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Eat drink and be merry

There has been a revolution in pub food. From being the poor relation of the catering world, pub grub is now in the vanguard of the growth in eating out.

Faced with declining sales of alcoholic drinks, particularly beer, many commentators had predicted the decline of pubs. The number of outlets loosely categorised as pubs would, it was thought, enter a dramatic slump. But today there are still around 70,000 licensed premises that can be called pubs in the UK, around the same number as at the start of the 1990s.

Pub operators have moved swiftly to replace lost drink sales with other services, mostly food. According to market analysts at Key Note, food accounted for 22.5% of the turnover of the average pub in 1990. By 1995, just five years later, this figure had risen to 28.1%.

And the move towards food is continuing into the second half of the 1990s, says Key Note. Food’s share of average pub sales will, it says, continue to rise by one percentage point per year.

According to analysts at investment bank Credit Lyonnais Laing, pub food will grow by 3% a year in real terms until 2000, when the market will be worth £6.1b.

The Beer Orders – legislation that followed the 1989 Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on the supply of beer – are usually seen as the catalyst of fundamental change in the pub industry. Part of this legislation forced the national brewers to release half of their tenants, above a 2,000 limit, from the obligation to sell beer supplied by the brewer landlord. This led to the disposal of thousands of pubs by the brewers, creating a whole new raft of pub operators in the process. People seized the chance to buy a number of pubs in one go and set up new pub companies.

The pub was no longer simply an outlet for the brewer’s beer but was a profit centre in its own right. In this climate of retail revolution in the pub industry, new ideas were brought to bear. The move towards food was key.

But there had to be a reason to make the public want to buy their food in pubs. To an extent, pub operators have been pushing against an open door. Even today, just 29p in every pound spent on food in the UK is spent on catering. In the USA, more than half of all food expenditure is dedicated to eating out. The trend is clearly in favour of catering.

But, obviously, there was competition for the pub operators from fast-food operations, restaurants and so on. Pubs needed a weapon to give them an edge against rivals, particularly in the target area of casual dining. That weapon was branding.

Whitbread has arguably been the most successful of all the national pub operators in the branding of its outlets. Around half its estate is now badged as a Beefeater, Brewers Fayre, Café Rouge or similar. In contrast, at Bass, which has the biggest managed house estate, fewer than one-fifth of its pubs are branded. At Scottish & Newcastle, another laggard in introducing brands, around a quarter of its pubs trade under a recognised format.

These brands are perhaps better described as concepts. What they offer customers is a consistent experience. Going into a family dining pub such as a Brewers Fayre, or Allied Domecq’s Big Steak, or a Bass-owned Harvester, customers know what to expect. None of these concepts has the same brand strength as a McDonald’s restaurant but the public has taken to the style of the operations with gusto.

The brewers have seized on the potential new trade by segmenting their estates into a range of different concepts. As well as family dining, there are Irish themes, traditional alehouses, young person’s venues and so on. In virtually all of these, food is becoming increasingly important.

Food takings rise

The Wetherspoon chain is a good example of this change. It has 204 outlets – large pubs with a traditional feel that are usually viewed as being wet-led. In 1990, just 4% of its sales were food. Now, however, one-third of the takings in its new outlets are from food.

Tim Martin, the founder and chairman of Wetherspoon, believes that food sales have even further to rise in pubs as operators become better. “People have been put off in the past because they haven’t liked what’s on offer. But this will change,” he says. He points to the much higher levels of investment in training and the fabric of pub buildings in order to make them appeal to a broader audience, particularly women and families.

A consensus forecast from analysts in the City of London, for the level of investment this year, shows that about £1.5b is being spent on the UK’s managed pub operations. Most of this is in new pubs or conversions rather than refurbishment.

This new money is being used to develop more and more different concepts. Bass, for example, has a development division that, at any one time, is trying out around eight new concepts. The student-orientated It’s A Scream is one product of this division.

The first market widely tapped into was the family dining area. It is now no surprise to find attached to most of these restaurants such child-friendly features as play barns. Examples include Charlie Chalk Factory next to Brewers Fayre and Jungle Bungle in Greenalls’ family pubs.

A more recent success story has developed around professional women. Bass turned to outside consultant Amanda Willmott to develop a concept that would work for such customers. This led to the opening of the first All Bar One at the end of 1994. “Professional women offered a huge demand which was always there,” says Willmott. “They are a group of people with a high disposable income.”

All Bar One offers light, airy buildings with large windows that make the inside visible from the street. Food and wine is the focus, rather than beer.

Willmott is now developing a new concept for dynamic managed pub chain Yates Brothers Wine Lodges, called Ha! Ha! Bar & Canteen. The first outlet is to open in Bristol in February and will feature open-plan kitchens visible to the customers. It will also sell its own-brand goods such as oils and mustards.

The next generation going to pubs will be even more demanding than their parents, argues Willmott, as they have been reared on eating-out.

According to Colin Wellstead, national pub director at property agent Christie & Co, the next big thing looks likely to be grey power. “Appealing to the over-50s is beginning to be big news,” he says. Brands such as Vintage Inns from Bass, the new-look Chef & Brewer from Scottish & Newcastle, and Kiln & Kettle from Whitbread are being developed to appeal to this new audience.

The pub food revolution is far from over.

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