I’m writing this column at the Abergavenny Food Festival – the beer writer’s life is nothing if not glamorous and exotic. It’s become easily my favourite food festival in the UK, and I’m lucky enough to be invited to speak here most years.
I was talking to an artisanal food producer who we see every year, who has become a friend we only ever see once a year over charcuterie and cheap Prosecco.
I asked him how business was. “Tough,” he replied, as everyone does at the moment. “Foodservice is going really well, but retail is an absolute disaster. So we’re putting all our focus into foodservice at the moment.”
He went on to explain that the latest figures show half of all we spend on food now is spent eating out of home. At the festival itself, every year there are more concessions selling prepared food to be eaten on the spot as the number of those selling ingredients to be prepared at home shrinks.
I was initially stunned by this, given that spend seems to be moving the opposite way in alcohol, with more than half our spend on booze now going into the off-trade.
If I think for a minute, I can rationalise it: we are famously time-poor. More of us live alone, many of us in tiny flats with inadequate cooking facilities. Even when you look at those below the poverty line – often attacked by affluent snobs for spending their precious money on fast food – the economics of fuel, cooking and having a kitchen well-stocked with pots, pans, plates and a basic store cupboard can mean it works out cheaper to buy a meal than to cook it.
The big food chains rule?
So this means that with a rapidly increasing share of our total food spend, the restaurant sector should be buzzing, right?
Well, it doesn’t look that way. Researching my new book on British food, I was shocked to find that whether I was looking at curry houses, greasy spoon cafés or fish and chip shops, the rate of closure of these small, independent businesses is every bit as alarming as the toll of pub closures. High street rents are being pushed up by ‘aspirational’ developers, pricing out small businesses while we get the same big chains everywhere.
Good for the big chains then, yes? Well, no. This year has seen a third of the UK’s top 100 restaurant chains losing money, with big names like Prezzo, Byron, Carluccio’s, Strada and, most famously, Jamie’s Italian, all closing branches and struggling to stay afloat. I’m writing this after reading a review of Jamie’s Italian, which tells a tale of gratingly chummy menu language, dead-eyed servers and sloppy, drab food all served at eye-watering prices.
Pubs’ chance to prosper
So if both indies and chains are losing, who’s taking all this food spend that’s switching from home to out of home?
Well, news reports show that fast-food outlets and sandwich chains such as Pret A Manger are prospering. People may be eating out more, but they’re eating quicker and cheaper. This makes sense: few of us can afford to eat every meal in a decent restaurant.
This must surely also be a huge opportunity for pubs. I’ve written before about the yawning chasm between a bag of crisps and a full meal for people who are settling in for a couple of pints. Read Orwell or Patrick Hamilton, writing in the 1930s, and it was usual for pubs to have a range of appetising (by the standards of the time) bar snacks. The newly refurbished Newman Arms – the Truman’s Brewery flagship pub in central London – has a small saltbeef bagel station behind the bar that calls to me even now as I write. The pub I worked in as a student had a toastie machine and we were given foolproof, cellophane-wrapped toasties to pop in and serve on demand. Failing that, you could even display menus from nearby take-aways and provide plates and cutlery: the choice of whether you grumble about the extra clearing up or reflect on the fact that you just got two more rounds of drinks out of a group than you would if they’d left to eat elsewhere is up to you.
Whichever solution works best for you, not having a kitchen does not preclude you from selling food. If people want to eat out, but they don’t want to do so in restaurants, the potential opportunity for pubs is immense.