Rise or fall: creating a solid summer menu

By Daniel Woolfson

- Last updated on GMT

Rob Palmer: "pick 'n' mix fine dining" has seen food sales soar
Rob Palmer: "pick 'n' mix fine dining" has seen food sales soar

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The British summer is a volatile beast, isn’t it? One day it will be tropical-style torrential rain, the next it’s sunscreen-doused noses, ill-fitting shorts and burned pink skin as far as the eye can see. 

Needless to say it can be difficult to manage the schizophrenic swings between rainy, 40-cover days and 16-hour dirges when it feels like the entire population of England has shown up at exactly 11.45am and every diner seems to have brought their petulant, gluten-free cousin.

The Dorset Arms, in Lewes, east Sussex, is one of those pubs lucky enough to benefit from thriving local trade and high footfall of tourists throughout the summer months.

Perched between the centre of Lewes and the town’s historic Cliffe neighbourhood, the Dorset, with its expansive beer garden, is in a prime position to capitalise on wandering hordes of familiar faces and sightseers alike. 

Streamlining a business to operate smoothly during periods of fluctuation is a matter of developing an algorithm of sorts, according to head chef and co-owner Robert Palmer.

“We try and refer to last year’s figures [when planning service],” he says. “But obviously we have to expect the best – or the worst, whichever way you look at it – for that day.

“You can’t look at the weather when it’s bad and think ‘we’re going to be dead today’ and send a chef home as much as you might want to because [the weather] could be the kind of thing that brings customers in.”

For instance, he says: “If a couple of coach parties turn up to go and look at the castle and are looking for somewhere to lunch pretty quickly because they think the rain might finish in an hour or so, they will descend on you.”

Bursts and falls

Taking those factors into account, Palmer can roughly gauge how trade may be on any particular day – although it’s far from an exact science.

He says: “It gives us the rough ability to get an idea of how trade might be throughout those events and whether those events are near us or not. If something’s going on at the other end of town we might not be affected, but it’s important to be kept in the loop.”

What’s more important, he says, is having systems to deal with bursts and falls in pressure on the kitchen. Working exclusively with local suppliers and ordering daily allows the Dorset kitchen to adapt to whatever level of trade is thrown at it.

“We order fresh every day and keep a small stockholding, so we’re never going to order 200 portions of chicken. We will order 20, then 20 and then another 20. Luckily, we also have suppliers that will deliver to us within an hour if needed.

“Either this or [a member of staff] can drive to them and pick up the things we need. That gives us an advantage rather than waiting for a once-a-week or twice-a-week delivery.”

But, he adds: “Although we don’t like to run out of things, you cannot predict what anyone is going to order – and we can go from zero to 150 covers in an hour – so you have to make a general guess and if you sell out of steaks half way through the day then it is just bad luck.”

While restaurants have a finite number of covers, the relaxed nature of the pub – apart from a small percentage of high-end businesses – means every surface is a potential cover on a busy day.

The Dorset Arms: ideally situated to capitalise on summer trade
The Dorset Arms: ideally situated to capitalise on summer trade

“That’s one drawback,” he says. “Every space can get filled. So while we have systems in place, it’s important that we have good staff who we prepare for those kind of days.

“They might not believe [how busy it gets] when we hire them but we have to say, ‘look, we’ve done 140 covers for lunch before and there was a day last year when we did 174’. We’ve had people queuing to order before 11am, knowing their order won’t be started for an hour.”

The past year has seen much noise made about the so-called phenomenon of ‘menu hacking’ – customers requesting changes to dishes or supplementing ingredients.

It’s debateable whether this ‘trend’ is as widespread as the media hype claims, but Palmer confirms customers are becoming increasingly dictatorial.

“It does happen a lot,” he says. “As the population gets more choice, people are saying ‘I want this but I want it done my way’ – which is fine if you can.”

Working with suppliers

Strong relationships with local suppliers are not a luxury every pub can afford - or needs to. However, many suppliers offer timely delivery services and are happy to work with licensees to ease summer strain.

“To avoid wastage and keep up with a sudden surge in business, it’s essential that pub chefs prioritize the best-sellers with frozen back-ups during busy times,” says Ian Newton, national account manager at Bidvest Foodservice.

Bidvest Foodservice provides deliveries on multi-temp vehicles capable of delivering fresh, frozen and ambient products for next day delivery.

“As well as this, it is on hand with JIT (just in time) deliveries from a number of its specialist companies,” he adds.

However, mix overly particular customers with a 150-cover summer lunch service and you have a recipe for disaster, not to mention beleaguered and aggravated chefs.

Palmer gets around the issue by pre-empting the changes customers are likely to make allowing the Dorset to “keep a lid on it” in terms of being prepared and, equally importantly, when it comes to costing dishes.

“As we write menus and go forward, we review what happened on the previous menu and, for instance, how many people asked for mash instead of new potatoes on a dish. Then we swap it over.”

He adds: “If you have a business like ours, where it can go from zero to 150 really quickly, you need to be efficient.

“So if you have these things in place and the mindset that it is possible to change things then it never causes any drama and you don’t get chefs chucking knives around going ‘for f**** sake they want chips’.”

‘Pick ’n’ mix’ menu

One of the ways Palmer and his team have been able to ease pressure on the kitchen has been with the introduction of a ‘pick ’n’ mix’ style menu.

Customers pick from a range of separately priced mains, such as baked celeriac, baby spinach and ricotta cheese in filo pastry with mixed bean salad and red pepper ketchup (£11) or chicken breast wrapped in Parma ham with a cream and mushroom sauce (£12.50) then combine it with their pick of potatoes, sides and salads.

“It’s been phenomenal,” adds Palmer, who wagers that moving to this format from a traditional à la carte offer has not only made things easier for the kitchen, but significantly increased sales.

“It’s just giving people choice and control,” he says. “We’re basically doing pick ’n’ mix fine dining. We don’t know anyone else doing it. Sometimes you get people who order cod in a white sauce with mashed potato and peas and you think ‘f*** me, that’s hospital food’ but that’s what they want.”

Interestingly enough, since the Dorset rolled out this format, Palmer has recorded a considerable drop in customer complaints.

“The format gives you the versatility to appeal to everyone – how can you complain about something you’ve chosen yourself? We put the emphasis back on the customer. And if they think they’ve had a bad meal because they don’t think the potato with truffle goes with the fish, well, they chose it. And I think people realise that.”

Related topics: Menu Ideas, Events & Occasions

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