“Be more than a pub. Be a brand,” the pundits urged, harbingering economic doom and personal humiliation at the hands of a braying, Instagram-obsessed mob.
“Premiumise, premiumise, for the love of god, premiumise!” proclaimed the experts.
Customers are reportedly looking for quality above all else when they eat out more than ever before, thanks to years of economic hardship and uncertainty following 2008’s financial crash.
And, it seems, they’re willing to pay for an experience they deem to be more premium than the average offer.
But what does ‘premium’ actually mean when it comes to food and eating-out trends? Is it aesthetic or is it concerned with provenance and price?
There are inevitable parallels to be drawn with the ambiguity of ‘craft’ in the beer world. Could 'premiumising your offer' just be a matter of cynically presenting a steak on a wooden board and charging an extra £2?
“To my mind, a premium product would be something made with higher quality ingredients and a higher price point,” says Peter Linden, senior analyst at MCA Insight.
“A good example would be the kind of premium burgers you see from operators like MEATliquor and Patty & Bun. Then we have the same thing in pizza with Homeslice and Pizza Pilgrims.”
Yet, burgers and pizzas are fast-food staples and don’t exactly scream exclusivity, so commanding a higher price point for such foods may seem provocative to those in the trade.
Admittedly, gourmet burgers and pizzas may not be the cheapest of eats out there, but, in the grand scheme of things, they almost certainly won’t break the bank for the average diner.
Linden continues: “What [these businesses] serve is essentially still fast food. But it’s taking fast food to a casual restaurant level and premiumising familiar products.”
It’s not a stretch to imagine that, in days gone by, the answer might have been different: go back just 10 years and truffles, foie gras, caviar, Champagne – luxurious imports – ruled the premium sphere.
But, says Linden: “The kind of premiumisation we are talking about now is very different from the ‘premium’ of fine dining. So, when people talk about premium products in pubs and casual dining it is not really comparable.”
Within the pub sector, Linden marks Raymond Blanc’s White Brasserie group and New World Trading Company (NWTC) as pertinent examples of this ‘casual premiumisation’.
Of NWTC’s Trading House concept, Linden says: “It’s really got that ‘premium’ feel with the interior and it has a deli-influenced menu that adds sophistication but, at the end of the day, it is approachable and you can still go in and have a pint.”
For context, sample dishes at the Trading House include crispy calamari with piri-piri salt and lemon mayo; flattened rump ‘off the barbecue’ seasoned with chilli and garlic with a roasted mushroom, cherry tomatoes and watercress; and elderflower jelly and red berry pavlova with raspberry ripple ice cream.
The picture Linden paints, then, is that ‘casual premiumisation’ is pretty widespread.
However, research by MCA reveals that, despite eating out more frequently and ‘trading up’, the average ratings given by consumers for such meals are not really increasing.
“I think people are starting to see stuff like brioche buns, stuff that maybe was considered ‘premium’ [a few years ago], as being the new normal,” explains Linden.
“So maybe it will go back to things like truffles and caviar being considered premium because brioche burger buns are everywhere already.”
And this normalisation of high standards – levels that could have previously been considered premium – has led to another interesting side effect.
“Customers are becoming incredibly demanding,” says Linden. “It’s a very tough market now – they expect every burger to be of an amazing quality.
"The average ratings were improving for a while, but not any more – so I guess people are just getting really picky.”
When a term like ‘craft’ or ‘premium’ lacks a solid definition, there is always the risk of it being hijacked.
“I do think there is a risk some brands will abuse that,” poses Linden.
“But we do know consumers are becoming more savvy, knowledgeable and demanding and I think they will see through some of those attempts.”
Being savvy, he adds, will drive the clued-up customer towards operators providing a genuinely exceptional experience – or suppliers providing a truly high-value product.
Whiting & Hammond’s (W&H) executive chef James Moyle-Rosser doesn’t like to use the word premium in regards to the company’s pubs or its food.
He views the concept of premium as having become intrinsically entwined with where food comes from rather than its quality.
And despite aiming to source the majority of W&H’s produce from local suppliers, he maintains that locality alone is far from being his culinary raison d’etre.
“I think there’s definitely a link [between premium and provenance],” he says. “And some people get them mixed up – there is definitely a fine line between the two.”
Local cheese producers are a good example of this.
He says: “There are loads and loads of them. No matter where you are there is local cheese and I guarantee everyone will be singing and dancing about it. But, to be fair, the majority of the local cheeses I see are poor quality.”
All too often, people con themselves into thinking that locality is a marker of quality, he laments and claims it is not the case.
“My opinion is this: we will use Brie de Meaux because it is the award-winning French cheese and it’s the absolute nuts.
"It’s got the accolades, it’s a fantastic product and I happily pay the price for it. I’ve got local people producing local brie, coming up to me and it’s twice as expensive as the Brie de Meaux. Are you mad?”
‘Premium’ isn’t just about provenance, then. Nor, Moyle-Rosser suggests, is it just about price.
Ultimately It’s about quality, he insists, and, thanks to standards shooting up across the hospitality industry as a whole, competition is fiercer than ever and the onus is on operators to maintain and drive that quality.
Echoing Linden’s thoughts, he says: “The sector has come on in leaps and bounds from where it was all those years ago. And people have become a lot more savvy about food.
“They don’t mind paying, but it is not quantity they are after, it’s quality and to have a great experience in equally great surroundings. They want to have good wine and great service.
"Maybe this is premium if you think about the way we kit out our pubs now. The days of the fruit machine and the dartboard, they’re long gone. So I guess that’s a premium experience in a casual sector.”
So, premium is high on the consumers’ agenda and indeed pubs’, but the sector is continually raising its game, meaning the boundaries for the term’s usage are also changing.
What’s for certain is that it’s more complex than foie gras, truffles and Dom Perignon.