All fired up

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A wood-burning oven can help your pub offer a point of difference. Catherine Quinn looks at how licensees can make the most of a red-hot asset The...

A wood-burning oven can help your pub offer a point of difference. Catherine Quinn looks at how licensees can make the most of a red-hot asset

The smell of freshly-baked bread isn't generally associated with pubs. But for some trend-setting licensees, it's proving to be the sweet smell of success. It seems a bread oven can offer significant opportunities for gourmet appeal. Not only can a pub produce its own fresh bread and pizza, but hosts can extend their usage to outdoor heating, family-friendly events and to add theatre to their meal offerings.

"We love our wood-fired oven - it's the only way to cook," says Andy Knight, licensee of the Dixie Arms in Market Bosworth, Warwickshire. They bought in their oven last year after seeing one working its magic in a Scottish pub. He says: "We cook as much as we can in it. Originally it was to cook pizza, but we also cook the Sunday roasts and our own Christmas turkey."

Although wood-burning ovens might seem like a complicated way to cook, the concept dates back to pre-Roman times. Essentially it's a fire in an insulating brick shell. But it's still an oven like any other, so while it can fast-cook bread products like pizza, the oven can also roast, bake, keep things warm, heat things up, or work as an outdoor alternative to a barbecue. The efficiency of the design also means that a good quality wood-burning oven can provide a phenomenal amount of heat for a relatively small amount of fuel.

Energy saving

"If a pub were to fire up an oven, say for 3pm in the afternoon they would be adding the occasional log until 7pm, and then the oven would stay hot until at least 11pm," says Andrew Manciocchi of Orchard Ovens. "This would take about four to five bags of wood which are each about the size of a bag of potatoes, and would cost about £15. And that's an estimate for heavy usage - we use 70 bags of wood every four weeks, and we're operating on a commercial basis morning to night six days a week."

The time taken to heat up the oven is also less onerous than initiates might assume. For many of us, the only association we have with fire-heated cooking devices is with cast-iron devices like Aga ovens, which take a long time to heat up. In comparison, an occasionally-used wood-fired oven takes around an hour to get up to temperature, and this time is cut to half an hour if you use it on a daily basis.

There are some disadvantages though. There is no escaping the fact that these ovens take up a lot of space, and are not suitable for a small pub kitchen. In a worst case scenario the space needed would be two metres by two metres (although it's often significantly less than this) so licensees considering the option would be wise to make it a feature of their main seating area. This way they benefit not only from the "wow" factor of having such an oven installed, but the residual warmth also means they can keep the thermostat a little lower, and make an extra saving on their heating.

Caring for the environment

Licensees can also use wood-burning ovens as part of an ongoing drive to care for the environment. "Wood is classed as carbon neutral, be-

cause although it produces emissions, the time the tree was growing counters that," explains Helen Thompson of Natural Heating. "So as long as you use good aged wood, it's better for the environment than gas or electric."

So wood-burning is an environmental choice, space-guzzling notwithstanding. But Andrew of Orchard Ovens argues that even this apparent disadvantage can be misleading. "A lot of people will look at a four feet by four feet space, and argue that they could put in a standard electric oven which would take nine pizzas at capacity, rather than a wood-burning one which would take five to six pizzas for the same space," says Andrew. "But when you look at the fact that a wood-burning oven cooks pizza in two minutes maximum rather than five or six minutes, per hour they're producing the same amount."

So far so good - but just how much is one of these culinary behemoths going to set you back? A standard-sized good-quality wood-burning oven should cost around £1,500 not including fitting. You can get smaller sizes, but be wary of prices that seem too good to be true. "Wood-burning ovens and stoves should be certified to ensure they meet EU emissions regulations," says Helen Thompson. "But a number of technically illegal ovens are on sale by disreputable dealers, who even supply forged documents - so be careful who you buy from."

If you're willing to go through the process of getting your approved oven, and having it installed in a nice open spot where customers can see it, you'll want to make sure you're maximising its potential. One way to do this is to play up the "wow" factor by ensuring it's right under customer's noses, so to speak. "One of the advantages is the oven has a certain aroma that wafts into the bar," says Andy Knight. "Customers come into the oven room to have a look, and the next week they bring friends to show them. We are looking at putting another one in so that customers can see their food being cooked."

But it seems this kind of customer-friendly showmanship might pay the greatest dividends outdoors. "A lot of pubs are developing their outdoor offerings and this is another way to do this," says Andrew Manciocchi. "You can use it in the same way as a barbecue, and because it's so sturdy, it's fine for pets, children, and even people who have a had a few too many drinks - short of crawling into the mouth of the oven it's almost impossible to burn yourself."

A real talking point

Licensees with outdoor ovens have found every-thing from cook-your-own pizza to Bonfire Night jacket potatoes go down a storm with kids and adults alike. At the White Hart in Alton Village, Staffordshire, manager Warren Sergeant says: "We keep our oven outside so people can see it as they come through the car park. It's most definitely a talking point, and people will come back for the food. We're in a small village, but it has attracted people from all over. We put it in as part of a refurbishment, and we are hoping to go more 'foodie'. At the moment we use it just for pizzas, and it has certainly been a worthwhile investment for us."

While these ovens may have become more popular, they're still something of a rarity for pubs. As the White Hart has found, they still have the "wow" factor - although once word is out that a landlord has fitted a wood-burning oven, it's only a matter of time before the trend spreads to nearby bars. So if you're considering buying one to draw in extra customers, doing it sooner rather than later could make you the trendsetter, rather than the hanger-on.

Pizza package

La Pizza, manufacturer of frozen, part-baked pizza bases, dough balls, tear & share garlic bread and Mediterranean breads, has teamed up with Jestic, importers of the Bakers Pride stone-baked pizza oven to bring a complete pizza package to any licensees looking to add pizza to their food offer.

A starter pack is available to make the initial set-up as easy as possible, including a twin stone-based pizza oven, refrigerated toppings unit, topping spooners, pizza wheel cutters, herb shaker and pizza peel (for removing pizza from the oven and 18 nine-inch deep-pan pizza bases, 1kg pizza sauce and 2kg mozzarella cheese. Training is given on how to operate the ovens and make and bake pizza. All is available, including a finance lease deal of £99 per month for three years.

The Bakers Pride twin-deck stone-baked pizza oven takes up little space and is ideal for pubs with limited space. For more information visit www.lapizzacompany.com or call 01730 811490.

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