The long hot summer may have boosted business for pubs, but most of us realise it’s also a sign of our changing climate. Everywhere the sun shone for weeks on end, without any rain, food crops were damaged, wildlife suffered and many people didn’t enjoy it much either. And if the experts are right, it’s set to become the new normal.
Just as with people’s growing awareness of the downsides of plastic, ethical concerns such as protecting the environment are driving consumer habits – which could prove an opportunity for pubs. For example, the Soil Association (the UK membership charity that promotes organic farming and produce) has declared this month Organic September. This offers a well-publicised hook for businesses to get folk through the door by serving food and drink that is much better for the environment than bog-standard fare.
Fun on the farm
In case you’re thinking it’s not enough of a pub thing, it was a pub that inspired me to write this. The Royal Oak, Bishopstone, is in the wonderful Wiltshire countryside, but not too far from Swindon. It’s in the middle of Eastbrook Farm, which is organic and run by Helen Browning of ‘happy pigs’ fame. As well as being a farmer, she’s also chief executive of the Soil Association and during the summer she showed a bunch of us round her farm and entertained us at her lovely pub. It was one of those days that didn’t feel like work. Delicious food, some organic booze, good company and watching dozens of cute little piglets chasing each other around and squealing in obvious delight!
I’m still salivating at the memory of the food, from mozzarella cheese, made by an Italian on the farm, through to a roast pork dinner. This, Helen Browning told me, was the point and a chief way of turning people on to organic.
“It’s about seducing people through pleasure rather than lecturing them,” she says. “People going away feeling good about what they’ve eaten, not ‘bleurgh’,” at which she mimes the sort of face and body language that typifies my reaction on the many occasions I’ve had a crappy pub meal. I doubt anyone ever feels
like that in Helen’s pub, which she has had for 12 years and has recently expanded to include 12 bedrooms.
Of course, she is ideally placed to serve organic food, but it’s not beyond the reach of pubs that aren’t situated in the middle of an organic farm. Not only that, there’s evidence to show it’s well worthwhile. The UK market for organic produce was worth £2.2bn last year, with more than 10% of that in foodservice. Sales have been increasing for seven consecutive years – with early figures (up to the end of June) for this year continuing the rise. This includes increasing sales of organic beers, wines and spirits – an obvious way for pubs to capitalise on the trend.
Star ratings system
Soil Association research has also found that 50% of people would be more likely to choose to eat out somewhere that has ethical or sustainable credentials and 43% think places with organic on the menu or drinks list will be better than others.
But pubs will need to shout about it if they are to use it to gain more customers. The Soil Association has a scheme that can help. ‘Organic Served Here’ operates on a star system. It works in a way that enables those who are beginning to serve organic, or who are only able to stock a limited amount to be accredited, as well as those who are able to commit to using greater amounts of organic produce. To get one star, a pub would need to be sourcing 15% to 25% of food and drink from an organic supplier, for five stars that would need to be 95% to 100%, with other levels in between.
Even if a pub isn’t ready to commit to regularly serving a certain level of organic, adding some organic drinks to the menu or using organic milk for hot drinks could be a way to test the waters.
“This rising demand is a major opportunity for retailers to list new brands and products and seize the momentum surrounding organic, [which shows] no signs of slowing down.
This summer’s results clearly show that if there is supply, demand will follow,” says Finn Cottle, trade consultant for Soil Association certification. In light of the delicious organic food, wine and beer I’ve tasted this year, I can’t help but agree.