It is a phrase uttered so often in the pub it has almost become second nature – “... and a portion of chips”. The go-to side alongside a light lunch, or just an extra add-on when you’re feeling particularly indulgent at dinner, chips are a reliable, safe and enjoyable pub food option.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that despite the trend towards healthier food in casual dining, chips remain near the top of the pub menu. The number of out-of-home servings of potatoes increased by 0.6% in the year to March 2017, according to the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, and this was driven by sales of chips in quick-service venues such as street food outlets and pubs. It’s clear that Britain’s love affair with chips is far from over, but what makes them such a staple down the boozer?
“Chips work well as a pub food offering because they are such a British thing,” says Kieran Spicer, head chef for Manchester brewery and pub operator Marble. “They can be as simple as you like to go alongside a pint of beer, or you can really jazz them up with different toppings and spices.”
Crisp and fluffy
So what makes a good chip? It appears that chefs and the public are in agreement. A recent survey by Wirral Sensory Services found 82% of respondents said good chips should be crisp on the outside, which Spicer agrees with, saying crispness and fluffiness are the defining characteristics of a good portion of fries.
“We have put as much focus on our chips as we have done with our fillet steak,” he says. “We came to the decision that the King Edward potato was the best because, once they are cooked, they will fluff up nicely in the middle yet still maintain that crispness on the outside.”
However, despite Spicer’s claim that King Edward potatoes are the best for making chips, industry figures maintain that it is the percentage of ‘dry matter’ that is most important in determining whether a potato will produce a crisp and fluffy chip.
“It is a complete myth that a specific variety of potato makes the best chips,” says Vernon Mascarenhas, commercial director at Nature’s Choice Catering Greengrocers in New Covent Garden Market. “For years, people thought Maris Piper as a variety made the best chip, but that is not necessarily the case.
“To make a good chip, the dry matter of the potato needs to be between 19% and 22%, and that could be a Maris Piper, or it could be a King Edward, or even a variety of different potatoes.”
Luckily for licensees, it is potato suppliers who are responsible for harvesting a range of varieties of potato and rigorously testing them to ensure they have the desired dry matter content. “You could buy a bag of potatoes one week and it would all be Maris Piper, and then in a month’s time, they will all be Agria,” explains Mascarenhas. “When choosing who to buy from, licensees need to look at which brand puts the most effort into how they store and test their potatoes.”
“If your dry matter is wrong, it will crisp too quickly and you will get a burnt potato that is raw in the middle, and if you go the other way, it won’t colour.”
Of course, one of the criticisms that can be levelled at chips as a pub food offering is that they lack innovation and are boring. So how do you ensure your chip offer doesn’t go stale? An option employed by many venues is the use of seasonings, sauces and dips to enhance the side, or even make chips the centrepiece themselves.
Spicer’s signature twist on the British classic is his ‘Canadian Fries’, served topped with smoked cheddar and Marble Ale gravy, while McManus Pub Company has developed an entire ‘Filthy Fries’ menu with a range of different toppings available. The company uses McCain chips as the base, and food operations manager Lee Byers says he has been delighted with the results.
“The ‘Filthy Fries’ menu was a resounding success, particularly at our more wet-led pubs – which doesn’t usually serve food in the evening,” he says. “Topped chips are a whole new revenue stream and the extra money is not to be sniffed at – it supports margins and could even pay for new equipment”
Going for a win-win
Among the options on the Filthy Fries menu are Mucky Pig fries, tossed in Cajun spices and topped with smoked bacon and Applewood cheddar, and Dirty Cop Out chips smothered with three-bean chilli, guacamole and sour cream.
“We can’t put anything too complica-ted on the menu in our less food-focused pubs because we don’t have the resource or equipment to deliver the food, and manage the bar,” Byers adds. “But by introducing the Filthy Fries menu we could balance both. It’s a win-win.”
Another option is to alter the product used to make the chips themselves. Sweet potato fries have long been the hipster chip of choice, but there are now a whole host of different base options to mix up your chip offering.
“Incorporating a variety of different ‘bases’ offers customers a chance to tailor to their tastes and preferences, providing that ‘personal’ experience every time,” says Nigel Phillips, UK and Ireland country sales manager for chip supplier Lamb Weston. “While the classic pommes frites will never go out of fashion, premium options executed well are key, such as our sweet potato fries sprinkled with rosemary and Parmesan cheese.
“In fact, sweet potatoes are becoming more popular, so much so that we recently extended our range to include CrissCut Fries and Shoestring Fries, both of which have been incredibly popular with operators.”
Chip producer Farm Frites is another supplier finding success with sweet potato alternatives. "We have made our Sweet Potato Fries to offer something a bit different to help operators maxi-mise profits,” says UK marketing manager Nic Townsend. “They are longer length, skin-on fries which look great on the plate for the perfact snack. They also boast one of the quickest cooking times on the market.”
Looking to alternatives
Another popular base vegetable for chips is Yucca, a plant with a starchy root that grows in very warm climates. Yucca fries, also known as cassava chips, are always cut into thick wedges as opposed to thinner French fries, which makes them crispy on the outside and soft but densely textured on the inside.
Wholesaler Funnybones Foodservice supplies frozen cassava to pubs, and Tom Styman-Heighton, the company’s development chef, recommends serving them simply sprinkled with salt, pepper and lime juice, or accompanied by a variety of Latin toppings such as hot sauce, pico de gallo or salsa verde.
“If chips are going to be the star ingredient, they need to be the best chips ever,” he says. “It is hard to beat a freshly made potato chip thrice fried, but there are many alternatives to the potato that will offer your customers variety in the fried chip. Our new Yuca Fries are staples of the Americas, where Funnybones Foodservice focuses its expertise. They make delicious fried chip-alternatives and can be dressed with a wide variety of dips and dressings.”
Issue of portion size
Having decided which kinds of chips to serve, and what to serve as toppings, another important factor for pubs to consider is how many chips should be served as an ideal portion size. The issue hit the headlines in November 2017, after a customer blasted a Greene King pub for serving her fish and chip dinner with just six fries (the pub later offered an apology and a free meal).
According to data from McCain Foodservice, the average portion of chips in a pub is between 180g and 240g per person, while a survey by The Morning Advertiser revealed that more than half of operators believed at least 20 chips ought to be served alongside any dish.
The Marble Arch pub does not have a hard and fast rule about how many chips to serve in a portion, but head chef Spicer has a special tactic to ensure that his customers never feel like they are being short-changed.
“I enjoy chips as much as everyone else,” he says. “When I am sending a dish out I will always ask, ‘would that be enough for myself to enjoy?’ but also, ‘would there be plenty to share if I was having it as a snack on the bar?’ We judge it by eye, and we serve them in a small skillet, which we have come to the conclusion is an ideal and fair portion size.”
Perhaps the biggest threat to the future of chips is the trend towards healthier lifestyles, leading to fewer pub visits and a reformulation of pub menus to include less fattening food choices. One option available to retailers seeking to improve the low-calorie credentials of the nation’s favourite potato-based snack is to move away from traditional frying to less cholesterol-inducing methods of cooking.
Baking or even air-frying chips are two options pubs could explore, while Spicer also suggests using less fatty oils if you insist on traditional frying. “At the moment, we fry our chips in vegetable oil, which is healthier than beef dripping,” he says. “But being a chef, I want to make sure I am never compromising on the quality and the flavour.”
While it is difficult to envisage chips ever being the healthy option down the boozer, their popularity and longevity makes it hard to imagine a proper pub menu without them.