Using fresh produce in your pub

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Fresh is best: or is it?
Fresh is best: or is it?

Related tags Market

Whether sourcing fruit and veg from wholesale markets or distributors or direct from growers, key points for pub chefs or group buyers to consider include: know your produce, buy what’s in season to secure best prices, buy in bulk and, if you can, pay with cash to enable best bartering. Andrew Don reports

We have all experienced the sorry-looking salad with wilted lettuce that looks as if it has come from the bottom of chef’s rabbit hutch.

Top produce handling

The tips:

  • Try not to wash mushrooms before storing in fridge but before use
  • Keep leaves in plastic bags they come in until ready to use because they are protected by an inert gas which aids shelf life and delays oxidation
  • Avoid temptation to empty out bagged leaves, wash them en masse and store in fridge
  • Whole-head brassicas benefit from having the stalk trimmed slightly, then placed in a little cold water in fridge
  • Cover vegetables with clingfilm because the water will evaporate in the fridge causing the condenser to ice up
  • Most fresh produce is packed to travel so, wherever possible, store produce in its packaging rather than decanting. This avoids unnecessary handling and diminishes the possibility of bruising.

Where chefs and pub group buyers source, the quantities, frequency and sometimes the price, are integral to the quality that ends up on plates.

Fresh produce can be sourced direct from one of about 30 UK wholesale markets or a wholesale distributor can be used to deliver.

Helen Evans, director of business development at New Covent Garden Market in Nine Elms, south-west London, says buying direct, although time-consuming, can mean lower prices, and buyers see exactly what is available.

Good distributors, however, will be a chef’s eyes and ears because they buy in such large quantities, the prices paid are highly competitive, she says.

Other well-known wholesale markets are east London’s Spitalfields and Western International in Hounslow, west London. Smaller wholesale markets can be found in Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Derby, Birmingham, Bradford, Gateshead and Glasgow, for example.

The best prices are always available for seasonal produce, Evans says, and building a good relationship with a supplier is vital. “That way he gets to know what you want and is able to advise what is best in terms of price.” Flexible chefs willing to substitute will get the cheapest deals, she adds.

Janet Hutchinson, chief executive of Spitalfields, points out that wholesale market tenants are often small family businesses that appreciate face-to-face transactions, which can also be important for the customer who will want to see the quality.

A premium to be paid

But many wholesale market customers are now secondary wholesalers or suppliers to catering outlets in their own area and their expertise can eliminate the stress of having to spend the time at a market in the early hours of the morning. A premium will have to be paid for this service but may be worth it in terms of saved man hours, Hutchinson explains.

Colin Wolstenholme, marketing manager for markets at Bradford Council, and chairman of the National Association of Borough Market Authorities’ (NABMA) wholesale forum, points out that some chefs like to buy produce pre-prepared “so they don’t spend their time cutting up onions”.

Salad bar?

Yes or no:

Help-yourself salad bars have a tendency to be a bit “Marmite” – you either love them or hate them.
For many, the thought of little Johnny putting his grubby fingers in the sweetcorn, or grandad’s dentures falling into the coleslaw is horrific. Those who look on the bright side like the value they offer.
 St Austell Brewery, which has two dedicated salad bars, says consistency can be the main concern. Nick Hemming, catering development manager, explains: “We combat this by ensuring everything is fresh, locally sourced and regularly replenished,” which combats any potential issues.
 James Lyon-Shaw, ETM Group operations director, believes salad bars are “a thing of the past and not really suitable for the quality offering people expect in London pubs these days”.
 Martin Luney, co-owner of Big Red Teapot bar group, says a salad bar, by its very nature, can never be that interesting because they have to appeal to too many people.
 “You will always get things that everyone knows, so you are never going to be surprised by something very interesting because you can’t afford to have anything a wee bit left of centre on there.”

Ted Dawson, who co-owns Ted’s Veg, which has stalls at Borough Market, and Boston Market, Lincolnshire, advises: “Talk to the boss to get the best prices. Workers will only do what they’re told. They have no leeway to take 20% off and if they do, they get a bollocking later when they tell me.”

Dawson says most of the pricing depends on how the customer is going to pay. “The longer they take to pay, the dearer it is.”

James Lyon-Shaw, operations director at ETM Group, believes the secret of sound buying is to “know your produce, know what’s in season and only buy those items to ensure the best prices, buy in bulk and pay with cash to enable best bartering”.

Markets are not the be-all and end-all for sourcing the freshest produce. Reynolds Catering Supplies, which manages more than 3,000 orders each day for distributing across the foodservice spectrum, including restaurants, pubs and bars, works directly with growers.

It maintains its produce is a few days fresher than at wholesale markets because it comes direct from the farm to its warehouse.

“Also we fix our prices with growers so we can guarantee consistency throughout the season, whatever the weather throws at us,” says Ian Nottage, Reynolds’ chef director.

The Earl Spencer in Southfields, south-west London, uses a distributor that works out of Covent Garden which delivers to the Enterprise Inns house.

Mike Mann, co-licensee, says: “They deliver every day. We have to trust them that it’s the best. We couldn’t go out there every day. It would be a full-time job just going to see them.

“They pack everything into open cardboard trays. Some days it’s as high as the guy delivering it. We order every night. We change our menu regularly. There are standard items there is a fixed price for. We speak to them when we are changing our menu and talk to them about what’s available and then they tell us the price.”

Minimal waste

The procurer’s skill is key in ensuring minimal wastage. Reynolds always advocates not buying too much at once, bearing in mind that produce begins to decay the moment it is harvested.

Nottage suggests having a range of sturdier veg such as carrots, beets, potatoes, butternut and other squashes on the menu which will last longer before they start to deteriorate, and not just the more fragile salad leaves, brassicas and avocados.

“This means you can manage your ordering better and don’t have to get a complete shipment for each order. Your general focus should be on getting the most fragile items delivered more frequently,” he says.”

Correct handling and storage are crucial. “We’ve all seen boxes of fresh produce sat next to ovens waiting to be put away after a busy service,” he says.

Beauty and the pea: salads can be more exciting

To achieve ultimate freshness and product control, pubs could always grow their own, which is what freehouse the Queens Arms in Corton Denham, Sherborne, in Somerset, does.

It grows a full range of fruit and veg, including edible flowers, cucamelon, horseradish, figs, apples, plums, beetroot, tomatoes, courgettes, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and asparagus when in season, in more than two acres of walled kitchen garden.

Jeanette Reid, co-owner, says the chef meets regularly with the gardener to discuss what is ready so he can tailor the menu to availability. The gardener grows specific produce seasonally that is discussed well in advance so menus can be drafted.

“It is picked daily to meet our needs and if we run out we can just go and get more or call the gardener and he runs it up… if there is surplus we make jams and coulis.”

Growing from seed is cheaper than buying finished produce. “Herbs and items such as edible flowers are expensive and you have distribution and handling costs through a third party, which we avoid. Involving neighbours in providing fruit and veg to help supplement our needs in exchange for gift vouchers for food and drink has great benefits as well,” Reid says.

Top salad

The tips:

 Exciting ingredients and invention are the secrets of creating a top salad.
 Treacle Bar and Kitchen, in Edinburgh, has Rojak salad: tiger prawn, brown rice, mango, green onions, red chilli, radish and kale chips served hot or cold.
 It also offers Sprouting super salad: baby spinach, quinoa, purple shiso sprouts, Manuka honey, toasted coconut, avocado, daikon, lotus root and bee pollen. Chicken can be added.
 New Covent Garden Market’s Helen Evans says there is more demand for greater protein and superfood content in salads. “Zucchini, kale, red peppers, squash ribbons and farro are all among produce currently popular among consumers,” she says.
 She also suggests looking to ancient and little-known superfood grains, such as teff, freekeh, kamut and fonio, currently found on top chain restaurant menus.
 Spitalfield’s Janet Hutchinson says micro herbs are currently highly popular and there are frequently new varieties trialled. Industry scientists are always looking to improve on quality and shelf life, she says.

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