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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 24th Jan 2014 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Roadside pubs, keg beer, dry January and the rise of regional cuisines
Authors: Martyn Cornell, Terry Dicks, Paul Chase and Darren Tristano

Pubs by roads, and promoting happiness by Martyn Cornell

Did you see the news? It was in all the papers this week, and on TV and radio too. Apparently someone’s opened a pub within less than 750 yards of a road.

Journalists, I’m sorry to say, love a moral panic. If we can get someone to be vocally outraged, our day is made. And there were plenty of people delighted to be vocally outraged over the opening of a Wetherspoon’s pub at a motorway service station. You would think Tim Martin had set up a stall on the hard shoulder of the M40 and was handing out free tequila shots and pints of wine.

Now, one big point about this particular motorway service station is that it’s not actually ON the motorway – you have to pull off at Junction 2 and drive for a couple more minutes before you finally get to the Hope and Champion pub. It is because the pub is also accessible from the A355 that it was allowed to be built. Places serving alcohol at service stations only accessible from a motorway are still banned.

But the substantive point is, of course, that the Hope and Champion is no different from almost every other pub in Britain, in being by, near or actually on a road of some sort. Even mainland Britain’s most isolated pub, the Old Forge at Inverie, has a road running past the front door, though it doesn’t actually connect up to the rest of the country’s road system. Pubs have been opened alongside roads since Anglo-Saxon alewives stuck bushes on poles outside their hovels to indicate that a fresh brew was available inside. Plenty of pubs – hundreds, if not thousands – are still open alongside fast main roads, like the famous Ram Jam Inn near Oakham, a landmark on the A1 for generations of motorists. You can drive out of the Ram Jam Inn’s car park straight into the A1’s northbound carriageway, where the speed limit is just the same (for cars, at least) as on a motorway: if you’re not paying attention, a 38-ton artic will be leaving its imprint on your boot. It’s a lot more dangerous than joining the M40 after leaving the Hope and Champion.

So where is the recognition that if you have hundreds of pubs like the Ram Jam Inn, then you can’t create a fuss about the Hope and Champion? Swamped in a sea of illogical spit-and-fury. The RAC declared that with a pub now open at a motorway service station, “the temptation to drink and drive can only be increased by easier access to alcohol,” without, apparently, considering that there is already easy access to alcohol for drivers in roadside pubs north and south, east and west. The safety campaign group Brake declared: “The opening of a pub on a motorway is deeply concerning, and presents a potentially deadly temptation to drivers,” without saying how the Hope and Champion is any more of a potentially deadly temptation than the Ram Jam Inn is to drivers on the A1, or the Royal Oak, Farnham, a Chef & Brewer pub about three minutes’ drive down the A355 from M40 Junction 2 and thus barely more inconvenient for motorway drivers tempted to get lashed than the Hope and Champion is.

What is even more frustrating than the illogicality of these arguments, and the willingness of newspapers, TV and radio programmes to give people space to promote these ridiculous claims, instead of slapping them about the head and telling them not to react as if drivers are like toddlers at a supermarket check-out, who can’t resist grabbing for the bad-for-you goods on display, is the framing of the debate about the availability of drink once again as an argument solely about intoxication and its evils. It’s something the whole drinks industry, from producers to retailers, colludes in, and it’s why personally I believe setting up the Portman Group was an extremely bad idea, because its existence plays to the anti-alcohol lobby’s agenda-setting. By banging on about “responsible” drinking, the drinks industry’s own warrior in the “alcohol awareness” wars destroys the main argument for drinking: that it’s fun. No one is ever allowed to say that drinking is fun, because fun and responsibility don’t mix.

Which means that another recent news item, one that ought to have been a powerful weapon in the fight against the sort of wowsers who rage against pubs being opened near roads, has been largely ignored, because it doesn’t fit the anti-drink message, and the pro-drink lobby seems too frightened of the puritans to pick it up out of fear that they’ll be accused of encouraging drinking whose primary purpose is other than being “responsible”. I’m talking about the discovery by the Medical Research Council in Scotland, reported last week, that a pint in the pub with friends is good for a man’s mental health. Well, of course, you are saying, that’s obvious. But having a proper study point up the positive sides of drinking is such a change from the torrent of negativity about alcohol normally corroding the public debate that the industry really should be making much more of it.

The researcher behind the study, Dr Carol Emslie, said: “We have to understand drinking is pleasurable, it’s sociable, it’s central to friendships. If you ignore that part of it then you are not understanding the context in which people drink. You’re drinking together, you’re laughing and joking and it’s uplifting. It helps you to open up and relax. It was very much the idea that alcohol or drinking in these communal groups had this positive effect on your mental health.” Exactly. But could we ever see an ad campaign that said: “A pint with your pals – it’s good for your mental health”? It may be true, but nobody seems to want to say so.

Of course, the anti-alcohol army, unable to dismiss a properly conducted piece of research completely, still tried to sneer. Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, told The Scotsman newspaper: “Drinking together in the pub may be a positive way for men to build relationships and seek support from each other, as long as this isn’t at the expense of a damaged liver or other health problems.” Please, Evelyn, lighten up. Have a drink.
Martyn Cornell is managing editor of Propel Info

Keg beer is back by Terry Dicks

The nascent UK craft keg beer market is unarguably starting to grow. The handle “craft keg” is still being argued by the likes of CAMRA, making for lively debate, but there is no doubt about how serious UK brewers are, with many brewers now investing five-figure sums into brew plant to support this.

The major activity is focused in London, with brewers such as Beavertown, Kernel and Meantime reporting that they are unable to keep up with demand to supply outside of the capital. Microbrewer start-ups, such as Edinburgh’s Stewart Brewing, Cumbria’s Hardknott and Dorset’s Sunny Republic, are reporting a similar story.

As if this wasn’t enough good news, it is all happening at a revolutionary time for the beer container manufacturers, with the recent introduction of “one-way kegs”, which allow brewers not only to reduce their normally huge investment in steel kegs but also to reach new, distant markets, as the cost of repatriation or loss of these expensive capital items is eradicated.

So what are these mysterious new containers all about? Some brewers have grabbed the bull by the horns and are already running with the first generation products. Others have yet to play with them and at the more traditional end, some brewers refuse to have anything to do with keg beer. For some, undoubtedly the stigma of 1970s mass-produced keg beer – Watney’s Red Barrel and the like – is just too big a hurdle to overcome. But for the younger customer this stigma simply doesn’t exist.

All one-way keg suppliers provide 30 and 20-litre options, which opens up craft keg beer to a whole new market of outlets who say they can’t sell a whole nine-gallon barrel before it turns sour.

Brewers that have ventured in currently have a choice of KeyKeg, EcoKeg and Petainer. All are variations on a theme of a robust PET pressure vessel (like a giant cider bottle) with some degree of outer packaging.

The KeyKeg an easy to handle 20 or 30-litre product with an inner bag that allows gas to be pumped into the space between the bag and the outer wall to force out the beer. The bag membrane allows dispense with air rather than CO2 which opens up opportunities with special home dispense kits now available.

EcoKegs have a higher pressure rating and the ability to remove the valve to allow keg conditioning: hence it appeals to craft brewers who need ultimate control and want to try the kegs for real ale.

For larger brewers, Petainer has seen the benefit of greater numbers, as it has been largely selected for export use by beer and cider makers.

So, between the three manufacturers, there are various options and there are also signs of collaboration between them to provide a universally acceptable pressure and connector specification, which will be great news for further expanding exports.

The cost of the container is one of the limiting factors, as they all come in around the £10 mark, which, spread over 54 pints, adds around 20p to a pint. But when asked, a lot of brewers don’t actually know what an equivalent steel cask “per use” cost is. Those that do report a cost for transport, theft and cleaning of around £7: so the incremental cost of a one-way keg is actually about £3.

The final part of the keg life-cycle is now down to the retailer, as the empty containers are non-returnable. This has given some keg manufacturers problems, as they are seen as not very eco-friendly. But the theory is that the PET is extremely recyclable and, once separated from the outer packaging, can be readily made into new products. However, there is some concern about how small the crushed bottles can be, and publicans may end up paying more for plastic collection to avoid landfill. These additional costs will have to be added to the price of the beer. Manufacturers are aware of this and are making moves towards a scheme to incentivise wholesalers to collect empties.

In summary, there is a lot going on, with manufacturers improving their first-generation offerings and brewers investing in plant to fill them. Whether the whole craft keg market in the UK will become significant will remain to be seen, but as the US craft beer market has grown to more than 2,500 brewers on keg products, it has to be taken seriously.
Terry Dicks is managing director of Craft Keg and can be contacted on terry@craftkeg.com

Dry January by Paul Chase

“Dry January” is a campaign of the anti-alcohol advocacy group Alcohol Concern, and, as the name suggests, the basic idea is to persuade as many people as possible to refrain from drinking alcohol for the whole month. Like its close cousin Alcohol Awareness Week, which runs in November, it provides an opportunity for Alcohol Concern to beat the drum for “alcohol harm reduction”. I’m not opposed to individuals “going dry” in January, or any other month of the year, if that’s their choice. Indeed, individuals making their own health choices should be welcomed. Neither am I against reducing alcohol harms. What I object to with Alcohol Concern is that it is clear about its direction of travel, but rather less so about its destination. “Dry January” is a gimmick. Mounting a moral campaign based on the premise of “alcohol harm reduction” masks the organisation’s real intent, which is to achieve a kind of cultural prohibition of alcohol by stealth.

There is a well-known marketing technique called “sampling” – giving a free sample of a new product to consumers in order to recruit a constituency of support and establish it in the market-place. So, try taking a month off the booze, see how you like it and then maybe a “good habit” (abstention) will replace a “bad habit” (indulgence). And Alcohol Awareness Week and Dry January neatly bracket Christmas when many people over-indulge. So, the preaching of the sermon in November; then the mass commission of sin in December; followed by mass repentance in January. The problem with repentance is that it purges guilt – thereby absolving the sinner, wiping the slate clean and setting the scene for further sin! It’s a bit like going on a crash diet – you’ll lose weight, but then pile it back on when the bounce-back kicks-in.

A visit to Alcohol Concern’s website is instructive. The campaign headline is “Can you stay off the booze for 31 days?” You are then told that your mission is “to avoid that cheeky after -work pint, that glass of wine on the sofa, or that big boozy night out, for the whole month.” Apparently, if you fulfil this mission you will “make a real difference to the lives of those harmed by alcohol misuse …” How? Ah – by “getting family and friends to sponsor you and raise money for Alcohol Concern.” They must really be missing that £400,000 annual grant that they used to receive from the Department of Health, before they bit the hand that feeds them by pulling out of the coalition government’s voluntary Alcohol Industry Responsibility Deal.

Moving responsibility for public health from the NHS to local councils was quite possibly a master stroke by a government seeking to transfer cost from national government to local government. It also plays into the tendency of many local councils to believe that lifestyle regulation is the way to tackle public health problems. Helpfully, the Alcohol Concern website gives a case study of how Dry January in 2013 was co-ordinated locally by the borough of Sefton, on Merseyside. It makes interesting reading. They collected lots of intelligence about peoples’ drinking habits with a sample of 190 drinkers who had previously been involved in Alcohol Awareness Week; they reported that “around” 78% of people who took part “more or less” completed the month with some people guilty of “lapses” down to specific social occasions – straight down the confessional for you! Apparently half of those who took part felt no different as a result of giving up alcohol, but around two thirds said it made them think differently and consider permanently cutting down on the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption.

This was sufficient “evidence” for Sefton’s Public Health Directorate to “conservatively estimate” that there would be an ongoing reduction in usual/habitual alcohol consumption of between 21% and 23% amongst those who took part. Interestingly, there are no figures for the number of people who took part – so, 21% to 23% of what? I have to question whether the involvement of councils in moral crusades of this type can really be justified as a worthwhile public health exercise. It seems to me to be the worst kind gesture politics.

The way to encourage responsible and moderate drinking is to promote the pub – it’s safe, supervised and social. You don’t promote moderate social drinking by encouraging people not to go down the local for a drink in January, the most difficult month of the year for the pub trade. Instead of colluding with Alcohol Concern in the promotion of gimmicks like Dry January, why don’t we see local councils promoting the idea that the “pub is the hub”? Bearing in mind that pubs contribute to taxes (national and local); that they raise huge amounts of money for local charities; that they employ local people and are at the heart of many local communities, the support of local councils for the pub trade in January would help to boost and support local businesses. Instead we see public money being wasted on a campaign designed at least in part to raise money for Alcohol Concern.
Paul Chase is a leading on-trade health and alcohol policy commentator and a director of CPL Training

The rise of region-specific cuisine by Darren Tristano

Peruvian, Atlantan, Veracruzana: These are among the region-specific cuisines that ambitious restaurant operators are aiming to introduce to more globally adventuresome UK diners.

Authenticity and attention to detail are the name of the game here. UK consumers’ affection for Chinese, Indian and Thai restaurants is well established, but as younger consumers in particular seek out new tastes, operators are seizing upon the chance to showcase the nuances of regional cuisines.

This regional focus, which operators are calling out for consumers on menus and in restaurant mission statements, is about exposing diners to the wide varieties of ingredients and global influences that shape a given area’s cuisine. It’s about, for example, demonstrating that Mexican cuisine isn’t all smothered stuffed tortillas; it’s also brightly flavoured, European-influenced seafood dishes from the coastal state of Veracruz. It’s also about honouring regional variations in flavours and preparation styles: Texas barbecue is defined by beef brisket; in the Carolinas, pulled pork is favoured – though a key factor for both is slowly smoking the meat over wood.

British diners would seem to be receptive to this kind of regional-cuisine schooling. In a poll for Technomic’s UK Ethnic Food and Beverage Consumer Trend Report, seven out of ten UK consumers named “authentic taste” as one of their top factors in choosing a restaurant to visit for ethnic foods. Four out of ten said preparation of the food by someone from the region corresponding to the cuisine is important. Operators of these new, regionally inspired restaurants, whether they’re looking to showcase a taste of the chef’s home or pay homage to the owner’s world travels, are both finding an enthusiastic audience for their efforts and winning accolades.

Take Lima, a contemporary Peruvian concept that opened in London in 2012. In September the much-talked-about spot, which highlights Peruvian cuisine’s Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and native South American influences, became the first Peruvian restaurant in Europe to win a Michelin star. According to its website, Lima and its Peru-born executive chef Virgilio Martinez seek to acquaint Londoners with the city of Lima as “the gastronomic capital of the Americas” and to spotlight “the gastronomic expansion that has taken place in Peru during the past few years.” On the menu: Lomo Steak Huancaina (beef loin, white corn and yellow aji sauce) and Octopus Olivo (braised octopus, organic white quinoa, Botija olive and red shiso).

Similarly enthusiastic displays of regional affection can be found in London at the likes of Boho Mexica, whose owners want to show that “Mexico is not all about sombreros, moustaches and donkey pinatas,” and Miss P’s Barbecue, a street-food stall serving up slow-cooked Atlanta-style barbecue. (Other players on the UK’s sizzling Southern-style-barbecue scene include Pitt Cue Co, Bodean’s and the upcoming Q.)

Boho Mexica notes on its menu the regional heritage of and inspiration for many of its dishes, and states front and centre that all of its food is made fresh on the premises daily, using many ingredients flown in directly from Mexico. The Asado de Boda Edde is described as a traditional wedding stew from the Mexican state of Zacatecas; it features tender pork in an orange, cinnamon and mixed-chilli sauce, served with corn tortillas and rice. The Pulpos Encebollados – sauteed calamari and baby octopus with chipotle chilli and onions – are, according to a side note from executive chef Patricia Vivas, “just the way I used to eat them by the river in Veracruz”. Finally, the dessert menu features Elote de Domingo, a popular Mexican street-food snack of corn on the cob flavoured with chilli, mayonnaise, lime and a sprinkling of cheese.

The fact that several of the offerings at these next-generation ethnic concepts were inspired by street foods – or, in the case of American barbecue, roadside shacks – is important. Street food by nature and necessity is inexpensive, egalitarian stuff. It holds wide appeal. Technomic identified the migration of street food to bricks-and-mortar restaurants as one of its five UK restaurant trends for 2014, and it is not difficult to see why. Dumplings (Chinese pot stickers, Polish pierogi), sandwiches (American-style pulled pork, Mexican tortas, Taiwanese hirata buns) and stuffed fried pastries (Indian samosas, Argentine empanadas) translate easily across languages and national borders, making them appealing options for chain operators looking to add new globally flavoured options to their menus.

That point is worthwhile especially because UK consumers indicate they are less than happy with their current ethnic food and beverage options at chain restaurants. Fewer than three in ten UK consumers indicated that they are satisfied with the availability of ethnic foods and flavours at chain establishments. Limited-service restaurants fared worse (23% said they are satisfied with ethnic-food options) than full-service ones (29% satisfied).

With UK consumers’ flavour preferences and food savvy continuing to evolve, region-specific cuisine offers an abundance of opportunities for creative operators. Authentic ingredients and preparations and a commitment to telling the story behind foods – how they’re enjoyed, why they’re prepared a certain way – can be the key to capitalising on these.
Darren Tristano is vice-president of insights and research firm Technomic 

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