Orchid blooms

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Related tags: Orchid, Tapas, Thai cuisine

Managed operator Orchid has celebrated its first year in business. Jo Bruce gets an update on this dynamic pubco Regionally-sourced food, Dom...

Managed operator Orchid has celebrated its first year in business. Jo Bruce gets an update on this dynamic pubco

Regionally-sourced food, Dom Perignon behind the bar, interiors Kevin McCloud would be proud of - not things you

normally associate with a managed operator.

But Orchid Pub Company's Hemlock Stone, in Wollaton, near Nottingham, has all of them. The pub has been given a £600,000 refurbishment - the first slice of a £3m investment into contemporary dining pubs, with plans to open 15 sites between now and next April.

The standard on offer at the Hemlock Stone is on par with the best gastropub concepts

of managed operators such as Mitchells & Butlers' Project S. Like all Orchid pubs, the

site is unbranded, with, to coin a marketing expression, "the individual pub the hero, not

the brand".

As commercial director Simon Dodd says: "We don't want to be a branded business. We want to create an independent feel for every site and intend to do something bespoke in


The boldness of innovation at Orchid is driven by the fact that the senior management team, led by CEO Rufus Hall, have been told by Orchid's backers, US private-equity firm GI Partners, not to be scared of the odd failure.

This has given rise to a willingness by Orchid's senior management team to explore new ideas, with the flexibility to move beyond a one-model-and-menu-fits-all approach.

In its first year, the business has seen a wealth of quality ideas that the Dragon's Den panel would be fighting over. Seven different trading formats are now in operation, covering all areas of the pub market from aspirational food to mid-market dining to wet-led pubs.

Among key innovations are the launch of in-pub delis, mobile-phone charging units for customers, contemporary carveries, the revival of dessert counters, new children's concept Fuzzy Ed's, carvery units for hot sandwiches and female-friendly drinking pubs complete with tapas menus.

Orchid was born in June 2006 after GI Partners acquired 290 Spirit pubs from Punch Taverns for £571m, adding massive bulk to the 21 Oriental restaurants already acquired from Noble House. The deal gave Orchid a mixture of sites from bar-restaurant chain Jim Thompson's to Qs, Country Carvery and Two For One. Following the disposal of off-strategy sites, the company now has 300 sites with 9,000 staff.

Orchid has moved with Kelly Holmes-like speed in its first year, exiting its transitional service agreement six months early, completing around 100 site investments and planning to complete investment in half of the estate by the end of October.

While removing brands from its estate the company is also breathing new life into traditional trading concepts like the carvery and value-driven food offers.

Orchid has given the carvery concept a radical revamp and now has 14 contemporary carveries, 40 planned in total. Details include contemporary decor such as floral wallpaper, up-lit wine displays, carvery vegetables served in a separate station away from the meat to help customer flow and reduce queues, and having carvery meats presented on rustic, butcher's block-style pods.

The offer is positioned at £7.95, around £2 higher than M&B's Toby Carvery. The Red Tractor farm-assured and EBLEX quality standard mark logos are used on menus to reinforce that meat is of an exceptional and guaranteed standard.

The company has already evolved its carvery concept at the Porridge Pot in Warwick, Warwickshire, with a focus on British meats, named local suppliers and home-grown vegetables. The offer is also positioned at a higher price point of £8.95. An open desserts display counter has also been introduced in two carveries including the Young Pretender, at King's Langley, Hertfordshire, which has seen dessert sales increase by an average extra 100 a week.

Fresh food is a big focus at the company, which employs a head of operations for fresh food. Brakes is the company's main supplier, with around 90% of dishes created on a bespoke basis for Orchid.

At present, around 20% of total food is fresh, but head of food Dean Snee's vision is to increase this to 40%. Menus will change seasonally and are themed to suit individual pubs rather than a cookie-cutter approach.

Snee heads up a food team of nine, but the company is also creating a team of 26 training house chefs. They are leading Orchid head chefs who will each look after 15 Orchid sites and provide training and support.

In the mid-market arena, Orchid has launched an offer of two main courses for £12, currently available at 19 sites, with 70 planned in total. The Priory in Wellingbrough, Northants, and the Muddle Go Nowhere in Grantham, Lincs, were the first to open, and in May the Priory achieved a company record for the highest-ever weekly turnover, hitting £41k. Some mid-market sites also have a Fuzzy Ed's Fun Houses, which include play equipment and a children's menu.

The Orchid Group also operates Oriental restaurants including its Dragon concept, combining an English bar and a Thai restaurant. The Brown Cow in Leeds, which opened last month, is the first Dragon north of the M25. The company is using the expertise of its Thai chefs to improve Eastern dishes on its pub menus such as Thai green curry. Coffee is also being given a big focus, with Fairtrade coffee served and all staff barista-trained, not just in its food-led pubs, but in all independent local pubs.

Wine is also high on Orchid's priority list and the company works with supplier Bibendum. Unusually, most of the wines on all its wine

lists are offered by the glass in both 175ml

and 250ml.

To help capture a slice of the lucrative grey market, the company has created a Diamond Club card for the over 60s. The club currently has around 2,000 members who benefit from a 25% discount on main meals at selected pubs or set meal deals at the carveries.

Front of house, Orchid is innovating with its 100 Club, a scheme to encourage pub staff to get to know 100 of their regulars. Staff are being incentivised to learn three things about the customer: their name, preferred tipple and an interesting fact about them.

In the past, private-equity owners of pub companies have had a bad reputation for sitting on assets and avoiding investment. Spirit Group under private-equity control was a case in point. But the Orchid team, which now controls some of Spirit's pubs, is showing what can be done with a willingness to give new ideas their head. It's a case of all power to their elbow - the word is that Mitchells & Butlers executives have been spotted checking out Orchid's up-market carvery offer.

It's still early days, of course. Trading ideas need to withstand the test of time. But the Orchid space is most definitely one worth watching.?

Orchid innovation

Contemporary drinking

St Marks Bar & Dining, Surbiton, Surrey

Style: glamorous, decadent and female-friendly (10 of this concept are planned to open in the next year)

Food offer: Includes meze and British and Spanish tapas menu

On the menu: Tapas sharing plates: sizzling chorizo (£3.50), filo king prawns (£3.50), aromatic duck spring rolls (£3.50), mini fish and chips (£3.50).

Flatbreads: Tikka chicken (£4.50); roasted vegetable and warm goats'

cheese (£4.75)

Grazing plates: Summer meze (£8),

half aromatic crispy duck (£14)

Mains: Hand-pressed 8oz ground Aberdeen Angus burger (£5.95); 10oz rump steak and chips (£9.95); bangers and creamed potato (£5.95); warm chorizo, new potato and red pepper salad (£6.25)

Drinks: All wines by the glass in 175ml and 250ml, Fairtrade coffee offer includes cappuccino (£1), hot chocolate (£1), espresso (80p), green

or peppermint tea (80p).

Independent locals

The Clothiers, Yeadon, Yorkshire

Food offer: Includes new carvery pods positioned at the end of the bar t

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