Lager than life: think bigger to create the perfect pub

27 March 2024 by

With the local becoming an endangered species, it's time to ensure your menu and drinks selection is what everyone wants from their pub. John Porter reports

There are multiple drivers behind the long-term decline in pub numbers in the UK, from over 70,000 pubs in 1970 to around 45,000 today. Changing work patterns, a broader range of leisure choices and evolving attitudes to alcohol consumption are just a few of the factors in the fall, according to British Beer & Pub Association estimates.

In the shorter term, pubs have had little choice in passing on some of the impact of inflation to their customers. The British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) estimates that higher costs meant half of pubs were unprofitable in 2023. CAMRA's figures show that 1,293 pubs closed their doors in 2023, with an estimated 20,000 jobs lost.

If there's a light at the end of the tunnel, it might be that not all pub closures are permanent. Some may return to trading as the economy improves, consumer confidence returns and new owners, lessees and tenants are found.

Demonstrating that one operator's unviable pub is another's opportunity, the White Horse in Rogate, West Sussex, reopened in September 2023. The Grade II-listed pub had been closed for almost four years before pub trade newcomers Alex and Rose Whyte acquired the freehold from Sussex-based Harvey's Brewery at the start of 2023.

After spending 10 years working in the City of London, Alex says: "The big thing for me was having more control and we wanted to set up something of our own. It was also clear there was demand locally – people were desperate to have the pub back."

The seven-month refurbishment included the addition of three bedrooms, which provide extra revenue through partnerships with two nearby wedding venues, while an agreement with brewer Molson Coors saw the installation of new cellar and dispense equipment in return for a beer supply deal. Doom Bar is now one of the pub's two core cask ales alongside Harvey's Sussex Best.

Six months into the venture, running a pub has been a learning curve. "At the beginning we had more expensive dishes, such as cod loin and duck on the menu," says Alex, "but we quickly realised that just doesn't work here. Now, we're doing the classics well, such as ham, egg and chips, with a menu that appeals to everyone. You can have a scotch egg for £4.50 or a steak for £28. We use the specials board for more premium dishes. We might have 10 plaice or four côte de boeuf, and when they're gone, they're off the board."

The pub will be able to broaden its appeal by putting outdoor tables on the adjoining village green as the weather improves, while events such as a charity quiz and a pub versus village football match are already restoring Rogate's relationship with its pub.

"People said they'd support the pub if we reopened, and the village has very much kept their word," says Alex.

Get the basics right

As the White Horse has found, getting the food offer right is a challenge for all sectors of the pub market, with Bidfood's research showing that 77% of consumers are prioritising value-led choices when they eat out.

Steve Clarke, managing director at wholesaler Q Catering, says: "There's a noticeable shift towards established products rather than experimenting with new product development. Pub chains like Nicholson's and Greene King maintain popularity for a distinct reason. They excel in delivering well-crafted pub food with a twist, offering familiar, trusted, and beloved dishes at reasonable prices, creating a perception of excellent value for money."

Within this framework of familiarity, food suppliers offer a wide range of products and ideas to help pubs maximise menu appeal. Joe Angliss, head of customer marketing at Bidfood, says pubs should consider "different formats throughout the day to capture more business", pointing to brunch as an opportunity.

He adds: "Topped toast is a great choice for brunch menus. It requires minimal cooking and is flexible enough to switch up the toppings and bread to create everyday crowd-pleasers or premium plates."

Howard Edwards, senior national account manager, foodservice, at the Compleat Food Group, supplier of the Unearthed and Vadasz food ranges, suggests that as the warmer weather approaches, operators should use outdoor spaces to feature alfresco food options with a continental feel.

"This includes influences from Mediterranean and Italian food, such as mezze-style dining and charcuterie boards, which can tempt pub-goers into ordering a couple of dishes to share while providing the option to create a full meal," he says.

Mohammed Essa, commercial director at Aviko UK and Ireland, says: "Offering small plates is an excellent way to attract consumers during all day parts. Mealtimes have more flexibility, as diners can control their portions by simply ordering more or fewer plates."

Meanwhile, Barnaby MacAdam, taste creator at Santa Maria Foodservice, suggests: "Loaded dishes allow pub operators to effectively create standout side dishes on the menu and encourage increased spend. Fries and nachos naturally lend themselves to being loaded up with interesting flavour combinations."

Paul Jennings, head of culinary at QuornPro, says: "Chicken is a staple on menus and and our vegan ChiQin range, which includes strips, wings and a buttermilk burger, is convenient for outlets with smaller kitchens. It can be cooked from frozen and is very versatile – not only in burgers, wraps and salads, but for bar snacks and also higher-end sharing dishes with dips and other accompaniments."

The sharing approach can also work for dessert menus, says Fabien Levet, commercial manager at Pidy UK. "Think cheeseboards or sharing starter platters, but in dessert form. Operators can offer a miniature portion of three to six of their most popular desserts."

Julie Stevens, head of marketing UK and Ireland at Mission, says: "The pub sandwich is a staple, but consumer needs and tastes are evolving. Wraps, naans, pittas and flatbreads offer alternative, versatile options, incorporating familiar sandwich filling favourites and dishes from a range of global cuisines."

Liquid assets

Bridging the space between the kitchen and the bar, Tim Dunlop, European commercial director for Biggar and Leith's Butterfly Cannon tequila range, suggests that pubs leverage the appeal of both cocktails and spicy street food to drive midweek trade.

"The spiciness of a taco paired with the crisp, zesty flavour of a margarita makes for a great combination. Consider running a ‘Taco Tuesday' night to gauge interest before you add tacos to the menu full time. Train staff in margarita-making and create your venue's signature serve and style, so they can be made with ease during busy periods."

Whatever the appeal of cocktails, cask ale remains the iconic pub drink. Richard Bradbury, managing director of ale brewer T&R Theakston, says: "The pub has long been a port in a storm, offering everyone a place to socialise with friends away from the pressures of the world and the doom and gloom of the daily news agenda. While many larger breweries sought to reduce the alcohol volume of their beers in 2023, we have chosen to keep the recipes for Old Peculier and Best Bitter the same, and instead created an entirely new beer. Theakston Quencher has been designed specifically as a lower alcohol ale and has received an incredibly positive reception from both drinkers and licensees."

As consumers look for lighter drink choices, mead producer Gosnells has rebranded its sparkling variant as nectar, aiming to overcome perceptions of mead as a sweet drink. Founder Tom Gosnell says the new name "reflects the trend toward lighter, more natural drinks that provide an experience that can't be replicated at home". On-trade stockists include Fullers Craft Pubs and Drafthouse by Brewdog.

Laura Willoughby, founder of low-and-no alcohol advocate Club Soda (and a member of The Caterer's Drinks Doctor advice panel), says: "With three out of four customers moderating their drinking in some way,

venues that have a good low-and-no alcohol offer are enticing customers back during lunchtime and weekday evenings, which are the most usual occasions for punters looking for an alcohol-free drink.

"Alcohol-free wine is starting to make an appearance on menus of food-led venues, and beer brands like Big Drop are finding space on the draught line-up. Venues report that a good alcohol-free draught beer now makes up 10% of their draught sales."

Let's get quizzical

Beyond food and drink, in a market where younger consumers are less inclined to drink alcohol, offering experiences is a way for pubs to stay relevant, suggests Isabelle Shepherd, director in the hospitality team at accountancy firm haysmacintyre.

"Increased demand for experiential outings and competitive socialising highlights the shift in consumer preferences post-pandemic. Installing dart boards or having live music evenings can provide a swift return on investment if successful, and offering these experiences can increase attendance during quieter periods, extend visit durations and increase dining and drink sales."

However, as experience-led formats proliferate, Molly Bell, marketing manager at Proper Pubs, the community division of Admiral Taverns, cautions that pubs also need to retain their identity. She says: "Promotions and providing value play a crucial role, particularly in the current economic environment, so hosting payday events and having regular weekly offers or entertainment, such as ‘Wine Wednesdays' or interactive quizzes, can be a great way to attract more customers throughout the week.

"Pubs have become the last of the community hubs and are more important than ever to bring people together. While they should stay up-to-date with the latest trends, it's essential that a pub is a warm and friendly environment for everyone."



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