I scream, you scream, we all... you know the drill. Summer is once again around the corner and members of the British public are becoming ever more eager to live up to the stereotype as being the only ones mad enough to brave a pub garden in the midday sun.
The opportunity that summer brings for the on-trade is not to be sniffed at. Although a licensee’s success will never hinge on the weather to the extent that say, a deep sea crab fisherman’s or beach-side café owner’s will, it’s fundamental to remember the considerable profits that can be grown by providing your customers with a place to drink, snack and socialise once the weather takes a turn for the better.
Ice cream can be a powerful way to keep customers hanging around longer and a solid offer can help attract the lucrative family market.
Despite volume sales of ice cream falling by 7% over the past five years, inflation has led to the ice cream market’s value increasing by 12% to roughly £1.1bn as of summer 2015, according to Mintel.
Premium ice cream is solidly outperforming the majority of competitors, which Mintel claims is a demonstration that people are more willing to treat themselves to the occasional ‘luxury’ unhealthy product, despite a growing focus on eating healthily.
“Heightened awareness of the dangers of eating too much sugar — this having become the major food issue of 2014 — has put increased pressure on the ice cream and desserts market,” says Emma Clifford, senior analyst at Mintel.
But, she says, there is plenty of room for operators and manufacturers to play to these trends by developing low-fat products or by using alternative ingredients, such as yoghurt.
“Products made with naturally sourced sweeteners such as stevia attract significant interest, creating opportunities for mainstream brands to venture down this route, currently mainly explored by smaller operators,” she adds.
So how can pub operators make their ice cream offer stand out?
“It’s a versatile category that presents pub operators with many opportunities,” says Will Hawking, owner of Marshfield Farm Ice Cream.
“Using a high-quality ice cream that delivers on both flavour and authenticity will give operators more scope to be creative with their menu choices and maximise dessert sales.”
Whether served on its own, as part of a dessert, or in milkshakes or cocktails, premium ice cream can offer greater opportunities for innovative serves and strong sales returns, he adds.
“Choosing a supplier that can offer a responsive approach and an authentic, quality product for a good price can be instrumental in developing the best menu choices and increasing profit margins.”
With customers becoming in-creasingly interested in quality and provenance, Hawking says it is imperative that operators can trace their ingredients.
“To appeal to these customers, an effective method to market ice cream is to signal where the products have come from and the quality of the ingredients.
“If you’ve used locally sourced, all-natural ingredients in your menu choices, let your customers know.”
With sales hitting their peak in the summer months, Hawking recommends selecting flavour options for the menu that match the taste profile of the current season.
“Once your summer ice cream offer is selected, pub operators can effectively market their offering through attractive imagery both in the menu and through tent cards on the tables.
“Ice cream is considered a real treat by consumers so strong imagery displayed in the right places can help attract the customer’s eye and increase sales.”
Scratch or batch?
However, while it may be logistically simpler to buy ice cream from a supplier, some operators — large and small — are choosing not only to make their own ice cream, but to brand it and retail it as well.
Emily Watkins, chef-proprietor of the award-winning Kingham Plough, Oxfordshire, has made her own ice cream since 2007 when she took on the pub, which came in at number nine on the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list this year.
About a year ago, she finally decided to begin packaging, brand-ing and selling her ice cream — not just from behind the bar at the Kingham Plough, but also via a local garden centre.
“We carefully selected one stockist because we felt like it epitomised what we did: high-quality local produce,” she says.
“I’d been meaning to do it for years because customers kept on saying it was really good and they wanted to take it home with them. Last year, I committed to it by getting beautiful labels made.”
A significant amount of customers purchase her ice cream, particularly if it has been included in a dessert
on the menu, she says.
“For example, we’re using a rhubarb ice cream on one of our dishes at the moment. A lot of people have said ‘oh, that’s amazing’ and then the front-of-house members of staff are there to mention that we sell it from behind the bar. Then they always take a tub home.”
However, Watkins’ production is limited to around 40 tubs a week due to having only one two-litre ice cream machine in the kitchen.
“While it’s very efficient and fits us brilliantly, we sell 40 tubs a week easily and could sell far more if we really pushed it. But we don’t push it currently because we just can’t keep up.”
Each tub sells for £6 and has a GP of roughly 30% to 40%. The
relatively low GP is largely down to the costs of packaging and labelling, she says, adding that she would like to find a space to produce the ice cream at a higher level.
Watkins has also made a point of sticking to ‘more quirky, more British’ flavours rather than traditional ice cream staple flavours such as chocolate and vanilla.
“You can get chocolate ice cream anywhere,” she says. “There are some exceptional ones already out there and I’m not out to beat anyone’s chocolate ice cream.”
Ice, ice, baby
London-based pub company Fuller’s currently serves its own ice cream across its 188-strong managed estate.
Head of food Paul Dickinson enlisted Hampshire-based Laverstoke Park Farm to create the ice cream, which comes in a range of flavours including cardamom, Earl Grey, strawberry and chocolate.
“When you look at how our pudding sales have grown over the past few years, it’s quite fantastic,” he says. “When you engage your customers through flavour and through product, it is really rewarding.”
One of the major benefits of having a Fuller’s-branded ice cream is the personal relationship it creates with the customer, he adds.
“The thing I tell everyone about food is how personal it is. You can make someone smile or you can make someone cry if it’s that bad. The customers who come to us know they can’t get it elsewhere.
“It’s consistency as well — every batch of ice cream that gets made, I sign off. I go and sit there with Jody [Scheckter, Laverstoke Park Farm owner and former F1 world champion], we have a debate, we might agree or disagree but it’s a great relationship and it requires passion, time and effort.”
As well as providing a point of in-terest for customers by differentiating Fuller’s ice cream flavours from other brands, Dickinson says creating more unorthodox flavours such as cardamom challenges the company’s chefs to come up with inventive ways to incorporate it on to menus.
“Differentiation is one thing,” he says. “When you look at the menus these chefs are putting together and the dishes they make, it gives them a sort of guidance to complement the pudding with a good ice cream.”
Six things to know before selling ice cream in your pub