No longer satisfied with scampi fries and pork scratchings, today’s pub-goers expect a considered food offering alongside their pint. Will Hawkes reports
Mason and Company, a bar just a javelin’s throw from Stratford’s Olympic Stadium, doesn’t feel much like a pub. It’s light and airy in a Scandinavian way, with huge retracting windows that open up onto an expansive, verdant bank beside the River Lee Navigation Canal. But it serves a lot of beer, like a pub, and it has great food, like an increasing number of pubs across the country.
And, like an increasing number of those pubs, the food is not quite what you’d expect. There are no fish and chips or meat pies here. Instead, it’s Italian-American, a category that takes in everything from the meatball hero – a huge sandwich made with pork and beef meatballs – to Italian poutine (chips with beef ragù and cheese on top), all produced by Capish?, a street-food company that is co-owner of the bar with the brewery Five Points.
The reason for that is simple, according to founder and owner Rachel Jones. “I was heavily engrossed in the Sopranos when I started the company [in 2012] and felt there was the need for some great Italian-American food in London,” she says.
Pub food is changing. From Italian-American food to pizza vans via Michelin-star cooking and vegan tacos, the pub has become the crucible for a new era of open-minded food.
Little (American) Italy
The street-food revolution that began a few years back is beginning to have a big impact on pub food. From places like Mason & Company, where the kitchen is an integral part of the building, to pubs where food vans pop up outside on busy evenings, there’s a revolution going on.
Not everyone saw it coming – not even those at the heart of the movement. “I’d like to say there was a grand masterplan, but I really just wanted to sell my sandwiches!” says Jones of Capish?.
“I just wanted to create something special – I don’t think I’d ever envisaged anything like Mason & Company. It was only really when I started getting involved in pub residencies that I started to think about the future rather than the next three months.”
The key to her success is quality, and that means trusted suppliers. “Many [of our] suppliers I’ve been working with since the beginning,” she says. “The great thing about the street food thing was that we were doing one thing very well, so it allowed me to source the best of everything. I’ve worked with the same butchers and bakers since the beginning, the Butchery [in Bermondsey] and Sally Clarke Bakery.”
Street food is generally cheaper than pub food, which can produce problems. “In the bar we always try to keep things as reasonable as possible, while maintaining our quality,” she says. “I’d rather take something off the menu than use low-quality ingredients. We had to do this with our braciole steak sandwich: to sell it in the bar we would have had to put the price up considerably and we just didn’t think people would be willing to spend that much.”
“Selling on the street and in a pub is incredibly different,” she says. “In street food, everything is geared for selling high numbers in a short space of time – it’s applauded if you sell out early. In a bar, we have to prepare for every eventuality, have enough stock for large groups and walk-ins, while also maintaining quality and minimising waste. It’s a constant juggle.”
One trend that is growing fast is vegan food. Just up the road from Mason & Company in Homerton is the Spread Eagle, the capital’s first 100% vegan pub. The food is Mexican, with Baja ‘tofish’ tacos and vegan ‘chorizo’ quesadillas on the menu.
Vegan food is increasingly easy to source. Frozen food distributor Central Foods is preparing to launch a host of vegan and gluten-free dishes, including cauliflower and lentil dhal bundt with spiced mango chutney and New York-style baked cheesecake. “We’re now seeing a very positive increase in the availability of high-quality dishes for foodservice that are both gluten-free and vegan,” said Gordon Lauder, managing director of Central Foods.
A good way to tempt those who would normally steer clear of vegan food is by highlighting strong flavours or spice. “There has been a massive rise in the number of dishes available for vegans as more consumers choose to follow a plant-based diet,” says Helen Hyde, business unit manager at Tabasco. “We are seeing Tabasco used more and more in these dishes.”
Pizzas are no longer off the menu for vegans. Dr Oetker Professional has recently launched a vegan raw-dough pizza base that is pre-prepared but rises in the oven. Richard Cooper, senior brand manager at Dr Oetker Professional suggests: “For vegan pizzas, jackfruit has a pulled-pork texture and makes a delicious pizza topping with a smokey barbecue sauce.”
A world of choices
There are plenty of unique options. Jamaican-owned Funnybones Foodservice has recently launched Irie Eats, a fully branded street-food concept that brings the flavours of Jamaica and the Caribbean to the UK. “Chefs are able to take as much or as little from the concept as suits them,” says Tom Styman-Heighton, development chef. “So if they can serve one of our Caribbean dishes on the regular menu, or for an event we can supply a fully branded, streetfood-style stall with all the dishes and sides.”
Middle-Eastern food is also increasingly popular. Foodservice wholesaler Bidfood has recently increased its range to include za’atar chicken-breast skewers, falafel balls, lamb kibbeh and slow-cooked tagines. “More than a third of consumers would like to see more Middle Eastern and North African influences on menus,” points out Lucy Pedrick, insights manager at Bidfood, citing a Mintel survey
carried out in June last year.
A bit on the side
Even the humble chip is getting an upgrade. Aviko offers Piri Piri wedges, while Lamb Weston suggests publicans “pimp up” their sweet potato fries with pulled pork or jackfruit with guacamole. Farm Frites, meanwhile, are going big on topped fries.
“Side orders are enjoying a well-deserved shift in importance on menus,” says Nic Townsend, marketing manager UK and Ireland for Farm Frites. “Operators are beginning to ensure that their offering of snacks, small plates and sides are good enough to be served on their own.”
Dishes like this are often bought for sharing – and that’s an idea that can work with sweet food, too. Callebaut has options to help operators create sweet sharing platters, including ‘Saints and Sinners’, where fruit (or pastries, pancakes and waffles) is served with a range of dipping chocolate. “There’s a huge market for this,” says Anna Sentance, gourmet marketing manager, Callebaut UK and Ireland.
Keep it simple
Premier Foods has a number of options to make life easier for operators, such as Bisto cheese sauce, which can be used to make macaroni cheese, among other things. Nestlé Professional, meanwhile, offers CHEF stock, pastes and liquid seasonings.
“By investing in savvy products, such as all-natural bought-in stocks, concentrates, sauces and seasonings, pub chefs can eliminate the need to prepare multiple options. All of our products are gluten-free and save time, cut down on costs, maintain consistency and create restaurant-quality dishes,” says Charlotte Ponti, savoury food manager at Nestlé Professional.
Nisbets, meanwhile, offers the new Menu-master High Speed Combi Microwave JET519. It’s ideal for preparing a wide variety of traditional meals or on-trend street-food-style hot snacks,” says Richard Ebbs, head of brands for Nisbets.
Old school, still cool
There’s still a big place for more traditional pub food, though. Burgers are still big business and Big Al’s has just released its latest option, the Prime Burger. “It’s made with 100% grass-fed beef, fully traceable from farm to fork, and created using the chuck and brisket cuts of meat,” says Jessie McCarthy, brand manager at Big Al’s Foodservice. “It’s full of flavour and allows publicans to tap into the gourmet burger market by offering a premium eating experience.”
Even Capish? is not entirely oblivious to the demand for more classic options: on Sundays, they serve a roast. With a twist, obviously.
“I love a good Sunday roast and was excited by the prospect of creating my own version,” says Jones. “We still put our Italian spin on things, by offering porchetta and a parmigiana and offering less traditional sides and sauces like our salsa verde. I don’t think customers necessarily expect it, but they are definitely enthusiastic when they find out about it. We have a lot of regulars who come back every week for it.” Now that is music to any publican’s ears.
Sally Clarke Bakery