Menu planning: made to measure

By Andrew Don

- Last updated on GMT

Standing out: creating your own events is a great way to show customers that a pub is different (image credit: Photography Firm/iStock/
Standing out: creating your own events is a great way to show customers that a pub is different (image credit: Photography Firm/iStock/

Related tags: Guy fawkes night, Guy fawkes

There is an abundance of opportunity throughout the year to create special dishes tailored to key calendar dates – but there is more to it than the obvious major occasions.

A month never goes by with-out a special occasion: realistically, most pubs will stick to the traditional events, such as Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mothering Sunday and Fathers’ Day to create a special menu or add a few specials.

Throw into the mix other diary dates, such as the Queen’s birthday, the June Solstice or the Battle of the Boyne, or national awareness days: World Oceans Day and even National Insect Week and you could, theoretically, create special dishes and menus every week of the year, although you might want to hold the insects – for now, at least.

Some pubs celebrate St Patrick’s Day and Guy Fawkes Night but there are opportunities, too, for Shrove Tuesday, Chinese New Year and the royal wedding.

The first question every operator should ask themselves is why create special dishes or menus. Unless they are going to attract new customers, boost profits or stop punters defecting, why stress out kitchen staff?

Create new specific events

Some pubs may wish to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, the June Solstice or national awareness events such
as World Oceans day or even national insect week

Cyril Lavenant, UK food service director at NPD Group, suggests it might be more important for pubs to create their own specific events to differentiate them from the competition. Pubs and casual-dining restaurants will play on the traditional events, he points out, so competition is always fierce on these occasions, which makes it difficult to stand out.

“Creating your own events are a great way to show consumers that a pub is different, to show its personality, to stand out and to remain top of mind,” Lavenant says.

Whether to create bespoke menus or just a few dishes to complement the usual menu is debatable. Lavenant argues changing the whole menu is too complex if it means creating many new items. “More importantly, only offering seasonal dishes is taking a risk as many consumers may not like these special dishes.”

New items should bring diversity and drive higher spend. But most of the time, diners will stick to their usual favourite dishes, he says.

Independent consultant Peter Back-man sounds a cautionary note: “If you do something special it is, by definition, almost certainly not good for profits because you’ve got to create it and promote it, but if it gets people coming in more often and trying you out, then it’s a good thing for the longer term.”

Backman does not believe special dishes or menus for Shrove Tuesday or Guy Fawkes work because “these things are old-fashioned. They are what your parents did. Millennials won’t really be interested. They eat out quite a lot anyway. They don’t necessarily need an excuse to eat out.”

Celebrate something different

John Marquis, director of Pollocks Pub Co, Cornwall, has highlighted some lesser known foodie and drink dates, such as World Chocolate Day and World Gin Day, and takes inspiration from festivals around the world, such as Oktoberfest. He advises:

  • Keep your menu flexible
  • Introduce regular seasonal produce, such as blood oranges in March, and rhubarb in April
  • Use a specials board so chefs can express their creativity and support local producers
  • Focus on service and experience, such as handing out flowers to mums on Mothering Sunday
  • Do not get too carried away with full themed menus of ingredients you do not usually use because you risk being left with a lot of wastage if the menu is not as popular as you hoped for.

Publican Daniel Boatwright, of Route 16, formerly the Old Coach House, in Torquay, an Ei Publican Partnership, says his customers love something different on special days of the year, especially Valentine’s Day and St Patrick’s.

Boatwright, who is an experienced restaurateur, hotelier and chef, plans to add American Independence Day and Thanksgiving into the mix at his Devon venue this year.

His Thanksgiving plan involves serving two versions of turkey – one that uses his enormous smoker that sits on a trailer in the back garden for a hot-smoked poultry dish, and also a Southern version – deep-fried spicy turkey, along with classic green beans casserole, sweet potato pies and pumpkin pie.

Special ‘taster’ menu

Variations on a theme

Marcin Chojecki, head chef at the Fox & Hounds in Egham, Surrey, recommends:

  • Create different variations of popular dishes
  • Look at the most popular items from the previous year and use that as a base
  • Go through all the seasonal vegetables and other produce that will be available
  • Get recommendations from suppliers of items they know sell really well
  • Start early by putting ideas on a specials board and gauge customer feedback.

American Independence Day will see Boatwright preparing pulled pork and brisket of beef, which he lovingly attends through the night and describes as “a labour of love”. He also likes the idea of doing something for Chinese New Year.

Gordon Stott, chef-patron of the Sun Inn, Dummer, Hampshire, says Mothers’ Day is one of his biggest days. He takes traditional dishes “that mums or the older generation would generally go
for” and gives them a twist for his set menu which has a choice of four starters, four mains and four desserts, alongside a traditional Sunday roast.

He has a special ‘taster’ menu for Valentine’s Day and he has created special dishes for St Patrick’s Day when he tries to make things green, such as a pistachio sponge, a leek terrine and a pea and ham soup using braised ham stock, bacon and sage stuffing with brioche and hazelnut butter.

“I do menu planning three or four months ahead, but if I think of something way in advance, I write it down and keep it. Everyone wants to know what menu you’re putting on, so everyone wants to see it before they book,” says Stott, who did a set menu for Guy Fawkes Night in 2017. He used “an explosion of taste” using powders, such as beetroot, spinach and tomato so it looked like “explosions on the plate” he says. “People go for quirky things here.”           

Related topics: Menu Ideas

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