Pub company Fuller's, which has nearly 400 pubs across London and the South East, today reported a rise in revenues of 6% to £146.4m over the 26 weeks to 28 September 2013. Pre-tax profits were up 8% to £18.1m, while its like-for-like profits at its tenanted inns were up 1%.
Chief executive Simon Emeny told Caterer and Hotelkeeper more about the performance:
How have you found the past half year?
We have found it very good actually. It has been the best summer that we have had in this country for six or seven years and we have taken the opportunity during that period to significantly increase investment in all areas of our business so that we can maintain momentum for the long term. We have traded well on a like-for-like basis and really pleasingly that has continued over the past seven weeks.
Are comparing your figures this year against the Olympic summer last year. Is it the summer weather that has really made the difference this time?
I think it has certainly helped but there were a number of other factors. We always felt with the Olympics that while it wasn't an enormous boost to trading at the time, that it would have an enormous effect on the perception of London as a tourist venue around the world, and I think London is benefiting this year from the profile that it enjoyed during the Olympic Games. We have seen inbound tourism up year and year and I think the London economy feels quite positive.
The like-for-like growth that you have seen in your managed pubs has been driven by food sales. Average spend per head on food is up by around 5% to £10.84. What are you customers telling you about the type of food they are looking for now?
Over a period of time now, our customers have made it clear to us that they want fresh food, seasonal produce and they want it in fantastic surroundings, and I think we have responded to all of those challenges. We have got a very talented team of executive chefs in the business who have developed some really interesting dishes with our chefs in the pubs. Having that USP, which is realtively unique in pubs, because all of our food is cooked fresh using seasonal ingredients, is a reason for our very strong food growth.
Do you find that food sales are driving beer sales?
Something like 60% of customers that use a Fuller's pub are coming in to have food, and the range of beers that go with food is increasing the whole time, so we have beers like Frontier and ESB which match perfectly with food, and I think with some of the programmes that customers are seeing on TV, they are becoming increasingly aware that beer and food is a good combination.
Your beer volumes over the period saw a 2% fall in your own beer and cider volumes, although foreign beer volumes rose 3% as customers switched to lager in the hot weather. Is that trend now reversing itself?
It is exactly what we are seeing - over a hot summer, loyal ale drinkers do switch to lager. This year we have given them a new brand to switch into with the launch of Frontier, which is our own craft lager, and then in the winter and autumn months, those lovers of craft ale go back to the brands they are used to. So in the last several weeks we have seen cask ale volumes perform very well.
On the accommodation side, you had a 7.8% rise in like-for-likes, which suggests a stong performance given that you were comparing against the Olympic period last year. Have you got any plans to increase your accommodation estate from the 610 rooms you have at the moment?
Yes, we were delighted with the accommodation numbers. We were concerned that we had performed so well during the Olympics that we might find that hard to grow on, but actually we have been investing in our bedrooms throughout the last four or five years and that is boosting occupancy and our room rates. This week we are reopening a pub next to the 02 in Greenwich with 10 boutique bedrooms (The Pilot). Next month we are opening in the New Forest with 17 boutique pub bedrooms, at the White Buck in Burley, so we are looking to grow but grow selectively.
What percentage of the overall Fuller's business are the hotel rooms?
It is growing. It is approaching 10% of our managed revenues. The additional benefit to us is that the pubs are so well run and the pubs that have rooms are such an attractive offer that we estimate that something like 70% of the people statying in our boutique pub bedrooms are drinking or eating in the pub as well, so it has a double benefit for us as well.
Last week you launched the Orderella mobile ordering app at the Parcel Yard in King's Cross, which lets customers order and pay for their drinks and food using a smartphone. Is that something you could see yourself rolling out across the Fuller's estate?
At the moment it is very much a trial but it is really interesting hoq quickly the digital arena is moving. Last year we launched our own pub microsites which work on iPhones and iPads and we are seeing increasingly large numbers of people booking their tables in advance through smartphones. I think digitally pre-ordering your food or drinks is probably the next evolution that is to come. We are testing Orderella at the moment in the busiest pub in the whole Fuller's estate, which I think is a good place to start and we will see where it leads. But there is no doubt that digital is becoming an increasingly important tool for the business.
What is your sense of how Christmas and the New Year is likely to be - do you have any indications from advance bookings?
We have been very well prepared for Christmas and New Year this year. Bookings are already up on last year and Christmas day is already 70% pre-booked and things feel very good. What I would say though, is that the weather can play an important part, and while the signs do look very strong, if you have snow in the week before Christmas it can change everything.
Simon Emeny is set to be the keynote speaker at the Arena Christmas Lunch on Monday 2 December. For more details on how to book tickets, go to: www.arena.org.uk/event/422