The problem of mystery shopping is taxing Simon Dodd at the moment. Not that the busy operations director of expanding pub group Orchid is moonlighting by checking out a few rivals - rather, he's trying to come up with a way to make the process useful to his own business.
"The problem with conventional mystery shopping is that it is all about quantitative measures," says Simon. "But what our pubs offer is a qualitative experience." In other words, ticking boxes about the number of chips on the plate, or the whiteness of the waitresses' aprons, doesn't actually tell you whether customers have enjoyed their visit.
Using retail disciplines to improve the hospitality experience has served managed pubs fairly well. Central menu development, category management, point-of-sale promotion and disciplined head office systems have all helped raise the industry's game.
However, Simon and his boss Rufus Hall, the company's chief executive, believe Orchid may have reached the limit of that process.
"Retail and pubs aren't the same business," says Rufus. "There were good reasons why managed operators needed to put tight head office controls in place, but that isn't what we're about."At Orchid the emphasis is on managers and individual pubs rather than the company behind them, and that's particularly true with food.
The deals in which US investment firm GI Partners put together 300 pubs under the Orchid umbrella in mid-2005 landed Rufus and his team with quite a mixed bag in food terms. The range took in everything from Oriental bar-restaurant chain Jim Thompsons to Qs, Country Carvery and the Two For One pubs bought from Spirit.
Other companies might have been tempted at that point to continue down the branded route, if only for expediency's sake. Orchid has instead taken a doggedly individual approach.A case in point is the Young Pretender in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire. Sited alongside a Premier Travel Inn, the pub trades right through the day, starting with breakfast for next door's overnight guests. It has been given a major refurbishment and changed its name.
"The pub was called the Young Pretender years ago," says Rufus, "and as part of the investment we've restored the name, as we're also doing at other sites."Orchid has installed an upmarket carvery offer at the pub, within a modern, stylish fit-out. Managers Ann Lewis and Mark Pateman, newly arrived at Orchid from their previous job running pubs for Mitchells & Butlers, have been impressed by both the design and the response from customers.
Fresh and local
"It's a big site and a long trading day," says Mark. "Customers, especially those who have known the pub for a long time, are really impressed." Food sales are up very strongly over the first few weeks of trading under the new format. Orchid has worked with suppliers to source local meat - a policy repeated at all the company's revamped carveries - as well as fresh, seasonal vegetables."It has been hard work getting suppliers on board," says Simon. "We've worked with established national suppliers to source local produce, but it's worth it. Our sales show that customers respond to fresh, local food." Other Orchid pubs are having similar success with different approaches to food. At the Wigmore Arms, a landlocked community pub in Luton, Bedfordshire, manager Brendan Halligan has launched a more conventional pub food offer which has struck a chord with regulars.
Busy after the ban
"This was seen as a smokers' pub by many people," says Brendan. "Food sales mean we're getting in more families, and we were as busy as ever over the first few days of the ban."At the George in Harpenden, just a few miles down the road from the Wigmore, but a million miles away socio-demographically, manager Phillip Wilson is thinking of ways to maximise sales from the pub's deli counter. At lunchtime, customers queue up for wraps which can be toasted to eat in or take away, choosing from a range of ingredients.
"I'd like to make up some of the most popular wraps in advance to speed up service," he says, "but then you lose the advantage of seeing everything made fresh."
For Simon, the downside of this very individual approach is that it makes developing a one-size-fits-all mystery shopping programme a nightmare. "There's a way of doing it," he insists. "I just haven't worked out what it is yet."