Desserts are often a sticky issue for pubs. 'Afters' are an opportunity to add profit to any meal, but at the same time customers need to know they are getting value for money.
Equally, with so many pubs putting an emphasis on menu provenance, desserts need to take into account customer interest in where products are sourced.
The Merry Harriers in Hambledon, Surrey, is in an enviable location on the edge of the Surrey Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Colin and Julie Stoneley bought the 16th-century freehouse last year their first venture in the pub trade after careers as diverse as IT training, marketing, graphic design - and even llama trekking.
Colin says: "We knew the pub and had watched it fall into a bad state of repair over a number of years. But, we always knew it had great potential.
"Aside from the location, the property has a lot of land attached and we knew there was scope to really make it a fantastic local pub without spending ridiculous amounts of money. When it came onto the market we snapped it up."
The operation includes a campsite which is busy during the summer months, and "there was also the added appeal of being able to re-locate our existing llama trekking business and run it from the pub premises," says Colin.
For the past six years the couple have offered people the opportunity to walk with llamas through the Surrey Hills. "It's really popular with families. It's surprising how children can be persuaded to enjoy a walk in the countryside when they have a llama in tow.
"We have also introduced an evening walk where guests enjoy a stroll through the hills and then arrive back at the pub where a freshly cooked meal is awaiting them."
Along with investment in landscaping the 120-cover beer garden, which now includes a boules pitch, play equipment and a sunny terrace for alfresco dining, the pub's food offer has been a focus.
Julie says: "Although I trained to NVQ 3 as a chef and had various work placements in pubs and restaurants, my only real experience in catering has been producing up-market picnics for the llama trekking business."
The pub has three separate dining areas totalling 75 covers, plus a private dining room which can comfortably seat 20 guests. The pub is in an upmarket area and its customers appreciate good food.
The menu is predominantly traditional English food, with staples including chicken liver paté with homemade red onion jam at £4.50; moules mariniere served with crusty bread at £10.95; and a quarter-pounder burger with chunky chips for £10.95.
All food is freshly prepared using locally sourced ingredients wherever possible.
The traditional dessert menu includes Auntie Yvonne's apple pudding from a secret family recipe; sticky toffee pudding; homemade chocolate mousse and bread and butter pudding - all served with a choice of custard, cream or ice-cream and priced at £4.25.
"We were selling around 100 desserts a week," says Colin, "so approximately one customer in every four would choose to have a dessert after their main course.
"We thought there was scope to increase the volume of desserts sold. We felt that if we got the menu right then it should be an easy sell to persuade customers to try a pudding. If they have a dessert then they may have coffee or a liqueur as well. Also, as soon as someone on the table orders a dessert then other diners will often follow suit.
"We felt it was an opportunity not to be missed and so decided to see what we could do to drive up sales."
Personalised offer pays off
Colin and Julie came across New Forest Ice Cream during a day out on the south coast. The family-run business produces ice-creams made from full-fat Jersey milk and double cream, using flavourings from natural sources.
The company offers a personalised dessert menu service that allows customers to pick and mix from an extensive range of ice-cream flavours and presentation styles.
"Working with New Forest Ice Cream, we were able to choose a good mix of flavours, with something to suit all tastes," explains Colin.
"We chose the images that we wanted and also picked from a variety of menu designs, selecting something that we felt would fit in with the style of the pub. When the menu arrived, we were thrilled."
The Merry Harriers ran the New Forest Ice Cream menu alongside its existing dessert menu for four weeks during July. Despite the vagaries in the summer weather, the pub saw a 138 per cent increase in total dessert sales.
"The interesting thing is that we are still selling roughly the same amount of traditional desserts as we did before," says Julie.
"But now we are selling a similar volume of ice-creams as well, in effect doubling our total desert sales. Two-thirds of customers who order a main course now have a dessert as well.
"New Forest Ice Cream was prepared to spend time with us, training the staff in presentation techniques and serving suggestions."
One successful approach was to encourage waiting staff to be 'dessert ambassadors'. They were fully briefed on the menu so if a customer asked they could describe the dish in some detail.
"It sounds obvious but this is an area which is often forgotten about, especially when part-time or casual labour is involved," says Julie.
The company also provided the Merry Harriers with free promotional material such as swingboards, banners and flags, which helped promote the ice-cream offer around the pub.
"The ice-cream is so quick and easy to serve and requires little preparation. We are selling a three-scoop portion for £3.35. Chocolate and raspberry ripple meringue are the most popular flavours," says Julie.
"Our profit margin is approximately 80 per cent. It's very easy money and I don't know why we didn't think of it before."
Colin adds: "Before we bought the Merry Harriers we used to laugh at a road sign that described the pub as serving 'warm beer and lousy food'.
"We took that sign down as soon as we moved in and we feel confident that with all the changes we have made in the past 12 months our customers have a much more positive opinion of the pub now."