A washout this summer meant bad trading for many, but should operators expect a regular cloud over business or a one-off shower? Tom Vaughan looks at how to be prepared for bad weather
However, according to the Met Office, unseasonal weather is something we should probably be getting used to. A recent report showed that the second hottest November on record in the UK in 2011 was 60 times more likely than in the 1960s because of climate change.
"Our vulnerability to extreme weather is much greater than is used to be," Dr Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the Met Office Hadley Centre, told The Telegraph earlier this year.
Reports from the hospitality industry certainly back this up. "I've been a supplier for 22 years and people used to call up and ask for produce in six weeks' time," says Steve Downey, managing director of Ritter Fresh.
"But that just doesn't happen any more with the unpredictable weather - the modern chef can't take anything for granted."
Of course it's not just the grumbles we've had to deal with - hospitality operators have had to contend with everything from low custom because of the rain to price hikes on ingredients affected by the unseasonal weather. In the kitchen, everything from mussels to milk and potatoes has dropped in number and quality and risen in price thanks to the cold, wet summer. Meanwhile, front of house, pubs and casual dining operators have struggled to get punters through the door.
"It's been a particularly flat year and the weather has had a big part to play in that," says Peter Martin of Peach Factory, a business intelligence specialist that produces an industry tracker. "When there is extreme weather there's not a great deal you can do about it. It's just one of those things this industry has to contend with. More than many industries, hospitality and leisure are at the direct mercy of the weather."
One way to make sure that rainclouds or heatwaves don't badly damage your bottom line is to manage the weather.
"A lot of businesses recognise the effect of weather in the short-term, say over a weekend, but what they don't notice are the patterns week in, week out," says Morris, whose company helps businesses manage the effect of weather on custom.
Building a good understanding of how weather has affected trade - whether this â¨database is built up internally or externally - can help managers make decisions that â¨could prove vital to the bottom line.
"Say you are in a country pub with a beer garden; the number of covers will change â¨dramatically for a good or bad weekend. Knowing the weather forecast and how busy you will be can allow you to make all sorts of decisions - from changing the rota to ordering in or cancelling fresh produce," adds Morris.
Chris Barber, owner of consultancy Chris Barber Food Solutions, says that the psychological trait of wanting to go out for a meal when it is sunny and stay in when it is raining is almost too entrenched to fight against.
"There is no need to be deafeatist and every reason to run offers such as a free glass of Champagne to tempt people out in the cold or wet, but pick your battles - make sure you put more energy into maximising the times when you know you will be packed," he says. "It's a cliché, but make hay when the sun shines."
However, there is certainly a case for being proactive about bringing customers in, rain or shine. For those reliant on a beer garden, weather-proofing can be expensive, but don't be fooled by the outlay. Barber says he knows city-centre pubs where the difference between drinks takings on a sunny day and a rainy day can be as much as £4,000, as people are happy to stand outside.
A PRACTICAL INVESTMENT
A retractable awning or covered space might be expensive but you can quickly claw this back. Earlier this year, Absolute Pubs invested £75,000 to add heated outside space to the Bell Inn at Hampton, near Hampton Court. The result - drinkers were still happily sat outside underneath the heaters in October.
Hotel du Vin's addition of luxury outside pods known as cigar bothies have been equally as popular among smokers and non-smokers (see opposite) and Barber is certainly a fan: "That's the kind of innovative thinking you need to put in place, otherwise you will quickly become a place people won't drink at if it is raining," he says.
Another route to go down is to make sure your interiors are wet-weather friendly. We're not just talking about cosy nooks and crannies and a well-made mug of cocoa. More so than restaurants, pubs or hotels, the one group that really find the weather hard to cope with is children. Orchid pubs bucked the trend for dismal pub performances this summer courtesy of its child-friendly sites and inside play areas. Nothing can satisfy a restless family on a rainy day like a restaurant that caters for all generations. "In general, pubs with funhouses are seeing an upwards sales trend, but this became even more prominent during the wet summer holidays," says Bella Kirkton, marketing executive for Free House Dining. For example, the Bobbin Mill in Renfrewshire saw year-on-year sales grow by 21.3% over the summer holidays, with some 200 youngsters heading to the funhouse in a single week. "People are associating this style of pub with a real chance for a family outing and they attract all ages and generations," she adds.
While installing an Orchid-style inside play area might not fit in with your perception of your business, there are still little tweaks that can help you appeal to families. In the past, Sam Harrison, owner of Sam's Brasserie and Harrison's (both in London), has requisitioned the sites' private dining rooms during the day to use as makeshift kids' rooms - whether that involves putting on a Disney video or hiring an entertainer - allowing the young ones to play safely out of sight and the adults to enjoy some grown-up time. During wet weekends or school holidays, this could prove a godsend.
Whether it is springtime heatwaves, soaking July or balmy Novembers, one thing is for certain - the seasons don't necessarily match their profiles. Morris says that some of the blame for the public discontent should go to our perception of what summer weather should be like: "Since the start of low-cost travel we've all jetted around the world and come back with an image of the British summer that is more akin to southern Spain. But the UK weather has always been unpredictable."
And while we'll never be able to properly predict heatwaves and washouts, as a hospitality operator, you can do your best to stop them affecting your bottom line.
TIPS FOR BATTLING THE BRITISH CLIMATE
Never underestimate how willing the British will be to stand outside so long as it is dry, warm and they have a drink in their hand. Shelter and heaters can be expensive but lost trade could be costing you thousands every time it rains.
Make a record of what the weather was in relation to how busy you were. Built up over a period of time, this will provide a great help in staffing and ordering. Alternatively, employ an outside agency to do it for you.
Make sure you are family friendly
If anyone hates wet weather more than hospitality operators it's kids, and even more so their parents. A meal out where everyone is entertained is a great solution to a rainy day so make the most of this potential custom.
Unseasonal weather can play havoc with ingredients. Make sure you are in dialogue with your suppliers and flexible with your menus.
Pick your battles
While you can be putting a lot of effort into attracting customers in down times, make sure you are maximising the good times. With the best will in the world, you won't affect Brits' complicated relationship with the weather.
WAYS TO WEATHERPROOF YOUR BUSINESS
The Bell Inn, Hampton, London
Simon Bailey, managing director of Absolute Pubs, had originally planned to revamp the outside of the Bell Inn at Hampton in October, in time for the chilly autumn months. But with the summer months far from warm, he acted sooner.
"Like most pub operators, we'd been hoping for a good summer to encourage customers to eat and drink outdoors," says Bailey. "We'd been busy, but customers were staying inside the pub, which limited the numbers we can serve." The £75,000 project added a glass lean-to with tables and heaters at the rear of the pub, as well as booths in the garden to extend the dining area. The pub is now in negotiations with town planners to be allowed to add a temporary awning to make sure the booths are covered.
"It did the trick," says Bailey of the project. "For much of the year people are looking to be outside if they can and now people have that little bit of warmth with the heaters on, they are using it right through into October."
Hotel du Vin
For Hotel du Vin, it was the 2007 smoking ban rather than the British weather that prompted it to install cigar bothies across the group.
An upmarket outside shelter, complete with gas fires, underfloor heating and cosy sofas - that importantly complies with smoking regulations - the bothies were originally intended to maintain the cigar side of the group's business, but they prove hugely popular with all guests.
"A lot of people use them to just sit outside and have a drink throughout the day," says Pauric McGurren, operations manager at Hotel du Vin. "But we sometimes set up a table for 10 in there for a private dinner."
Each bothy costs about £25,000 to £30,000, but with each hotel in the group now equipped with one, they have fulfilled their original remit in keeping cigar sales strong, says McGurren, as well as providing a luxurious outside option during the last few years' unpredictable summers.
How has the weather affected ingredients?
"After 28 years in the business, this has been the worst year I've known," says James Wellock, managing director of Lancashire-based supplier Wellocks. "And â¨we haven't even had the full force of it yet."
Whereas other bouts of bad weather in previous years have affected a few ingredients here and there, this year has been notable for hitting basic raw ingredients. Chefs would have had to grin and bear it when asparagus arrived a month late back in the spring, but when potato prices double it is a different story.
"A bag of potatoes that would have been £6 is now £12. How do you build that into your menu?" asks Wellock.
Cow feed has also gone up, meaning that other basics such as milk, butter and cream have also risen in price, while cauliflowers have shot up from 60p to £1.50 as suppliers have gone hunting in the French markets for the vegetable.
It isn't just fruit and veg that has been hit by the weather. Steve Downey, MD of seafood, mushroom and game supplier Ritter Fresh, has found his supply chain badly disrupted. A heat wave in March followed by bad weather then a rise in temperatures meant that lots of UK mussels spawned twice, taking them off the menu for weeks on end, while top-end items such as sea trout and wild salmon were also hard to come by.
"Morels are late, samphire was late, sea purslane was late - everything has been late and poor quality," he says.
While the doom and gloom is set to continue - potatoes will be affected until next June when the new crop comes up - there are a few items that have escaped the worst of it.
"I'm saying to everyone that while potatoes are expensive, try switching to other basic crops such as carrots and beetroot that still have a good price," says Wellock.
And more than ever, it is a time to be in constant dialogue with your supplier, he adds: "Rather than doing what they've always done, chefs have to be more interactive with their suppliers and more creative with what we've got."
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