THE BIG INTERVIEW: Why equipping kitchens is truly a team game for pub giant Marston’s

Marston’s facilities and energy team 2

A heightened focus on delivering a compelling food-led proposition has helped drive sales at Marston’s past the £1.1 billion mark. But how do you equip kitchens with the kit they need to implement menu consistency while also demonstrating industry-leading efficiency and resourcefulness? FEJ editor Andrew Seymour travelled to the company’s HQ in the West Midlands to meet the team tasked with doing just that.

Pub chain Marston’s has generally tended to keep its head down and just get on with things rather than discuss its achievements in making itself a more environmentally-responsible business.

But having seen many of its compatriots in the hospitality sector champion their respective green efforts — and realising that its own achievements often superseded the declarations made by competitors — the FTSE250 business has started opening up the conversation about how its 1,600 pubs operate to industry-leading standards.

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“We have had to change,” admits Andy Kershaw, group head of facilities and capex at Marston’s, who leads the team tasked with planning and equipping the group’s kitchens.

“Where we were deemed to perhaps be a little bit old-fashioned, it just wasn’t the case in-house — but what we weren’t very good at was telling our story and promoting the work that we were doing behind the scenes.”

Energy efficiency and functionality now lie at the very heart of the pub group’s catering equipment specification strategy but getting to that position hasn’t happened overnight. Marston’s has had to completely rethink the way it analyses energy usage across its national estate and build a team that doesn’t only make decisions based on the price tag of a piece of equipment.

As a business that spends on average £30m a year on utilities, there is a clear fiscal interest in making sure pubs are as efficient as possible. Due to non-commodity costs, the company’s electricity bill has increased by £4m in the last three years, for example, even though its consumption hasn’t dramatically altered — and that means it has to try and offset that somehow.

“A £4m cost headwind is significant. That is a lot more pints of beer or plates of fish and chips that we have to sell to cover the cost of that electricity alone,” notes Kershaw.

The company has successfully cut its total energy emissions by 3.7% this year and remains committed to further reducing its carbon footprint in the coming years, with £1m to £2m of energy reduction-related investment planned, according to its latest set of annual accounts.

Then you have waste, which represents a £4m-a-year cost to the business. It continues to be a huge focus for the firm and at the end of last year it achieved its zero waste to landfill target, becoming the first company in its sector to do so and reaching the goal some two years ahead of its own schedule.

One of the biggest gains came from switching to a broker model that allows it to use up to 80 independent waste providers across the UK to achieve the right service level for each site, rather than using a sole national supplier as it did previously.

Kershaw says: “If you are working with one big supplier they will tell you ‘we can empty the bins in your site on a Tuesday and we can only do the food waste on a Thursday’ and whether you like it or not that is all you can get. When you use a broker model, you can flip all that on its head and use lots of smaller companies. We now get the absolute best fit for our business in that particular geography and because we buy it as a whole through a broker we can still achieve the right rate and manage it centrally. Within a year of doing that, we achieved 75% of sites on a food waste service.”

Everyone has their voice and we come to a decision together”

Jon Davies, waste and recycling co-ordinator at Marston’s, says the secret to success has been treating waste as its “fourth utility” alongside electricity, gas and water, and convincing staff to think about it as a valuable resource.
The sales mix of its pubs has been forensically examined to establish the volume and type of waste being created, and a behavioural change programme has been rolled out to encourage better practice, including the use of ‘waste league tables’ to track how kitchen teams are performing.

“In an 18-month period we increased our recycling rate from 59% to 88%, and if we included our brewery sites, we are closer to 90%” he says.

Getting the buy-in of Marston’s senior leadership team has also been crucial, and Kershaw and his team have also learnt the importance of demonstrating results. “After a few wins, we were able to demonstrate to the leadership team that we were progressing in an area that saved the business money and that has opened up more and more opportunities to take it to the next level. You have got to change people’s perceptions and when you do that you have got to shout about what you’re doing.”

Other key steps include removing plastic straws from all its pubs and single-use plastic bottles from its inns. It also acquired its own water self-supply licence in 2017, a move that has allowed it to save more than £200,000 a year through improved tariffs and usage, the equivalent of 160,000 pints a water of day,

Collective decisions

All of this goes a long way to explaining why the company’s approach to equipping and operating its kitchens has changed so dramatically in recent years, says Chris White, energy manager at Marston’s.

“We used to be a business that would be swayed by costs and we would look quite short-term, whereas now, the way this feeds into the bigger catering picture is everything,” he outlines.

“We look at the lifecycle, we try and take a holistic long-term view on the decisions we make and we get everyone from the different areas of the business together before we make a decision.”

New equipment must meet the approval of every member of the department to ensure every need is fulfilled, from the energy usage of it through to the way it is cleaned and maintained. Prospective appliances will be put through their paces and metered at its training kitchen, which is overseen by training partner Chris Harvey, while Chris White and Jon Davies will examine the environmental credentials of the product.

Head of estates support, Clare Chinn, meanwhile, will scrutinise the availability of spare parts and maintenance provision.

Once a piece of kit meets all of the necessary parameters, the next step is to upscale it to a live trial across multiple sites to see how it performs and generate chef feedback.

“We will then bring together all that information into one spreadsheet and capture as much data as we can, cost out the lifecycle of that equipment and then consider some of the ‘unseen’ costs that perhaps you might not normally look at to put a weight on those and work out where they are,” explains White.

As its processes and procedures for specification have become more robust, so too have the partnerships that Marston’s has developed with its key suppliers.

In several instances, it now has multi-year contractual agreements in place that demonstrate a commitment from both parties.

Clare Chinn has been with the business for 20 years and she says the nurturing of such relationships has been good for the business.

“It is something that we never really had in place before. Now we have got good deals with certain brands and we can go directly to them and make sure they have got everything we need and a ready supply of it, including the parts. We have a big say in the kind of equipment we put in our pubs and that is really important.”

MEET THE TEAM: Click here to get to know the decision-makers behind Marston’s kitchens

Refrigeration is a case in point. You once would have found a range of refrigeration brands in use across Marston’s estate, but it now currently works closely with Foster Refrigerator after undertaking a huge supplier review several years ago that assessed everything from the energy performance of the equipment through to the quality of account management support.

It recently tendered and had the opportunity to switch to a “lesser known” brand that would have saved a significant amount in capital costs, but its decision to award the contract to Foster for a further five years is testament to the way it now considers the bigger picture.

Says White: “I think if you were looking at it based just on the cost outlay, you would have made the change and even if you looked at the kit side by side, it looked fairly similar. But this is why bringing everyone in the room is really important, because actually that decision didn’t happen. It stayed with Foster, which we perceived as better quality and more expensive but with a lower operational cost over the lifetime of the equipment.” White adds that it is also about getting the delivery right. “We will find an efficient piece of kit, but then it might be that when [training partner] Chris Harvey looks at all the settings he finds it doesn’t have the same output as another one.

“So at face value it might look really efficient, but it could be complicated to use or unable to deliver the food as quickly, in which case it won’t actually end up being as efficient.”

We have got good deals with certain brands and we can go directly to them and make sure they have got everything we need and a ready supply of it, including the parts”

One of the biggest roll-outs that Marston’s has undertaken involved installing commercial fryers into new-build pubs, which at one point accounted for 20 sites a year, each requiring two or three fryers.

Marston’s now uses Lincat Vortech fryers costing three times as much as its previous fryer but demonstrating significant savings in terms of energy efficiency and oil usage.

“Practically, we are saving just over quarter of the amount of cooking oil we previously used every time we fill a tank, plus the electricity usage is substantially less,” says White. “When you factor in the energy efficiency and reduced oil usage together, the saving is about £2,500 a year, so it almost pays for itself within 12 months. We have ring-fenced budget for energy efficiency so if we think it fits the criteria we will always look at it.”

Kitchen adaptation

Kitchen staff recruitment and skill-sets in the pub sector inevitably comes into the equation when selecting catering equipment, too.

The close relationship that Marston’s has with Lincat means it can source specific pieces of equipment that can be adapted to its needs. Burner settings on the chargrills, for instance, have been adjusted so that when chefs automatically turn them up to the maximum level, it is actually the right temperature they need to be at without burning excess energy.

“There are a lot of operational issues in a kitchen where we have to find kit that is quick, efficient and really simple to use. If you’ve got to press every button to make something work in the first place, it just isn’t going to fly,” says Chris Harvey. “You don’t always want to put a Ferrari in there just because it might be the fastest car.”

Long-term supply agreements that it has signed this year with Lincat, Foster and Victor underscore Marston’s commitment to working with suppliers that it believes add true value to its business. And the fact that all three are British manufacturers is no coincidence.

“Some of the equipment suppliers that bring in machines from outside of the UK weren’t prepared to do long-term deals because they faced too much risk over the next few years, whereas the UK manufacturers were. And in all of those cases they are off the back of good relationships that we have had with them over a number of years, not just through buying new equipment but parts, support and service, and trusting the warranty structures they have got,” says Kershaw.

“And I think if you talked to some of these suppliers then we also hope they would say that we are one of the most genuine and fairest companies to work with. We are realistic and that is probably the reason some of those brands are prepared to sign long-term deals.”

So, is it reasonable to assume that the added diligence applied to procurement decisions these days makes it more difficult to get into Marston’s supply chain — simply because the bar has been raised?

“Yes, it probably does,” says Chris White, “because what will happen is that new suppliers will come up with a new product and it will be aceing at one particular area and they will find the person whose area that is. But we will then bring that to the table and ask everyone’s view, get it trialled and then decide if it hits everyone’s agenda.”

The team insists it is not afraid of moving suppliers if better solutions emerge that its existing partners are unable to provide, stressing that while all its long-term relationships are built on mutual trust, there is no exclusivity clause in any of them.

“One of the benefits of a long-term relationship is that the suppliers will invest in us and if there is something we want, they will try and make it happen,” continues White.

“We have been using LLK on pizza ovens for four or five years now. We know other people bring in Cuppone ovens as well but the service that we achieve from LLK and the benefits that we get in terms of parts support and warranty is important.”

We are realistic and that is probably the reason some of those brands are prepared to sign long-term deals”

Marston’s has possibly one of the most informed kitchen procurement teams in the industry thanks to the structure it has created, leaving it well-versed to comment on what the manufacturing industry could do better.

A heat recovery system that isn’t riddled with complexity is on its wish list, while it would love to see suppliers put their competitive differences aside in the name of connectivity.

“Everybody is telling us now that they can have connected equipment but they all have a version that only works with their own equipment,” says Kershaw. “We want one system that we can put into a kitchen that will talk to every single piece of equipment and log our temperatures, etcetera. We want to pay once for a hub and then have that same technology in every piece of kit. While suppliers keep going off in their own direction, it is almost like VHS and Betamax; there needs to be some kind of open protocol.”

Whether Marston’s gets its wish or not, it will maintain the team ethos that ensures changes to its kitchens are made for all the right reasons.

MEET THE TEAM: Get to know the decision-makers behind Marston’s kitchens

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Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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