybody is very aware of the fierce lunchtime competition they are getting from retail, especially during the summer months where customers can grab a meal deal for £3.50 and go and sit on a bench. That is certainly an issue, which is why I am working with one company to look at accelerated cooking and how to execute quicker.

“I would also say that cook and hold, in terms of quality, has improved drastically over the last two or three years. There have been some appliances launched where you can hold for a much longer period of time. I think in terms of the destination businesses and the evening and the occasional dining out opportunities, it continue to be less about speed of service and more about quality of product.”

Ultimately, says George, success in the kitchen space boils down to creating a set-up that can deliver a changing menu as effectively as possible. “It is always the menu that drives the kitchen, not the other way round. If you want to have something on your menu that is your point of authority, then that’s what the kitchen has got to be designed around. And if you change that due to the needs of your demographical customer or the needs of your clients then you need that flexibility.”

With pressure on costs, efficiency and quality facing the catering operations of almost every foodservice business in the UK, he could end up finding his expertise is in great demand.

Innovation in the catering equipment market

On whether there are any areas of the market in need of further innovation…

I am not sure it’s about innovation. I might sound like a broken record but it is about efficiencies and speed of execution. I think a lot of products that are on the market these days, whether it be for QSR, casual dining or fast-serve, are becoming so much more efficient in executing a quality product. That market is quite well-grasped.

On the growth of newer technologies such as induction…

Firstly, induction is much more affordable these days and secondly it much more efficient, so it ticks two big boxes for a lot of chefs and operators out there. Ease of cleaning and maintenance is also important, and obviously it is an electrical appliance.

On matching catering equipment with the menu…

In terms of whether there are any gaps or shortfalls out there, I would probably say no at this moment in time. From what I have been briefed to look at for operators, the products are out there. It is basically about marrying up the product with the customers’ budget and making sure it is fit for purpose with the menu they have developed.

Profile

Name: DGCC
Focus: Professional catering consultancy, including menu development, sourcing and kitchen design
Tel: 07505 475041
Email: dgcateringconsultant@gmail.com

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