With nearly £200m spent on its estate over the past six years, Star Pubs & Bars has emerged as one of the high-fliers of the British pub sector. The company has identified food as core element of its growth strategy, which in turn is impacting the way it designs and equips kitchens. FEJ travelled to the Jolly Friar in Basildon, Essex — which itself has undergone new management and interior refurbishment — to get the full lowdown from Star’s food chief Mark Teed.
It might operate in a predominantly beverage-led category, as most pub operations naturally do, but a significant focus on delivering an enhanced food strategy is proving transformative for 2,700-strong Star Pubs & Bars.
And that has kept food strategy and implementation manager, Mark Teed, busy since he joined the Heineken-owned business 18 months ago.
The Dorset-based exec — an experienced pub and casual dining operator, who even ran his own pub for a period of time — is the company’s senior source on culinary matters, which sees him liaise with everyone from licensees and area business development managers to Star’s property division and leadership team.
His work involves writing tools, building training plans and creating initiatives that collectively help to support Star’s burgeoning food business. One of the more recent drivers has been the need to develop a credible managed offer that stands out from the crowd in terms of presentation, quality and value for money — and reflects the hottest food trends — all while being operationally deliverable for those that run its pubs.
Teed, therefore, constantly has one eye on the wider foodservice sector in a bid to assess if new and emerging trends can be adapted for its own business. “I need to be aware of everything that is happening in the industry — what’s coming up, what works, what doesn’t work and to be able to convey that to our business and also to the people in our leased and tenanted pub estate who operate pubs with us,” he explains.
Just Add Talent
The Star estate is broadly leasehold but it has a growing managed operator arm with a centralised food offer, which falls within its Just Add Talent (JAT) framework. “There are over 100 of those and we plan to have 150 by the end of 2019. The majority are converted from our leased and tenanted estate — so we haven’t acquired them and they are not new-builds, they are all conversions.
There is criteria involved in making sure they fit the model. It is a centralised offer so it is an offer that we dictate using all of our learnings.”
The ability to provide an extensive level of support to those with a limited food plan or no offer at all is central to the entire model. Of the 50 or so sites that will join the programme by the end of the year, a good chunk are likely to already have kitchen facilities in place but they will require considerable alteration to enable them to deliver the proposition. “What’s interesting is that because we know what the offer is, we know what kitchen template is needed to deliver it,” says Teed of the merits of a centralised model.
Data analysis plays a key part in the success of the JAT structure. Sales records are used to produce up-to-date reports on which dishes are selling and when they are selling.
“I think it is really powerful — I love sharing that information with a leased and tenanted operator, to say ‘here are our top 10 dishes, this is what the UK population is buying from us’. It’s not dissimilar to any other managed pub group but as a leased and tenanted operator you might not ordinarily take time out to look at that yourself.”
The proportion of Star pubs serving food has grown significantly in recent years, with many regarding it as the clearest way to future-proof the business in what remains a competitive sector. “If we can have pubs that do food, it is another avenue for revenue. It is part of our strategy of building strong pub businesses with multiple income streams that are sustainable for the long term.”
Menu evolution is an important aspect of Teed’s role. Over the summer months the company is promoting its ‘Burger Festival’ offering — a compelling addition to the regular seasonal menu that offers customers an array of fanciful burger choices.
“We will always create offers around what sells, so burgers in a community pub are in our top 10 sales, but you wouldn’t see us go down the line of doing couscous and quinoa wraps. You’ve got to make sure it is pub-relevant. We can look at trends that come through but it is all about making sure they fit the pub sector.
We always build in capacity for longer term growth, and give them the space and equipment to grow their offer”
“The other thing is that we have to make sure it is all operationally deliverable. We will try to use skus that we have on other parts of the menu to avoid slowing the kitchen down. The moment you menu-create an offer that the kitchen is not used to delivering, you get ‘hang on a minute, for 51 weeks of the year we knock out burgers and fish and chips and then you come and chuck something else in which just brings the kitchen to a stop’.”
The JAT menu has been a game-changer for Star, allowing it to harness its in-house expertise to develop appetising dishes that cater to the different demographics it has visiting its pubs. It has also developed an array of tools to support pubs around food.
‘Business Builder’, for instance, offers licensees ideas to maximise their food across all day-parts and occasions, and increase the frequency of customer visits. It holds regular licensee forums, where attendees can discuss tips and trends with like-minded operators, while its own business development managers have been upskilled to be able to share as much expertise with licensees as possible.
“Our long term strategy is that food is an area that requires a lot of skill and licensees are going to continue to need support, so this is not a flash in the pan investment for us,” insists Teed.
Help is also offered where kitchen infrastructure is concerned. Star has schemes in place that provide licensees with access to big ticket items such as ovens, fridges and grills without having to find the upfront capital themselves — a valuable incentive when most licensees taking on a new business might be inclined to invest in front-of-house areas first. Teed estimates it could slash their costs by up to 70%.
Star has developed six core kitchen templates that it uses for sites that require catering facilities, with each blueprint conceived to serve a certain number of covers and dishes. Most of its pub kitchens typically incorporate grills, fryers, combination ovens and commercial microwaves, but the amount and type of equipment will vary the bigger the site is.
“When you get to the higher volumes, you start to talk walk-in fridges and freezers and large combination ovens,” he explains. “They serve as a guide but they are not set in stone because they are not new-builds. If you’re doing new-builds you’ve got the benefit of building that kitchen to a template.”
The aim is to ensure layouts are efficient as possible so that licensees can deliver quicker service without having to increase staff. Simple touches, such as making sure grills are above fridges, can save thousands of steps over the course of a year.
“If you can cook multiple items without having to traipse up and down the kitchen from one side to the other that is far more efficient.”
He says the key to overcoming any design challenges lies in being creative and innovative. “We will have small kitchens in London on the third floor, but we will have to evolve an offer around that. If we can’t extend the footprint we need to create an offer that is fit for that footprint. It might involve charcuterie, it might involve cheese or it might involve cold food, because we can’t literally change a third floor kitchen in London. We are happy to use one-off pieces of equipment for that as well.”
Star prides itself on equipping pubs with the cooking platforms and hardware they need from the outset, underlining Teed’s philosophy that you should ‘do it once and do it well’.
And it endeavours to make decisions with the future in mind. “We always build in capacity for longer term growth, and give them the space and equipment to grow their offer.”
Efficiency and labour
One of the primary focus areas for him at the moment is energy efficiency. “What’s crucial is that our licensees pay the ongoing energy costs so if we can make their business more cost-effective and sustainable that is great. It is a challenge getting the same speed and quality while reducing energy consumption, but there are clearly manufacturers that are leading the way on this. It is definitely something we want to incorporate in our kitchen equipment spec going forward.”
Teed thinks induction could begin to play a part in the business going forward. It doesn’t have any induction specified in the estate at present but he remains open to the idea. “If I look at my priorities over the last year, bringing induction into the estate wasn’t high on my agenda but now we can start to grow and build.”
Reducing energy consumption is definitely something we want to incorporate in our kitchen equipment spec going forward”
Cost inflation around labour and energy are influencing his thoughts on equipment specification right now, and he foresees Star trialling more kit in future for benchmarking purposes. “Those two things [labour and energy] are massive costs for us and when we look at new pieces of equipment it is trying to negate those two costs.”
For all the turmoil associated with the pub sector, it sounds like it’s an exciting time to be involved with Star right now?
“We are not spending money carelessly, there is is a robust process in place to make sure that we have the right people, the right business, the right scheme and the right offer,” he says. “We have seen some really exciting projects and we have lots more planned.”