Greene King's David Scott talks to JO BRUCE about the growth

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Anyone who says size doesn't matter is obviously not a Hungry Horse customer. For big is at the core of Hungry Horse's brand values ­ big portions,...

Anyone who says size doesn't matter is obviously not a Hungry Horse customer. For big is at the core of Hungry Horse's brand values ­ big portions, big menu, big value, big personality and it is big on new ideas. If you were as hungry as a horse when you arrive ­ from where the brand derives its name ­ then you sure aren't going to be for long. Big portions come on 17-in plates, you can get a 17-in hot dog and a Coke that's served in a 22-oz glass. Current best sellers on the menu include rump steak, 10oz sirloin, Big H Cheeseburger and Chicken New Yorker. The Hungry Horse brand values are paying off, with sales up 9% year-on-year. In fact, for the brand owner, the Greene King Pub Company, this sum now accounts for a third of its overall profits. As well as offering salads, steaks, burgers, combos, the famous cow pie and mixed grills, the brand has led the way in giving parents the choice of healthier food for their children. It has introduced a fruit option as a dessert and water as a drink on the new Pony Club children's menu. Another feature is the Government's five-a-day logo on dishes that meet this criteria. Hungry Horse has also taken a proactive role in the smoking debate and since the beginning of July two sites have adopted total no-smoking bans. While dining is certainly vital to Hungry Horse's offering, the brand is very much seeking a balance between food and liquor sales ­ its aim is to achieve an equal wet-to-dry split. Working on a gross profit margin of around 50% enables the brand to offer value for money, but it is essential that the sites achieve strong liquor sales. At the same time, though, 43 of the brand's sites will operate with a much higher turnover on food. Greene King is now focusing on developing new sites on the edge of housing areas, rather than its traditional preference of central residential locations. Destination sites are also low on the agenda as this moves them away from liquor sales, which is what helps make the brand profitable. But the destination sites it does have ­ such as the Acorn, which is a stone's throw from Bicester Village, a designer shopping complex in Bicester in Oxfordshire ­ are certainly successful. For example, on an average weekend, the Acorn will serve around 1,500 covers. Hungry Horse marketing manager David Scott says: "The brand works in lots of different situations ­ from a community-orientated outlet to a destination pub. Customers can take the part of the brand they want to." Greene King, which counts among its competitors, Spirit Groups' Two For One and Brewsters, acquired Hungry Horse from Magic in 1995. The deal secured 48 pubs for GK. At the time, Hungry Horse had not been managed as a brand and the outlets operated as traditional community pubs that had a food offer tagged on. But now, Hungry Horse, with 137 sites, has developed into the fifth-largest brand in the pub food industry. On average, the company opens 12 new sites a year. These come from transferring existing Greene King pubs or from purchasing new sites. The acquisition in July of 432 Laurel pubs will also present some opportunities for the development of the brand. In terms of food, steaks are an essential part of the Hungry Horse offer, accounting for one-in-three of its main course sales. In April when the brand launched its new More for L£ss menu, the company lowered the price point of a 10oz rump steak from £6.49 to £5.99. A range of steak toppings which customers pay an additional £1 for has also been introduced -­ now 22% of its steaks leave the kitchen with this up sell. But for a brand that prides itself on its big offering, the small things still matter. The More for L£ss menu also saw the controversial death of sweetcorn, an upgrade of the peas offered, more focus on chip quality, and the introduction of larger mushrooms, which accompany many of the main dishes. With a brand such as Hungry Horse the consistency and quality of the product is key to its success. As Scott says: "We aim to deliver the best customer experience every time. We have to provide a consistency of delivery which people know and trust in every Hungry Horse they go to." Greene King has also worked hard on developing a personality for the brand, which is achieved by offering innovative dishes such as Candymania, and cow pie which is served with two pastry horns coming out of it. The horse character, which was introduced in 2001, has also proved a big hit and is used on menus, promotional material, internal staff communications and on the Hungry Horse's website where he makes his appearance to the Mission Impossible music. But the company is careful to make sure that in the drinking areas of the pub the horse character is not over-played. He has almost achieved cult status with customers buying an average of 2,000 beanie toys of the horse a week and seven of the 17-in horse plates. The horse beanie has even made an appearance on e-bay. Although Hungry Horse is, in every sense, a brand, Greene King's flexible management ap-proach also means individual managers have the opportunity to influence how their pub is run. For example, at the Acorn a Sunday carvery is run because this is popular with its customers although it is not part of the general Hungry Horse menu. Managers also have the chance to create their own marketing material appropriate to their customers by using the company's tool kit. Like any other business, people are the key at Hungry Horse and a big focus is given to training and development of staff. Many Hungry Horse outlets are part of Greene King's Kitchens of Excellence scheme and staff are on its succession programme to groom them for managerial posts. Scott says they look for entrepreneurial people who can both work the bar and mix with customers. It is also important to be able to understand the needs and demands of the kitchen. Scott says: "If managers don't know what is going on in the kitchen they can't manage customer's expectations front of house." With 12 Hungry Horses opening every year, this is a brand that Greene King is backing, and, due to its success, this seems a safe bet.

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