Equipment: Red hot success

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Service, we're so often told, is key to the success of pubs in an increasingly competitive market. So handing over the raw ingredients of a meal and...

Service, we're so often told, is key to the success of pubs in an increasingly competitive market. So handing over the raw ingredients of a meal and telling customers to cook it themselves doesn't sound like a recipe for business success.

Nevertheless one group of entrepreneurs, including an experienced and successful publican, believes the concept is a winner - early indications suggest they could well be right. Like so many great ideas, it grew out of a conversation at the bar.

The Red Hot Plancha business is the brainchild of Ashley Bent, lessee of the Bell Inn, Tanworth in Arden, Warwickshire, and businessman Ian Kelly. The Spanish word plancha describes food grilled on a metal plate. Ashley had experienced the plancha style of al fresco dining in Spain, and believed there was scope to develop the idea for the UK market.

What was needed were units which were affordable enough to be an attractive investment for pubs and other businesses, but robust enough to cope with the extremes of the British climate.

That was where Ian, a regular at the Bell, came in. During that all-important chat over the bar, Ian realised that his well-established manufacturing contacts in China would be able to meet the brief.

The Red Hot Plancha System is straightforward. Wooden tables are produced in a variety of designs, from two-seaters to those seating eight or more. At the centre of the table is a round metal plate which is connected to a canister of LPG patio gas.

Customers sit around the table and grill themselves bite-size chunks of meat and fish, along with bread and vegetables. At the Bell, cuts of meat, white fish and shellfish are all popular, as are products such as sausages and kebabs. The cooking surface is sprayed lightly with oil, and the cooking process means juice and vitamins are sealed in.

"People get the idea very quickly," says Ashley. "It quickly turns into a family or social occasion, and everyone enjoys it."

While al fresco cooking and cook-it-yourself concepts are nothing new, the plancha has a number of advantages, says Ian. "With a barbecue, one person - usually dad - ends up cooking by himself in the corner. This way, everyone's involved," he says.

Perhaps more importantly from a publican's point of view, the price of entry is substantially lower than for other cook-at-table systems.

"Investment costs are clearly an issue for pubs at the moment," Ian points out. At under £300 for the smallest plancha unit - and no need to replace a smaller table if demand grows, simply buy more - "pubs can try the concept for themselves," he adds.

The typical payback time is calculated at 16 sittings, although this will obviously depend on the price charged and the pub's own GP on the food served.

"Once people try it, they tend to come back for more," says Ashley. "Although this summer's not been ideal weatherwise, as long as it hasn't actually been raining we've had people at the tables outside."

As well as being taken up by a number of individual pub operators, the possibilities have been recognised by both national managed pub operators and brewers, who have seen the potential for rolling out a new food concept relatively simply and cheaply.

"For those operators, clearly we need to offer the whole package - menus, signs, recipes and so on," says Ian. "We're now at the point where we're able to do that."

There is also clear potential to franchise the brand to pubs and restaurants - clearly demonstrated by the fact that Mark Hare, the entrepreneur responsible for the development and roll-out of the Cash Converters franchise in the UK, is the newest investor in the business.

As a brand, Red Hot Plancha looks set to sizzle.

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