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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 10th Apr 2015 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Carluccio’s craft beer menu, predictions for the future of the pub and restaurant sector, public health and the theatre of the absurd, and the challenge of Easter
 
Authors: Martyn Cornell, Ann Elliott, Paul Chase and Russell Margerrison

 

Carluccio's shows the way forward on the beer menu by Martyn Cornell

It was with great pleasure I saw this week, four months after I criticised the chain on this forum over its beer selection, that Carluccio’s is now selling Italian craft brews, stocking bottles from the highly admired Birra Del Borgo in Lazio in all its 88 sites.
 
I'm not so big-headed as to think that my Propel opinion piece had any influence in Rose Street. It's much more, I'm sure, the way the best operators in the UK of "overseas" food offerings make it an important part of their business to keep up with what is happening in the country from which they take their inspiration. It's part of the DNA of Britain's growing American-style barbecue restaurant scene that the owners of US-inspired barbecue outlets take regular road trips through the southern United States to discover new ideas. Similarly, as Michael Stocks, Carluccio's international operations manager, indicated in the story Propel ran on Wednesday on the change to the chain's beer menu, an organisation like Carluccio's knows the importance of introducing new food and drinks to its customers.
 
If you visit Italy now, with the specific intention of seeing what is happening in the world of Italian gastronomy, you cannot fail to notice how the Italian craft beer scene is booming. Call in at Eataly in Turin, for example, and you will find beers from a host of top Italian craft brewers on sale, not just Del Borgo, but Le Baladin from Piedmont, L'Olmaia from Tuscany, Ichnusa from Sardinia, Antoniano from Padua, Sao Paolo from Turin and others. The Slow Food Movement 's University of Gastronomic Sciences near Bra in Piedmont now runs courses in beer appreciation. (Declaration of interest: some of the course material is taken from my book on the history of beer styles, Amber Gold and Black, translated into Italian.)
 
What is particularly interesting is to see how many Italian craft brewers, including De Borgo, have rejected the standard beer bottle, and are using a variety of attractively shaped flasks to present their beers in: these are drinks that will grace the table with their stylish presentation, as well as their food-enhancing flavours. I suspect the fact that Del Borgo's beers did not come in the usual boring bottle played a part in Carluccio's choosing them for its menu. This is a trick only Meantime Brewing among British brewers seems to have picked up on, with its smaller bottles shaped like the top third of a bottle of wine.
 
As I said back in December, newer chains in the UK, mostly, seem to get the fact that the beer offer can no longer be an afterthought, or the obvious choices that can be found in any corner grocery store (though, in fact, most corner grocery stores have considerably more interesting beer selections than most restaurants). Carluccio's move to stock beers from Del Borgo is an indication that more established chains, too, are catching up.
 
As usual, the United States is in the lead. The same day Propel carried a story on Carluccio's new beers, we also ran a story on how casual dining chains in the US are opening up their drinks menus to local microbreweries. Buffalo Wild Wings, the casual dining and sports bar operation that has more than a thousand outlets in the US, Canada and Mexico, has actually hosted "tap takeovers" at is restaurants, where a single brewer supplies half a dozen or more draught beers for just one night, an event designed to pull in the beer geeks as well as give the regulars something extra, but which is entirely associated with specialist craft beer bars in the UK, not restaurants.
 
In a slightly different approach, the Florida-based Smokey Bones Bar and Fire Grill chain, for example, which has 65 outlets, is deliberately differentiating itself from its rivals through its drinks offering, which includes a hefty swath of craft beers. According to Mike Herchuck, the chain's manager of beverage, “Our beverage offerings set us apart from the typical casual dining establishment. We have over 40 beers, including 20 American craft brews, seven of which are rated 90+ from Beer Advocate [the US beer rating site]. We also have over 40 variations of spirits that are available in every Smokey Bones restaurant, and our cocktail menu is constantly evolving with changing beverage trends. There’s always something new and delicious to try, and a talented bartender to mix, muddle, shake, or pour it for our customers.”
 
"A talented bartender" – there's a phrase to set off an entire new discussion about what British restaurants could be doing to stand out from the herd. In the meantime, I'm just glad I can agree to accompany my wife down to the local Carluccio's with an extra bounce in my step, knowing there'll be something worthwhile to choose from among the beers now.
Martyn Cornell is managing editor of Propel Info
 

Predictions for the future of the pub and restaurant market by Ann Elliott

"What do you think is going to happen in the pub/restaurant market?" is a question I have been asked four times in the past week.
 
It’s a really interesting question, particularly after Greene King's deal with Spirit, the new senior management team at Mitchells & Butlers, the highly successful Paul Flaum moving into the top spot at Whitbread Hotels and Restaurants and the moves by family brewers and Enterprise Inns into managed houses.
 
I think this sector has some challenges ahead (not including gastro-pubs with great food propositions) many of which are due to the impact of the growth of the casual dining restaurant sector
 
1 Expansion: CGA recently said that 8,600 food-focused outlets (although not necessarily just “casual dining” and including many food pubs) have opened in the past decade. Industry reports suggest that the ten major casual dining groups will open 200 sites just this year. A very quick and dirty add up of all the non-retail food outlets promised by operators, would lead to around 1,000 new sites opening in the sector this year – with less than 20% of these being pubs. Casual dining will be increasing its share of the total eating out market this year, if this is to be believed.
 
In Milton Keynes for example, the leading casual dining chains have opened five new sites by the football stadium. If they each take £25,000 a week, that is more than £6m in a year in additional spend on eating out in the area. Not all of that will be incremental: it has to come from somewhere and I suspect much of this will come from pubs.
 
I don’t think it is too radical to say that for many consumers, even new pubs can seem just a bit “yesterday” when compared to the other new options opening.
 
2 Freshness: The casual dining brands can be very nimble and quick with refurbishments. They often have smaller sites, but with similar cover levels to many pub restaurants, and therefore refurbs cost them less and they can do them more often. Gone are the days when sites would be fully refurbished every seven years with a sparkle at four. These brands move very, very quickly.
 
3 Accessibility: Casual dining brands do not tend to be destination sites in their own right. They are increasingly locally available to consumers and are often the new thing(s) in town. That makes them very attractive to early adopter consumers
 
4 Affordability: Recent comments by the Restaurant Group’s Danny Breithaupt suggested that an improved economy was encouraging some trading up, or perhaps even trading back, to restaurants from cheaper, presumably value-pub options. This would be supported by recent visits.
 
5 Relevance: As a broad generalisation the cuisine profile of casual dining restaurants is more aligned to contemporary, younger tastes: less deep-fried, gluten-free, less "tabloid"/huge-portioned, tastier and more aromatic, healthy/feminine and so on. They are also more future-proofed as a result.
 
6 The experience: When casual dining restaurants open close to cinemas, travel, leisure and retail locations, customers can more easily incorporate these brands into their overall leisure experience. They can walk from place to place, they do not have to get back in their cars. Life is made easier for them. It helps to create a real experience from their precious time out. I have seen casual dining brands excel at creating fantastic experiences inside their restaurants: think Dishoom in Kings Cross, London or Thaikhun in Manchester. I remember Spirit boss Mike Tye, years and years ago, bringing "experience" into Beefeater with moving mannequins – perhaps it’s all coming back?
 
7 Reduced dependency on drink: Slightly more contentious perhaps, casual dining chains are less aligned to beer and alcohol. What would happen if England and Wales followed Scotland’s lower drink drive limit? Food pubs are very dependent on car-borne visits, and south of the border we have a much stronger historic legacy of drive-out semi-rural pub dining. The drinks ranges in casual dining chains often include a wide choice of coffee, interesting teas, raw juices, milk shakes, fresh juices, non-dairy options. The non-alcoholic offering of most pubs is still in the dark ages.
 
This year will be an interesting one for the brands in the pub/restaurant market. One thing is certain: the continued rise of the casual dining restaurant sector.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of the leading sector public relations and marketing agency Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com
 

Public health and the theatre of the absurd by Paul Chase

It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry. The list of anti-alcohol measures either in the legislative pipeline or proposed by the usual suspects gets longer and more absurd by the day. OK, we are in the middle of an election campaign so we can expect a few loons to chuck kites in the air, but consider the following:
 
In Scotland the strangely titled Air Weapons & Licensing (Scotland) Bill is still wending its way through the Scottish Parliament. An amendment has been proposed, without consultation, which would see local authorities required to block bids for new premises licences if applicants cannot demonstrate that they will have measures in place in their operating plan to reduce the consumption of alcohol. Isn’t it enough to have “public health” as a licensing objective and to require premises to make wines and spirits available in smaller measures? Nope – someone hoping to run a commercially successful bar or off-licence must first satisfy a licensing board that they have a sales resistance policy. I know a good business opportunity when I see one: I shall spend the weekend writing a course for bar-staff in down-selling! And this hard on the heels of the reduction in the drink-driving limit, which has seen pub sales fall as much as 10%.
 
Staying in Scotland we have the resurrection of an old prohibitionist proposal that first surfaced after the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 went live in 2009, namely that the minimum age for purchasing alcohol should be raised to 21. As reported in Propel on Tuesday 7 April, NHS Health Scotland, which is the Scottish government’s health promotion agency, has re-floated this old measure in a report titled “Best Preventive Investments for Scotland – What the Evidence and Experts Say”. The report argues that to “increase the minimum legal drinking age to 21 would be highly cost-effective as it would both improve people’s health without having to spend much money and reduce demand on the NHS.”
 
And in the process bring us into line with the United States which is the only nation outside of the Islamic world to operate a policy of partial prohibition by denying a category of adults – 18-to 20-year-olds – the right to buy beverage alcohol. Do we really have to go through the dreary process of asking why is it OK for 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland to vote on whether to break up the Union, but not OK for 18 to 20-year-olds to buy a beer? I mean, really?
 
But anything the Scots can do we English and Welsh can do better! Plaid Cymru has included minimum unit pricing in its general election manifesto, even though licensing in Wales is not a devolved matter and regardless of the decision on its legality that is pending in the European Court of Justice.
 
And then there is dear old Professor Sir Ian Gilmore of the Alcohol Health Alliance. In the wake of the rumour that Diageo, or more accurately its brand Guinness, is set to sponsor Premier League football, Gilmore has called for a ban on sport sponsorship by the alcoholic drinks industry. On Radio 5 Live he debated the excellent Christopher Snowdon and claimed that it is “immoral” for Guinness to do this because children would see the adverts when they watch footie! So, Little Jonnie will cast aside his milk-shake and imbibe some Guinness instead – which will then become the drink of choice for all 15-year-olds!
 
Finally (because I’m running out of indignation) there is a report in the Daily Telegraph that life expectancy for women has suffered a drop on a scale not seen for decades. According to Professor John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, this is down to “lifestyle factors”. “One of the issues we have seen is women living lifestyle’s becoming more like those of men over recent decades, with more smoking and drinking,” he said. But hang on – we’re not talking here about life expectancy at birth, which continues to rise, but life expectancy at an advanced age – 75 years and above. Apparently the average woman aged 75 can now expect to live a further 13.1 years, which is a full five weeks less than in 2011. For a woman aged 85, average life expectancy is now a further 6.8 years – a fall of two and a half months, in two years.
 
There is not a shred of evidence that smoking and drinking are responsible for this, but every health issue can handily be blamed on fags and booze – even a five-week drop in life expectancy of a 75-year-old granny! The public health arena really has become a theatre of the absurd.
Paul Chase is director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on health and alcohol policy
 

The challenge of Easter by Russell Margerrison

Easter should provide restaurants, bars and clubs with a boost to trade. Well that is the theory, but of course the practice is never that simple because Easter is one of those very few occasions that moves from year to year. Unlike other key dates such as Christmas, Hallowe'en, Valentine’s Day and New Year, which all have a fixed date, Easter can shift by as much as five weeks!
 
Why is this so? The timing of Easter Sunday in the Western world can be anywhere from 22 March to 25 April. It is, of course, a religious festival and there are many accounts online about how the date is fixed, but, in short, Easter Sunday will fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox on 21 March.
 
And, just to add little extra confusion, Mothering Sunday is always the fourth Sunday in Lent, or three weeks before Easter Sunday, so that moves too (although in the United States, Mother’s Day is always the second Sunday in May).
 
Depending on where Easter falls, this means we are at the mercy of the inclement British weather, from cold and wintery, through normal spring conditions to almost summer-like temperatures.
 
Easter also marks the start of the holiday season, when holiday parks, campsites and other seasonal tourist attractions start up. So the extreme swing in when Easter lands impacts their length of season and opportunity to make money.
 
Where Easter falls can also have a big impact on pay day occasions. It can be before the March pay weekend or way after it, but before the April weekend, all of which can have huge implications.
 
For nightclubs, the impacts go further. The Easter break determines the timing of the student calendar and when the universities break up and return from holidays, so predicting our trading and planning the business gets a little harder.
 
For us at Luminar, we have to look a little broader to see how the business has traded. Since January our total business has traded up some 5% on a like-for-like basis, while the weekend is even better, up 6.3%. So how is that achieved? First, from the benefits of the refurbishment programme that we started in 2012; second, by delivering a high standard of customer service within our venues; and finally, from increasing the level of entertainment to create the perfect, big-occasion night out for our customers. Indeed in our last financial year we increased spend on entertainment by 50%.
 
So, while we expect to drive more sales during the break, our main focus has to be on doing what we do best: creating compelling experiences for our customers every trading night and letting the calendar look after itself.
Russell Margerrison is finance director of the UK’s leading nightclub company, Luminar

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