In a display of spectacular, but arguably unwarranted rage, ‘Spoons’ customers took to social media, forming a veritable lynch mob despite the fact that virtually every pub in the country with an oven serves a roast dinner. It’s not as if Tim Martin cancelled Star Trek. Or is it?
Words like “British institution” and “tradition” are thrown around when people talk about the roast dinner. In the pub trade, even among the higher echelons of the gastropub world, it is implicitly understood the roast is something you ‘just do’.
It’s almost as if, in the eyes of the public and fellow operators, the act of cooking a roast differentiates ‘true’ pubs from the kind of businesses that are sometimes unfairly criticised for being restaurants masquerading as pubs.
So why the zealotry when it comes to the roast dinner? And is it possible for a pub to be considered ‘authentic’ in the eyes of its customers without slapping out a roast like clockwork every Sunday?
“The Sun was the most vocal. It printed something along the lines of ‘save our roasts’, but it was almost a backhanded compliment because it was saying that Wetherspoon had the most popular pubs in the UK,” quips JD Wetherspoon spokesman Eddie Gershon.
“We were very transparent about it,” he says. “Things change and there are plenty of pubs that do roasts but we wanted to go for more of a Sunday brunch. We have no issue with the people who said ‘why are you doing this? It’s wrong’.
“And you know, if you were used to going to Wetherspoon for a Sunday roast at good value – not everyone can go to a gastropub and pay three times as much – people were upset.”
For Gershon, the company’s results speak for themselves. With JD Wetherspoon announcing record sales earlier this month, customers who didn’t like the way ‘Spoons’ disposed of the Sunday staple certainly haven’t voted with their feet.
“I guarantee you this,” Gershon goes on. “Greene King has got 3,000 pubs. If they stopped doing roasts no one would give a monkey’s. But then Greene King has about 11 different pub companies in it and Wetherspoon is just Wetherspoon.”
Ultimately, if people are upset, it just goes to show they enjoyed the roasts, he says. “We could have made plenty of money out of that, but Wetherspoon does what is best for the company.”
There is, however, certainly still profit to be made from the humble roast. MCA’s Pub Market Report 2016 confirms that it is still the top pub meal for lunch and dinner, bought on 11% of visits across the sector.
“I can see where the anger [at Wetherspoon] came from,” says Steven Ellis, chef-patron of soon-to-open Berkshire pub the Oxford Blue. “A lot of people just naturally associate the roast with the pub.”
Ellis’s background is in restaurants, barring a stint at Andrew Pern’s iconic Yorkshire gastropub the Star Inn at Harome (which, coincidentally, Ellis cites as having inspired him to enter the pub trade).
He says: “I do think you could get away with not doing [a roast] – I know a few pubs that don’t. But then again, a lot of critics at the moment are saying that chefs are taking over pubs and turning them into restaurants.”
Ellis is adamant that this will not be the case with the Oxford Blue. “I don’t want to [turn it into a restaurant],” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I do feel that there is a slight burden that comes with opening a pub – you know you just have to do a roast on Sunday.
“I don’t feel pressured into it, but I’m definitely not doing a carvery because I can’t stand that. But we don’t want to drift away from doing roasts or for people to start thinking that, because we come from restaurants, we’re going to mess around with it too much.”
Trading up the roast
For Ellis, the answer is to offer a ‘refined’ take on the roast, showcasing some of the Oxford Blue’s superb local produce. Instead of a typical roast chicken, for instance, the Oxford Blue will serve a de-boned poussin with its own stuffing, served with a spelt risotto.
The best way to ensure quality when it comes to a roast is to make sure each one is cooked to order, he says, adding: “I’m not a fan of having one big joint and carving portions off it because the first customer will get a really nice portion but a few hours later it will not be 100%.”
So what does Ellis think is the key to putting on a perfect roast? “Find a local butcher,” he urges. “Help support local farmers and get a great quality piece of meat that they have a close connection with. The quality is so much better.”
Roast with the most?
British Roast Dinner Week takes place from 26 September to 2 October and will see one UK pub named as the country’s best roast provider. Last year, Nottingham pub the Larwood & Voce was given the title after seeing off competition from 440 other pubs.
General manager Amelia Balmer told The Morning Advertiser at the time it was thanks to the team’s dedication to local, fresh produce and solid relationships with suppliers.
She echoed Steven Ellis’s opinion that a successful roast requires solid relationships with local suppliers, saying: “We’ve got a really good partnership with our butchers.
“Our managing director has had a relationship with them for about 20 years and we’ve used them since we opened. We know they always give us the best quality.”
She continued: “We’re well known for our home-made gravy. It’s made with different meat juices, red wine and high quality chicken stock. And we roast our potatoes in goose fat, which makes them extra crispy.”
This year, British Roast Dinner Week is asking customers to nominate their favourite pub roasts as well as allowing pubs to enter themselves, enabled largely by partnering with newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror.
Regional winners will be announced for the south, north and midlands, plus Wales and Scotland. To enter, visit www.britishroastdinnerweek.co.uk