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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 13th Sep 2013 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Greene King versus Mitchells & Butlers, new-generation beer retailing, farm shops and outdoor space
Authors: Paul Charity, Martyn Cornell, Ann Elliott and Martin Dinkele

Could Greene King knock Mitchells & Butlers off its perch? by Paul Charity

Mitchells & Butlers is the UK’s largest managed pub company by some distance with 1,600 pubs. But currently it’s struggling to lift like-for-likes sales above flat as it undergoes a root-and-branch cultural change set in motion by chairman Bob Ivell two years ago. Meanwhile, the UK’s second largest managed pub company, Greene King, reached a significant milestone last week when it opened its 1,000th managed site whilst consistently posting far better like-for-like sales growth than its Birmingham-based rival. Greene King has travelled a long way during the eight years it’s been led by current chief executive Rooney Anand. At the start of his tenure, the company had just 551 managed sites, quickly lifted the same year to 801 by the acquisition of Laurel Pub Company’s neighbourhood division. That year saw managed turnover up 50% to £495.9m. In the most recent full year, managed turnover rose 7.4% to £863m, which now accounts for 72% of total company sales. Greene King may still own a large tenanted division and brewing operation, but the last eight years have seen an ever greater focus on its managed pubs as the main engine of company growth. Indeed, last year’s managed division turnover was around £130m more than entire company turnover back in 2005.

Greene King’s progress has been underpinned by its south east geographic estate positioning. It’s also made a series of sound strategic acquisitions in the form of Cloverleaf, Realpubs, Hardys & Hansons, Belhaven and Capital Pub Company. The deal to buy the Loch Fyne restaurant business may not have been such a rip-roaring success but it will certainly have helped build the company’s food expertise. The company has also been helped by continuity of management. Whilst Mitchells & Butlers has zipped through four chief executives (including the temporary one) and countless chairman, Greene King has been a Manchester United-like model of stability. And with its key acquisitions, Greene King has been canny in retaining the services of former management wherever possible – Mark Derry, John Winder, Nick Pring and Malcolm Heap, for example – to ensure it absorbs the full benefit of their expertise. Anand is also a strong picker of talent – one of the unsung heroes of its managed outperformance has been Jonathan Webster who arrived at the company as part of the Hardys & Hansons acquisition.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Greene King’s managed division surge has been Hungry Horse. The brand was founded in 1996 but the company considered disbanding it between 2005 and 2007 when it had, in the company’s words, “lost its way”. The last five years has seen Greene King reinvent the brand and run with it in a way unmatched by Mitchells & Butlers with potential blockbuster mainstream brands Harvester and Toby Carvery. Greene King has doubled the size of the brand since 2008 when there were 96 Hungry Horses. The company now believes it can further double the size of Hungry Horse to at least 400 sites – and it has 114 pipeline sites identified. Hungry Horse revenue and profit has doubled in the last three years. It added 20 Hungry Horse sites in less than a year to reach the 200-site landmark earlier this year – Mitchells & Butlers hit the 200 mark with its Harvester brand last year but it was founded more than a decade earlier. More generally, the past half-decade has seen Greene King increase food sales by 75%. Overall, food sales are now £337m per annum and account for 40% of total managed sales.

The current rumoured sale of around 300 tenanted pubs is driven, no doubt, by the desire to accelerate the growth of its managed division. I hear other plans are in train to free cash to invest in managed pubs. For now, there remains a significant gap in the size and the quality of Greene King’s estate compared to Mitchells & Butlers. With food sales accounting for an average of 40% of managed pub turnover at Greene King, Mitchells & Butlers has a ten percentage points lead at circa 50%. Average pub size at Mitchells & Butlers is bigger too, although Greene King has grown average managed house Ebitda to a creditable £218,000 average. The Suffolk company is still some way behind M&B on a number of measures, but for now it is certainly outperforming it – and the notion that one day soon it might ascend to the top of the managed podium is no longer fanciful.
Paul Charity is managing director of Propel Info

Arms & tails: two very different ways of doing craft beer by Martyn Cornell

If you drive through the heart of the comfortable London suburb of Twickenham, along the A305, in two miles you’ll pass 14 or 15 pubs and bars, some old, some very new, all offering pretty much differentiated experiences. There’s a locals’ pub, a sports bar, a family pub, a girls’-night-out pub, a young people’s weekend late-evening pub, and a middle-aged men’s taking-the-dog-for-a-walk pub. You can also find a wine bar, a foodie pub, a BMW drivers’ pub and one big pub that only seems to come into its own when the rugby is on at the stadium and its huge bar area is seething with groups of loud, large men in heavy coats holding pints of Guinness.

In the past couple of years there have also been two specialist beer outlets open, about a mile apart, which together represent graphically not just the difference between “a bar” and “a pub”, but two very different ways of presenting yourself as a beer-oriented outlet.

Ales & Tails is part of a small group of four or five bars run by The Lost Group, centred on the Putney/Wandsworth/Battersea area of South London. The premises are in the eating out/drinking out heart of Twickenham, a short stretch where almost every third door seems to be a bar or a restaurant, though this particular site was only converted from a shop by Fullers’ about ten or a dozen years ago, for one of its Fine Line outlets. That lasted just a short while before the premises became an “American dining” bar called The Ranch. The Ranch, too, closed quickly (leaving behind it a rather fine pewter bar top) and the site remained empty for three years. The Lost Group moved in last year, opening a pop-up before mounting a full conversion into a beer bar serving more “craft keg” beers (12) than traditional cask (eight), and a good range of cocktails. If you’ve been in somewhere like The Euston Tap or The Holborn Whippet, you’ll know the style: keg beer taps straight out of the (tiled) wall behind the bar, the beer names written on the wall. The design is 21st century eclectic (“found” items and junkshop bargains alongside more sophisticated furnishings) and there is a big emphasis on “British” food: pork cutlets, devilled whitebait, haggis balls. Like the Lost Group’s other outlets, Ales & Tails is aiming for a specific demographic: one that has a group member who has probably heard of Left Hand Brewery and knows its beers are worth trying. It’s certainly not your dad’s craft beer outlet.

Fifteen minutes’ walk along the road to the other side of town, however, out where the shops finally turn to housing, and The Sussex Arms is definitely a pub, not a bar: a standalone old brick building first licensed in 1837 and with much of the interior decorations – wood panelling, stained glass, tiles – dating from the beginning of the last century. Up to a couple of years ago, however, it was a pub few locals would want to go in: smelly, run-down, unappetising. There are a couple of excellent Fuller’s outlets nearby, one only just across the road, and, unsurprisingly, the only times you saw The Sussex Arms full was when there was a rugby match on, and every other pub in town was groaning at the seams as well. Then, in 2011, a new crew moved in, gave the place a good scrub down, installed no fewer than 18 handpumps, six of them for cider, and speedily turned the place into what many regard as the best pub in town, and one of the best in West London. Ironically, there’s a slight hipster vibe in The Sussex Arms, just as there is about Ales & Tails, even though in the former there’s no sight of craft keg. The sound system features vinyl records, the staff are mostly in their early 30s, and you wouldn’t be surprised to see them sporting man-buns, ironic beards and tattoos. But this IS your dad’s craft beer pub: he’ll feel welcome here in a way he probably wouldn’t in Ales & Tails, and he’ll even be asked if he wants a straight pint glass or one with a handle, a question he probably hasn’t heard for 20 years. The food, too, is excellent: the hard-to-please reviewers on TripAdvisor rate it the fifth best in Twickenham.

As it happens, Twickenham already had two pubs with big line-ups of handpumps before The Sussex Arms underwent its transformation from mucky duck to white swan: the town boasts two Wetherspoon outlets almost opposite each other, on the road up to the station, both with the usual Wetherspoon offer of a wide choice of ales at excellent prices, cheap but cheerful food and a slightly chilly atmosphere. But the feeling around The Sussex Arms could not be more different from those two. This is a locals’ pub that has now been returned to the locals with an offer hard to beat anywhere, and their gratitude could be weighed out by the kilo.
Martyn Cornell is managing editor of Propel Info

Farm Shops – the way forward by Ann Elliott

I saw a wonderful article in The Guardian last week, “The 20 poshest farm shops in Britain”, which examined why Waitrose was entering the market by opening its own farm shop, and took a look at the best examples around the country. It got me thinking about what steps a farm shop, or similarly a garden centre, could do to ensure it has a strong F&B offering. Here’s the core tips I’d suggest they follow:

Build your data: I appreciate that data capture opportunities are markedly more limited at a venue such as a farm shop, but it should still be at the forefront of a marketing team’s mind. Having a strong database opens up a whole host of opportunities to communicate with potential customers, absolutely vital if they’re planning to open up or revamp their F&B offering. I can see some chances to build data though – many garden centres have loyalty card schemes, which require email addresses for enrolment, and this serves a double function as a CRM tool. Additionally, many farm shops have begun to produce newsletters. Again, this is a chance to encourage customers to disclose their emails, but it’s also a great way of communicating the store’s key messages and values.

Know your consumers – research is key: A catering option is incredibly difficult for farm shops to get right – there’s a whole scope of options available. For instance: do you offer table service, or do you go down a more casual route? They need to have a head start, and this is achieved through research. Survey the people who visit your restaurant. You can do this online if your database is strong enough, alternatively you could conduct focus groups or face-to-face surveys, or encourage completion of a brief comment card – as customers enter or leave the premises.

Make it a destination: I know it sounds obvious, but the restaurant or cafe has got to look the part. It should be in line with the tone of the farm shop, but at the same time it should be a place where visitors can sit down after shopping, and it’s got to be a destination in its own right. Try not to think of the cafe as any different to other places to eat in the area. It’s not a novelty addition to a shop; it’s got to be a viable site of its own right. Don’t forget, while much of its custom will be people visiting the shop, in time you want people to come for food or coffee and then visit the shop as a result.

Be professional: The majority of farm shops and garden centres will be independent operators. This is not an excuse to be lacking operationally. The entire team needs to be fanatical about achieving consistently good standards: they need to strive for perfection with every cup, to allow word of mouth to build your reputation.

Embrace the community: This is something that applies to all sectors, and farm shops are no different. Embrace the community, allow local businesses to use your cafe as a meeting venue, invite bloggers from the local area to come and sample your menu, get coffee aficionados through the door to spread the word on social media.

Get on social media: The social media landscape is changing, and the average age of Twitter and Facebook users continues to rise. Farm shops need to capitalise on this: if your reputation is strong enough, people will talk about you. This should be complemented by a proactive approach, for example, respond to all tweets, whether they’re positive or negative.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of leading foodservice marketing and PR agency Elliotts –

Attitudes to outdoor space by Martin Dinkele

The recent hot weather has added another reason to go out to the pub. “Can we sit outside?”

Sitting outside in sunny weather with a drink is one of life’s pleasures. Not much beats a nice meal in a walled courtyard on a balmy summer’s evening, people-watching while sipping a pint at a pavement table, or a get-together with drinks in a picturesque country pub garden on a Sunday afternoon.

When my company Cardinal carries out consumer research about the “perfect serve”, we invariably hear about “sitting outside” and “a hot summer’s night” before anyone mentions a branded glass.

Sunny weather can also mean customers try to get to the bar earlier (“because it will be packed”), spend more (“Stay for another. Make the most of it”) and go to places we’ve never been to before (“I didn’t realise it had a garden and did such good food”). There’s a pub near where I live that is rightly near the bottom of the local TripAdviser league table (there’s never enough staff, the car park is hard to get in and out of, it’s too pricey). I never go except when the sun shines because it’s right by the river. I hate myself but the views are worth it.

Of course, for operators it’s great news: More customers. Extra spend. And a chance to showcase their pub while people are in a good mood.

But at the same time as enjoying the hot weather, customers put up with things they wouldn’t normally tolerate – wasps, carrying precarious trays of drinks, sitting on benches that might tip up if they’re not careful and stacking dirty plates themselves to make space for our own drinks. Not to mention plastic glasses.

It made me think whether enough pubs and restaurants make the most of their outside spaces to capitalise on the customer interest in alfresco eating and drinking. Can they do more?

Here are five ideas we had:

1.  Don’t blame a lack of interest on the UK climate: It’s also grey and rainy in northern Europe and some of the best outside drinking is found in cities in such countries. They use umbrellas. They use clips to hold down tablecloths. Some provide blankets. Others have patio heaters. The award-winning Bull’s Head at Repton for example put a massive tent on their terrace complete with astro-turf, trees and double glazing, giving it more than 100 extra covers in the winter months.
2.  Think about smoking and no smoking areas in the garden: Before the smoking ban, many pubs had no smoking areas. But now the smokers have been banished outside, some outside areas smell of stale smoke. And tables with ash trays overflowing with dog ends often seem to be the last to be occupied – with reluctant customers holding the full ash tray at arms-length like a used-nappy and putting it somewhere far away. One pub I was in recently politely asks customers not to smoke near the children’s play area. But with customers increasingly sensitive to the smell of smoke it may be time for more operators, particularly restaurants, to offer non-smoking areas outside.

3.  Treat the outside area with the same care and attention as the inside: Are tables cleared as often? Would you want to sit on some of those benches? Do customers want to see empty kegs and the dishwasher through an open kitchen door? The condition of the garden and outside eating and drinking space sends a powerful signal about the likely pub experience inside. If the seats are grubby and a bit rotten at the edges, the grass hasn’t been cut for a while, and the tables have sad empty glasses from the night before that tells customers not to expect a great experience inside. Research done by Cardinal about pubs and bars consistently tells us that external impressions count. The condition of the external – including the signage, garden furniture, state of the car park – tells customers about the likely condition of the pub internally. The type of signage and garden furniture signal what type of place to expect.

4.  Make the drink experience more special: Think about wine coolers as standard to keep the wine extra chilled when it’s hot. Or buckets of ice to keep the bottles of cider or lager chilled. Pitchers of beer with extra ice. Keep glasses in the freezer. These nice touches can make the sitting-outside-and-chilling moment even more special and make the food taste better.

5.  Be even more adventurous: There are other options to think about. The Varsity Bar in Cambridge has a premium rooftop terrace six flights up. It’s a chance to enjoy some of the best views over the city while sipping chilled drinks on comfortable sofas. It was packed in July and August. How about a film night outside? A number of bars in London and elsewhere are doing this. Watching movies under the stars with premium popcorn and drinks is a truly memorable experience. Right, the sun is shining. Anyone coming for a pint?
Martin Dinkele heads up Cardinal Research. Cardinal is a leading licensed trade research agency doing ad hoc consumer research and licensee surveys for a number of leading drinks companies and retailers

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