Reefer madness!

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It is funny, slightly ironic and a little sad, that my most memorable culinary experience connected with a railway station is powdered vegetable...

It is funny, slightly ironic and a little sad, that my most memorable culinary experience connected with a railway station is powdered vegetable bouillon in a brown plastic cup from a vending machine on Victoria Station. Funny because it was a long time ago - I should have forgotten about it by now - and even funnier because I can still remember it. The irony of the memory is to do with my constant quest for quality of food and service, and the sadness can only be the fact that vending machine soup was the height of platform culinary excellence in the seventies.

Still, mustn't grumble. Things have moved on considerably in quality terms since the days of the old British Rail Sandwich and today most mainline stations - and some not-so-mainline - offer excellent food, a lot of which can rival some middle-of-the-road pub food operations.

Of late Pub Food has been obsessed with railway catering. We recently profiled how an independent operator, Paul Sankey, was building up his 'pub food' operation at the Manningtree Station Buffet. And now, we turn our attention to a larger company , the Granada/Compass Group, and its specialist retail division, Select Service Partner (SSP).

The company, through its UK Rail subsidiary, has been steadily developing its Reef Café Bar concept which first came to Pub Food's attention last year when we enjoyed a late lunch in the brand's Paddington outlet after a long journey into London from the West of England. The food was good, the environment friendly and there were plenty of women around which, for an old station bar 10 or 15 years ago, would have been unthinkable.

Women had every right to be cautious about station pubs and gravy-stained drunks staggering around in front of the destinations board, but that was then and this is now. Today's station concourse is a safer place; it's a brighter, breezier environment with plenty of activity in the form of shopping malls, pubs, kiosks and even 'gourmet' soap retailers.

The Reef concept taps in to a new station concourse 'buzziness' and is described by UK Rail's brand manager, Steve McGinnes, in a press release issued last year, as a 'new, modern, relaxed and trendy venue' which Steve felt was required in railway stations throughout the UK and not just in London.

We will talk to Steve in a minute but let's hear a little bit more from the company's press release. "Travellers, commuters or meeters and greeters needed a location which was not the typical, smoky, traditional style pub synonomous with stations," he says.

According to Steve, the Reef's upbeat image reflects what is happening now in the marketplace. According to Steve, "people no longer want separate eating and drinking areas".

We agreed to meet Steve Innes at Waterloo Station in London, home of SSP's flagship Reef Café/bar. It was an impressive-looking operation which pretty much confirmed with current high street design trends - wooden flooring, bright colours and modern furniture - with the added attraction of tropical fish.

The fish are purely for decorative purposes and provide a calming influence on the customers, many of whom are travellers, although, as Steve later pointed out, Reef Café/bars are more than re-fuelling stops for weary commuters.

Steve has a strong bar management background and joined SSP to help launch the Bonapartes brand of which there are currently two units and four under construction - all on stations - in Glasgow, Liverpool Street, Fenchurch Street and Bristol Temple Meads. According to Steve, the Bristol outlet will be the company's flagship unit.. The two existing units are on Waterloo and Norwich stations.

For want of a better description, Bonapartes is a down-scaled café/bar operation which, because of its size, will fit easily on both large and small station concourses and, as such, will probably develop in greater numbers than the larger scale Reef brand.

Also under development by SSP is a traditional pub concept, the Mash Tun brand, which, according to Steve, contains all the elements of a traditional pub in a contemporary environment - air-conditioning, music and non-stick carpets.

Station concourses are unusual environments in which to run a pub catering operation because there are no peaks and troughs and no afternoon lulls. The Reef operates in a continuous 'peak' and serves up to 350 meals per day, seven days a week - that's 2,500 meals per week.

To help the Waterloo Reef keep up with such a high demand, the kitchen employs a hood dishwasher as a glasswasher, has two Falcon four-burner ranges, two Gastro Pro fridge and freezer units from Foster, a double fryer from Falcon, Steakhouse grill, a Panasonic microwave oven and a dumb waiter which is used to transport stock, not plated meals.

The kitchen is adequate, says Steve, but could be bigger and will be redesigned. Unit manager Mark Turner argues that his kitchen team works well together and that is why the whole thing gels.

A great deal of consumer research went into the development of the Reef Café/bar concept. An external company was employed to set up focus groups which discovered that potential customers for the brand wanted a high street concept which was open and airy and female friendly with a food offering which would keep apace with developments in high street retailing.

Unlike the high street, however, consumers wanted to know when the food was going to arrive - hence the Reef's 15-minute guarantee on everything bar fish dishes. Another pre-requisite was the availability of light meals. According to Steve, a lot of Reef customers eat alone and don't want a full meal because they are not always hungry but simply bored.

'Wraps' were developed to be eaten standing up - which is ideal during busy periods - and consist of either hot roasted vegetables or hot chicken'wrapped' in a tortilla (£3.75 and £3.95 respectively).

Lunch times are very busy, according to Steve, with all the tables full to bursting. Evenings are bigger on wet sales but the Reef's light meals and sharer menu come into play andin the latter's case are priced similarly to a round of drinks.

'Sharer' meals are designed for two to three people and cost £4.75 for tex-mex nachos or £5.50 for the Mediterranean (marinated black and green olives with feta cheese, sunblushed tomatoes and ciabatta and foccacia breads).

Steve knows he could hike up menu prices and bring them more in line with those in high street café/bars operations. He knows that people visit the Reef to eat the food and not only if they are 'passing through' en route to their final destination. However, he is also well aware that a lot of his customers are from less affluent parts of the country and has initiated what he calls a 'nationwide pricing structure within a London context'.

Surprisingly for an operation like the Reef, all (or most) of the food on offer is fresh thanks to daily deliveries into a central depot based at Waterloo station. SSP operates three bars, an Upper Crust unit, a Bonapartes, a croissant operation and a Reef Café/bar which gives the company tremendous buying power and the luxury of fresh deliveries. Steve says that larger stations tend to have their own depots.

The food is cooked fresh by 'cooks' not chefs. "I'd love to say we use chefs but everything is done to a spec developed at head office," he said. SSP's Hammersmith HQ houses its own new product development kitchen where cooks are trained how to produce each dish on the menu and are then charged with the task of teaching their staff.

A typical kitchen set-up within a Reef Café/bar is one head cook and between three and four second cooks. During busy periods the unit manager will help out and there are always at least two kitchen porters.

Reef menus will change every six months both in terms of content and design, but popular items such as burgers and sausage and mash, will remain. "Each time we change the menu we will increase the level of complexity," said Steve. "And if the changes work we will try them els

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