Subjects: The London pubs becoming outstanding food venues, understanding customers is the key to sustainable growth, the erosion of operational excellence in hospitality
Authors: Glynn Davis, Ann Elliott, Duncan Colvin
The London pubs becoming outstanding food venues by Glynn Davis
Cycling back from King’s Cross on a recent early Sunday evening, I thought I’d pass by The Tamil Prince pub and grab a quick pint on my way home as I’d seen it had been on the market and had new owners running the show.
On peering through the window of the attractive north London pub and noting a lack of space, I gave it a miss and went elsewhere (The Plimsoll at Finsbury Park, for those interested in such details). Maybe I should not have been surprised that the Tamil Prince was busy as it had been receiving some pretty decent reviews from a flurry of national newspaper critics, extolling the virtues of the Indian food it was serving up. It was quickly gaining a reputation across the city for its quality dining offer.
This was certainly great news for the locals, and pub lovers in general, because the property (previously called The Cuckoo) is one of those lovely Victorian boozers in a pretty smart residential area that simply won’t attract enough trade if focusing primarily on drinks. It had done reasonably well in its tucked away location, with food a decent part of the proposition, but not at a level that would draw people in from beyond the local area.
At the same time that The Cuckoo was on the block, The Baring, a couple of miles across town, was also looking for a new owner. It had gone through a catalogue of hopeful operators who no doubt found it tough to make the economics stack up. With new owners on board and a focus very much on food, the pub has become a destination venue for dining, and some buzz has been injected into the inner-city boozer.
The same description could absolutely be given to The Pelican, on the All Saints Road, that sits right on the edge of Notting Hill. It has gone through numerous owners over many years but has always failed to find its feet – until now, that is. The new owners have cleaned and polished the place up and brought food to the fore. Within a matter of weeks of reopening its doors, it is pulling in people from across London as the reviewers sing its praises.
The common theme that runs across these three pubs is they have been taken over by extremely accomplished chefs and front-of-house professionals with impressive pedigrees from highly respected restaurants. They represent a giant step on from when the first wave of such food-led activity occurred in pubs that created the dreaded gastropubs phenomenon. Many chefs simply had aspirations beyond their capabilities, and the focus on lamb shanks and triple-cooked chips in those early days was to the detriment of many venues that were stripped of all their pub life. They very much set the model of the gastropub, which all too often sat rather uneasily between restaurants and pubs, with their frequent pretentiousness skewing them more towards the former.
Over the years there have been many exceptions, of course, across the UK – and certainly with these latest London-based incarnations, whereby food-focused pubs have embraced radically more varied menus and much better balanced that tricky pub/restaurant dynamic. At The Tamil Prince, the kitchen is headed up by the former chef at the renowned Roti King, where customers continue to queue around the block for the flaky bread. These dreamy breads have been joined by next-level onion bhajis and pulled beef masala uttapum. Meanwhile, at The Pelican, the menu includes the likes of lobster and monkfish pie, and at The Baring, we’re talking quail shish and ricotta gnudi.
In an old dog and new tricks sort of way, I’m still somewhat wedded to the old school way of demarcating my hospitality activity – it is restaurants for dining and going to the pub for my alcohol quota, alongside an assiette of snacks ideally comprising Scampi Fries, Mini Cheddars and Tayto Cheese & Onion crisps.
But maybe it’s time to change this thinking. Certainly, I’m incredibly pleased that we now have a wave of chefs going into what have in recent years been rather standard pubs in the capital and turning them into outstanding venues with very distinctive food at their hearts. They are doing these fine structures, with their rich heritages, a real justice and breathing new life into businesses that would otherwise, all too often, become a statistic on the dreaded pub closures list. Right then, now to book myself a table at the Tamil Prince, if they can squeeze me in.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends
Understanding customers is the key to sustainable growth by Ann Elliott
I do keep wondering where all the customers have gone that used to come out to play in 2019. Have some types of guests just stopped going out? Is everyone eating out of home just that little bit less often than they did a couple of years ago? Has one day (or daypart) taken more of a hit than others? How responsible is work-from-home for covers decline? And what type of businesses are seeing covers growth and why? Because some very definitely are.
Certainly the economic situation is impacting footfall in our sector. When KAM recently asked customers: “Have the recent rises in inflation meant that you’ve made any of the following changes (cheaper or fewer drinks/food, going out less, consciously spending less money) when visiting pubs/restaurants in the last 3 months?” 76% said yes to one or more of these.
There is no doubt that, for many businesses, footfall remains stubbornly below pre-pandemic levels for whatever reason, and this is an issue which has significant ramifications for our sector. Spend per head cannot continue its exponential rise and drive sales performance forever. A decline in the number of customers visiting a pub, bar or restaurant isn’t usually a portent for success, no matter how much they each spend
For management teams operating in this challenging environment, understanding the change in their customers’ behaviour and the reasons for this change has become imperative. Without this, potential solutions will just be all over the place. It’ll all be just guesswork, and that’s the last thing hard pressed executive teams need right now. If footfall can return to 2019 levels, that will, at least, help mitigate some of the cost risks to profit coming through in Q4 of this year and beyond.
In recent weeks, I have seen some fantastic examples of hospitality businesses working really hard to impress their guests and drive footfall. Without doubt, BrewDog in Waterloo has all bases covered – quiet individual working spaces, zoom rooms, large meeting tables, Grind brunch menu, kids offer, co-working spaces, meeting rooms, bowling – you name it, they have it. They have thought of every reason to visit. Very impressive.
In Belgravia, I loved the coffee shop and bakery combination at Chestnut and the ridiculously over-the-top Peggy Porschen cake shop which was letting customers in one by one – both businesses working so hard to attract passers-by with their external displays. Across the road, the Thomas Cubitt team served an exceptional private business lunch which made me want to comment immediately (and positively) on TripAdvisor.
Similarly, I organised a private event for 40 female operators at Quaglino’s in Bury Street last week, which was also worth writing home about – no better way to encourage covers than impress 40 customers at the same time. Even better was the Women of the Year lunch earlier this week at the Royal Lancaster, run by the indomitable and fantastic Sally Beck – her team did her proud in front of over 400 guests. Not an easy gig, but they made it very easy to be a guest and want to return.
The Akeman in Tring was packed on Saturday lunchtime and the service was exemplary, as was their sharing doughnut dessert – we vowed there and then to return in November and do it all again. We couldn’t get a table at Bean in Stoney (Stratford) over the weekend either as they were turning out quick, cheap, tasty breakfasts that had customers queueing at their door. The highlight of the last few weeks though was the Royal Inn on the Park next to Victoria Park in Hackney. Nothing pretentious, a down to earth and friendly team, large outside and inside space, a big enough menu and tasty generous helpings of food that arrived super quickly. We all want to go again soon.
Customers are out there and they do want to go out, but seem to be looking for more than just a quick pint and a sandwich. As KAM has pointed out, 78% of pub goers this year said they are looking for pubs to provide an experience they can’t get at home. This is up from 63% in 2019. Furthermore, 69% of 18 to 24 year-olds and 64% of 25 to 34 year-olds would rather spend money on experiences than physical goods. Every great experience I have had recently has reminded me how understanding customers, and working hard to encourage them in and to return, has to be the key to sustainable growth.
Ann Elliott is a hospitality consultant
The erosion of operational excellence in hospitality by Duncan Colvin
The continual strain on operators since the pandemic has unmistakably kickstarted a cumulative erosion of operational excellence in hospitality. Our industry has been dealing with a seemingly endless staffing crisis, the cost of living has skyrocketed, energy prices are soaring and some supplies are becoming increasingly inaccessible.
The limitations on resources now available have led to sub-standard levels of customer service in hospitality venues, thereby negatively impacting customer experiences across the board. Existing staff are being stretched too thinly to cover duties they are not adequately trained to take on. Likewise, as managers are faced with task overload, an imbalance has been created between their managerial duties and the day-to-day needs of the business. Hospitality businesses are now suffering the consequences as tasks are not being completed to the correct calibre, causing a domino effect that has led to the erosion of operational excellence.
According to research, achieving a state of operational excellence can lead to “25% faster annual growth, and 75% higher productivity”. Strategic operational excellence in hospitality is about equipping businesses to tackle obstacles that limit growth and productivity. Businesses need to monitor operational excellence regularly to benchmark and improve performance, enhance efficiency, grow profit, reduce losses, tackle fraud and cut costs.
The hospitality industry is a resilient one, but after taking hit after hit, operational excellence can’t help but slip. Compliance is the practical solution to ease these pressures and plays an integral role in the process of driving positive change. It helps monitor the health and success of a hospitality business and guides one’s business into a state of operational excellence.
As businesses operate under maximum stress levels, now is the best time to employ compliance-centric strategies. Hospitality establishments need to ensure they have a business model in place that offers bulletproof protection and fool proof directives. The determining factor between those who survive over the next 18 months and those who don’t will be the effective use of compliance tactics that maintain optimal operational excellence.
The term ‘compliance’ is universally misunderstood, and this has stifled meaningful progress in the development of operational excellence in hospitality businesses. It is commonly perceived to be beneficial only to determine whether rules and regulations are being adhered to. However, by taking a panoptic approach that covers a wider range of topics such as brand image, profit, legalities and training, compliance can take its rightful place as one of the hospitality industry’s essential business support tools. Adopting this approach will help resolve pre-existing issues across every area of a business and stops them from escalating.
Finding fault is not the primary focus for compliance either, it is more about rewarding progress and introducing reasonable boundaries and expectations that help address and prevent recurring problems. Effective compliance will inadvertently establish a well-balanced working environment. In general, we, as a collective industry, find creating this balance tricky because we are hospitable people. We are not combative by nature, we are nice guys, that’s why we are in the hospitality business. Our operations are generally centred around maintaining positive staff morale to create a comfortable atmosphere for our customers.
But businesses shouldn’t fall into the trap of blurring the lines between control and creating a hostile environment. In fact, staff generally feel more confident working in an environment where they understand the set boundaries and expectations. Operators need to ensure that operational excellence becomes a key priority as we head into 2023. For maximum success they will need to:
1. Establish a strategy that targets persistent operational weaknesses and outlines best practice standards
2. Revise current policies, processes and procedures and introduce new ones where needed
3. Formulate a compliance auditing plan to collect relevant data and benchmark success internally in their business and across the wider industry
4. Monitor progress and implement corrective actions whenever required
5. Analyse common trends in findings to determine training needs and develop relevant programmes to address them
In the long run, improving operational excellence removes the need for management involvement in day-to-day activities, therefore permitting leaders and managers to spend their time innovating and working on activities that generate top-line growth. When it comes to genuine business needs in a stringent market, most decision makers place compliance on the ‘nice-to-have’ pile. The reality is, however, that compliance is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
It is high time that the hospitality industry seriously looked at redefining the purpose of compliance and its crucial role in operational excellence. The industry as a whole has been through a lot of upheaval and turmoil, but we need to bring back stability where we can. The best way to do that is to make operational excellence a key priority and strive to reverse its erosion.
Duncan Colvin is head of compliance at stocktake and audit consultants Venners