A successful pub food business involves balancing the wishes of your customers against your skills and resources. Fiona Pavely looks at the help and advice available.
As with most things in life, you only get out what you put in, and pub menus are no different. Careful planning can be half the battle in executing a successful food operation.
Whether you intend to offer soup and sandwiches or a much broader menu, the key is to aim to be the best at what you serve," said John Cooke, director of McNally Design Group, a consultancy that offers its services on menu planning to many large pub chains.
The McNally client list reads like a who's who of the pub trade and boasts names such as Whitbread, Punch Pubs, Scottish & Newcastle and Millhouse Inns.
John explained that McNally conducts research into the market, studying trends all over the world to fundamentally achieve "benchmarks", both in terms of food standards and service.
He added: "Most eateries can offer basic standards, but what we try to achieve with our customers is something much higher."
Know your customer
You can meticulously plan your menu, but without a firm grasp of who you are planning for, your efforts will all be in vain.
The importance of knowing your customer cannot be over-stressed. Do you have a quiet country pub with a large tourism trade, if so a traditional British menu will probably fare best.
Are there a large number of families in your locality? You could attract these customers by offering a dedicated children's menu, according to David Wilkinson, director of marketing at RHM Foodservice.
"How well children are catered for can influence parents' decisions on where to eat and should be an integral part of any publican's catering strategy," he said.
But there are three other major points to consider, according to John Cooke:
- the current style of the pub is in order to create a dining experience that fits its surroundings
- the physical limitations of the kitchen and back-of-house
- the skills and resources of the staff.
Your basic menu
While some pubs have broken the menu mould, opting to specialise in say fish, organic foods, or ethnic foods, generally speaking customers do have pre-conceived ideas of what can, and more importantly should, appear on a pub menu.
"I don't think people expect to be over-challenged in a pub environment," John Cooke said.
"Of course they expect to see a core offer when eating in a pub with stock dishes such as steak and kidney pie and lasagne perennial favourites."
John feels that this is part of the problem, since many of the pub chains buy the same products from the same suppliers and add them to their menus.
"We advise them on ways to differentiate themselves. Take for example a standard dish such as fish and chips - you can make yours the best fish and chips in town by simply using fresh potatoes to make the chips rather than frozen and batter the fish on site rather than buying in pre-battered fillets. Then consider the presentation - don't simply think a sprig of parsley is sufficient, consider the flatware you are using, introduce an element of flair," he said.
Menus need to be tweaked to fit in with key trading times.
A mid-week lunch menu, for instance, should take into account that people "are probably fulfilling a need rather than a mood". Lunchtime menus should take heed that speed is key as people are probably rushing to get back to work and a light menu with smaller portion sizes is preferable.
John believes that this type of "necessity eating" is more price sensitive than "mood food".
"Publicans can afford to be more creative with an evening menu as they are not under the same time criteria, and prices can be pushed higher under these circumstances," he explained.
Wilf Pearce, trading director of 3663, believes that a "good menu will include a variety of dishes that cover the three main product areas - fish, meat and vegetarian".
A change is as good as a rest…
Human beings are fickle folk. We love all of the merriment of Christmas, the gifts, the feast, the goodwill to all men, but if Santa visited every day, the appeal would soon become somewhat jaded.
You can't afford to allow your menu to go stale and this is where planning comes in. Think beyond this week's offer and try to plan a rotating menu for the month ahead.
Revitalise your menu offering by introducing new dishes as often as possible. Make good use of a specials board, which can also allow you to sell dishes which utilise ingredients that may be nearing their use-by date, thereby minimising wastage.
Talk to your suppliers about new products that are being introduced and ask them for advice. Most reputable suppliers will work with you to help you plan menus.
3663, for example, offers customers recipe ideas and assistance with menu concepts on both a basic level through the advice centre and on a more advanced level with its team of two development chefs, Graham Marshall Jones and Shaun Hill.
Brake Bros is another supplier that works closely with its customers to maximise their food trade.
"Every month our sales teams are sent new recipe ideas and serving suggestions. They use these to help customers plan new and interesting menus. They are also supplied with a list of key dates of events for each month (for example, big cricket and football matches and national smile week). This allows pubs to create themed menus and to inject some interest. We even give ideas on dish names," Brake's spokeperson Shane Record said.
He cited Cowes week by way of example where Brakes encouraged pubs to put dishes on their menus such as "Peg Legs" (crispy prawn brochettes), "Portholes" (battered calamari rings), "Star Fish" (breaded sea stars) and "Barrels of Rum" (Rum Bambas).
The White Horse in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, takes full advantage of this service. Manager Karen Stevens admits that it would take her "forever" to plan menus on her own, so she works with her Brakes rep to plan starters and combination ideas with a mixture of home-cooked foods and bought-in products before the menu is printed. Her rep even helps her with costings.
Avoiding the pitfalls
Licensees themselves are best-placed to know how many covers they need to plan and cater for, but there are some recurring errors that publicans seem to make when planning menus, according to their suppliers.
"A pitfall that caterers can fall into is creating a menu that appeals to their own tastebuds without thinking of what the customers actually want. Another mistake often made is buying in a large amount of a certain product that is on "special offer" from suppliers, then having trouble incorporating that product onto the menu," revealed John Hough, channel controller at Caterplan.
Wilf Pearce added: "Sometimes, if pubs try to offer too much choice they can be in danger of overcomplicating their menu. It's often better to offer a smaller variety of dishes and re-work the menu on a regular basis in order to keep it fresh, particularly if the core customer base is made up of regulars."
The price is right
While many pub operators concentrate on 'value', there is a whole raft of pubs that have been successful in pushing up the price ceiling, marketing themselves as a dining destination rather than simply a pub offering food.
John Cooke explained: "You will generally see a tolerance of around £1 on key menu dishes between the likes of Brewer's Fayre and Harvester and this keen pricing generally wins the loyalty of customers. Any more than this and I believe that customers begin to consider whether they should go to a restaurant instead. Either that or you are reaching the realms of gastro-pub which is a much