Admiral's new head of food faces the challenge of getting licensees in its 2,700 wet-led pub estate into food. Lucy Britner finds out her battle-plan
Sam Pedder is the first to admit she's a serious person. She says that if she were to enter Gordon Ramsay's competition to become the next Fanny Craddock, cooking with her would be more a military operation than a source of entertainment.
But Sam has plenty to be serious about. In January she became head of food at 2,700 strong Admiral Taverns, the UK's third-largest pub estate, charged with improving or introducing food across this traditionally community-based, wet-led group.
She knows she's in for a serious challenge, but this woman means business. Food business.
At present about 60% of Admiral's estate is without any kind of food offering. In the next 12 months, Sam hopes to reverse this figure and help licensees plan and execute a sustainable food operation.
Sam joined Admiral from a two-year stint at Coffee Republic, where she built up the brand's food offer, involving everything from training and suppliers through to food labelling.
Sam says: "I learned a lot about how customers behave during the day. Loyalty was vital at Coffee Republic and it's the same with pubs. I ensured everything was made on-site and helped to bring back the loyalty card."
Pubs are not new territory for Sam, who also spent four years at FAB (Food and Beverage) consultancy group, where she helped develop menus for the likes of Hall & Woodhouse, SA Brain and Yates.
She says: "My long-term objective was always to return to pubs, but with a wealth of retail knowledge and a different insight."
How is Admiral helping tenants and lessees to introduce a food offering?
The company has launched mypubfood.co.uk website. We're not like a managed estate where we can just give everyone the same menu. So we created the website, which is always accessible: licensees can find recipes and create menus and posters. We've conducted menu research and produced designs similar to those of Jamie Oliver and EAT to inspire licensees.
We're entering phase two, looking at including more estate and trade news, as well as wine training, wine-and-food-matching tips and advice about soft drinks. The website can also assist licensees with profit calculations.
We've just acquired about 900 more pubs from Punch. I've negotiated deals with suppliers, including 3663 and Douwe Egberts, which we recommend to licensees. Even licensees at pubs that have inherited a poor credit history from previous tenants can use this facility.
How can licensees without the internet access the website info?
In a handy-sized booklet or by talking to their business development manager (BDM) - they carry lots of information. We're also looking to increase the number of computers in pubs.
What else is going on, apart from the website?
Lots - but most importantly, we'll hold six to eight regional fairs across the country where licensees can meet suppliers and taste products. The first is in September in London.
How can licensees get help? Are BDMs
qualified to meet their requests?
I believe in empowering BDMs. Licensees develop a trusting relationship with them, so I am investing time in their training. Recently we held the first of many "Food Days" similar to those we'll host for licensees later in the year.
We held a Ready Steady Cook-style event, exercises in strengths and weaknesses and insights into safer food, better business -
essentially, environmental health training.
Three days a week, I visit pubs with BDMs - I've probably written 50 suggested menus in the last three weeks. It's up to pubs whether they use the entire menu or as the foundation of something else. It helps them get started.
How much support do you offer licensees?
Anything - if margins are wrong, we cover kitchen management; and if food safety is poor, we advise about health and safety trainers. The trainers aren't free, but we do offer good deals. We can suggest a full menu or advise the licensee to clean their kitchen and help them avoid problems with environmental health departments.
Some pubs just need marketing help, such as the Camden Arms in the Brecon Beacons, south Wales. The licensee is a proper cook: she home-makes pastry and the food is sensational. The pub is clean and lovely but they're not sure how to market their food. So I'm going to help with that - I don't doubt that they will be packed out every weekend.
I work with the BDM, who keeps an eye on the pub. I need follow-up, and will be adding a couple of special people to the food team, but I have to give BDMs as much information as possible. The food team is there to support, but not to give initial information. We want licensees to feel part of something good. There's a lot of bad feeling about pubcos out there.
Are you planning to employ more food-team staff?
I'll recruit two more food-trainers initially - we need people to encourage more cooks out there. At Admiral we don't really have a need for chefs, and people get scared about doing food if they think they need a chef. I don't believe in creating a massive food team - after all, we have 49 fantastic BDMs, who know the pubs better than anyone. The food trainers will support me around the pubs and work with licensees and our BDMs where necessary.
Can every pub have some kind of food offering?
Yes - for some pubs, this could mean cheese rolls on the back of the bar. It's a question of management.
I'm developing a great food offer that goes straight from freezer to combi-oven. We're developing a back-bar solution involving just a combi-oven or microwave, fridge and hand-wash sink, and I'm planning to develop more, such as a pizza-oven concept. It's all developed with a focus on no extraction requirements.
Who pays for the kit?
It depends how it's done - it could be done as a CapEx or might be something they've planned and have budgeted for. Some pubs already have a sink and shelf space so all they need to do is hire kit. The Turk's Head in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, has a sink and space: licensees just need to lease equipment and the job's done.
There's no one solution. We can organise it so that they repay it in rent but the whole thing is designed as affordable - for example, a combi oven costs £1,000 but they might only need a microwave for £100.
How do you handle anti-food licensees?
We'll always have the problem of those who don't want to change. Some don't want to be rushed - they'd rather be presented with a few facts and consider it. It's important to understand how they work and encourage them to do food in an accessible way.
Will the smoke ban have an impact on sales?
Yes. It's vital to widen services, such as providing an off-sales facility or selling papers.
It's not just about food: that's just one option. I ask licensees: "Do you have a plan to replenish revenue you'll lose? Because you will lose it."
Some will never do food - mostly those who don't like change.
What kind of menu prices do you expect at your pubs?
I don't like to see anything costing more than £10, apart from steaks. But in some pubs, nothing should cost more than £6. The Monday-to-Thursday meal occasion is crucial - it pays the pub's bills.
But as a customer, I feel that if I can go out, enjoy a lasagne and a couple of drinks for £10, I'm happy with that. I haven't had to cook or wash up. But it's a problem for customers if it reaches £20. A £6 menu featuring traditional dishes can be a good start. But at the weekend, people might want more of an occasion.
How much has Admiral invested in food?
We have made a huge investment, but there's no figure yet: that depends on how much of my wish list gets agreed.
What do you think of current food trends?
Diets will always be a trend, but people don't go to pubs to lose weight. I encourage local sourcing. 3663 is great for products such as tomato ketchu