What can pubs learn from the street food industry?

By Stuart Stone contact

- Last updated on GMT

Keep it simple: Bayou Bar founder Nick Willoughby argues that streamlined food and drink menus are key to posting profit
Keep it simple: Bayou Bar founder Nick Willoughby argues that streamlined food and drink menus are key to posting profit
New Orleans-themed watering hole Bayou Bar is a product of founder Nick Willoughby’s experience across the street food and pub trades.

Facts 'n' stats

Name: Bayou Bar

Address: Unit 4-10, Broadway Market, Tooting, SW17 0RL

Operator: Nick Willoughby

Wet:dry split: 75:25

The business

We've existed as street food business Slinging Po' Boys for a few years doing New Orleans-style street food at markets and festivals around the country where we've brought the food and drink together. We took Bayou Bar, our first fixed site, in October 2018 and opened at the end of November.

Because it's a tiny site, 300sq ft, we were forced to focus on simplicity and quality. We'd done a few pop-ups selling cocktails and it's amazing to see the money start coming through the tills when you start selling alcohol.

We funded the place on my overdraft and didn't have the luxury of getting the team on-site for weeks without money coming through the till. The soft launch from November until February meant we could learn while making money.

The whole concept revolves around keeping things as efficient as possible but always maintaining quality. Everybody knows how to make everything on the menu, whether you work on the bar or not you should be able to hop into the kitchen and make the food, the same goes for the guys who focus on food – if we're a person short, and there's no food on, then they can nip onto the bar and help out. That's been really helpful in terms of our staff margin.

Bayou (8)

I think the street food world is brilliant but it's getting increasingly saturated. Trading five years ago were the glory days, there were people doing crazy numbers but it has become more difficult. When things are good for street food trading it can be really good, but when it's bad, it's abysmal. I want the business to be bigger than just street food. I want to build something scaleable and you can only do that if you get fixed premises.

The operator

I used to live in the southern US. I was at golf school out there but I always had a passion for food and spent a fair bit of time in New Orleans and absolutely loved the place. It's got the most amazing energy, it's beautiful, the music's amazing, they love their alcohol – which I do too – and I was just absolutely blown away.

I came back from golf school and decided I wasn't going to be a very good golf pro so I set up a pancake stall in St Andrews, Scotland, in the middle of the street called Creme de la Crepe. I moved that down to London in Borough market and then opened a shop in Covent Garden.

I sold that business in 2014 and sent myself on a year's food and wine course. I felt like I wanted to understand food more and learnt a lot from that. After that I started creating a street food business and then got into pubs to help them redesign their look and feel.

nICK

The venue

For us, Tooting Market was the most amazing opportunity. The market is almost like a stepping stone from street food trading to full-on fixed premises. It has a large footfall and is getting a lot of press at the moment for its food, which is great because we wanted to move somewhere that was credible. It was vaguely affordable and – doing it with our own money – we needed that. It’s a rabbit warren of amazing eateries and little bars. It's absolutely buzzing and a really special space.

We wanted to run this concept like a street food business and that's how it needs to be otherwise we'll over complicate it – we'd have too many staff and too many costs that, ultimately, we don't need. There have been times where two people on a street food stall in two hours could do more than a pub would do on a Saturday with a team of six in the kitchen. We said ‘let's churn this really good-quality food and keep it simple.'

At the moment we're trading £10,500 a week net. We're exceptionally quiet early in the week and basically live for Friday and Saturday. Early in the week, we'd have two people working – that includes kitchen and bar – then towards the end of the week we'll have eight to 10 people working.

Bayou (6)

The drink

We spent a lot of time working on the cocktails to make sure there were only a few components to each one. They're super strong and credible but everything is prepared ahead of time so that when service comes we can just absolutely fire through. My pet hate is when a bar grinds to a halt when someone orders a cocktail. We can serve a cocktail almost as quickly as we can pull a pint.

We only have three cocktails but they're New Orleans classics. The Hurricane is our signature. It originates from when people couldn't get whisky during Prohibition so rum was sneaked in from the Caribbean. They made this really strong cocktail with a passion fruit and strawberry syrup and lemon juice. That fights with craft beer as our top-selling drink but we also have frozen Daiquiris and a slushie machine which uses fresh fruit purées. Then we have the Sazerac, which is a rye whisky cocktail with absinthe and lemon. We've put a lot of work into making sure everything is credible.

We've also teamed up with Belleville Beer, which is a brewery in Wandsworth, south London, and its beer is delicious, and it just happens to make American beer in the UK so it felt like the perfect collaboration. It's a really nice thing to support local businesses and, in the long term, the most sustainable way of operating.

Bayou (5)

The food

People think that all southern food is just ribs and brisket but New Orleans has an amazing food scene. I absolutely love the Cajun and creole flavours combined with traditional French cooking techniques. Bringing that together with some amazing music and some super strong delicious cocktails I thought was a concept that doesn't feel like it's been done in the UK.

The classic New Orleans sandwich, which is what we specialise in, is the Po Boy. It’s real name is the Poor Boy sandwich and comes from when people in New Orleans would get whatever they could get their hands on and put it in some French bread. They've got a lot of seafood out there, so you get a lot of fried oysters, fried shrimp – things that over here are expensive – and add bit of gravy. You get some quite funny mixes of flavours like oysters and beef gravy. We've taken that but made it work for us – it's quite fun sourcing all our ingredients locally to suit the sandwich.

Bayou (3)

What can pubs learn from street food?

I used to work with a pub group in south London helping them to integrate food into their offer. I went my separate ways from them about six months before Bayou Bar opened because I was finding it incredibly difficult to hit margin in the pub environment. Trying to be everything to everybody is just so difficult, especially coming from a chef background, I really am passionate about quality. Without sacrificing the quality it was proving almost impossible to achieve profit.

Pubs, in general, need someone to break the mould. I think customers come into a pub and expect to see everything on the menu but I feel that those days are numbered. There's no way you can offer huge diversity on pub menus and hit any form of margin without sacrificing on quality to such a huge extent that it's only truly going to cause your business damage in the long run. If you can focus on a few core products and do them really well, it would help massively.

What I also hate is some staff being called ‘chefs’ and others being called ‘barmen’. We're a team, we all work together and one thing I saw at pubs was the guys in the kitchen sitting there doing nothing when it wasn't service but people behind the bar were working their arses off not being able to do enough – and vice versa. Ultimately, if you can get everyone working as one team, it just works so much better across the board.

The other thing we've done with our unit is we're 100% cashless. I was so nervous about doing it and it's the best thing we've ever done. We barely turn anyone away because they only have cash, it saves us a fortune on not having to go to the bank every day and not having to cash up at the end of the night. With the pubs, we spent a lot of time trying to work out where money had gone, and we'd never really get to the bottom of it, but it would cause so much discontent with staff and ruin morale. Going cashless has been brilliant.

Related topics: Food trends

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