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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 28th Jul 2023 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Pricing a pint, food for thought on food for sport, stop wasting your time with technology, good things come to those who wait
Authors: Phil Mellows, Stephen Freeman, Karen Turton, Glynn Davis

Pricing a pint by Phil Mellows

Few things are more politically sensitive than the price of beer. I still can’t get over the fact that, when it was pushing through the 1989 Beer Orders, the government of the day was telling drinkers it will mean cheaper pints. It didn’t. More recently, reductions in duty carried the same promise. For the woman at the bar, of course, it made no difference.

At regular intervals, the mainstream media becomes inflamed with stories about how much the price of a pint varies around the country. The suspicion is that somebody somewhere is getting ripped off. Scant attention is paid to the underlying mechanisms of pricing, the micro-decisions pub and bar operators are making every day.

This was highlighted last week when my Twitter timeline suddenly filled with brightly coloured charts (I believe they’re called “ridgeline plots”) showing how the price of a pint of lager has changed between 2010 and 2023.

Based on data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), they were created by Colin Angus, a mathematician at Sheffield University, probably most famous for his work on modelling the impact of minimum unit pricing. He was surprised not so much by how the price has risen, but by how much the variation in price across the country has broadened.

Roughly, in 2010, you could buy a pint of standard lager for anything from £1.50 to £3.90. Today, (removing extreme outliers) the spread is from about £2.30 to £6. Viewed as a graph (in hot orange) the growth in variation is striking – 2010 looks like Mount Kilimanjaro, with most pints concentrated around a £3 peak, while in 2023 it’s a low, bumpy terrain with four or five modest peaks. A similar pattern is repeated for premium lager.

It suggests something quite dramatic has happened around the way the hospitality industry prices draught beer. So dramatic it was picked up by the Financial Times’ Alphaville column, cue more graphs.

At this point, the picture gets more confused, not least by introducing bitter prices. The major brewers don’t use the term “bitter” any more, preferring “amber”. Craft brewers, though, have lately revived the term “bitter” for their retro recreations – which can be quite expensive. So, best stay on the lager.

Anyway, Alphaville is quite sceptical that there’s anything unusual going on not simply related to inflation, but I’m not so sure. The pub and bar trade has indeed changed considerably since 2010. There is more diversity and operators are doing a lot of different things, attracting a lot of different audiences. It’s harder to define a typical pub and a typical pub-goer. 

Food has generally moved up-market, away from your usual pub grub, and taken beer prices with it. Where competitive socialising and other entertainment are a part of a bar’s offer, prices, again, will tend to be higher.

We’ve also got craft beer now. Notably, premium brands such as Beavertown and Camden Town have extended range and pricing on the taps at a growing number of pubs, and that may well be  stretching price-points on the bar upwards as operators strive for a more premium offering.

Less easily explained is the price inertia at the bottom end of the spread, which is flattening the curve, to coin a phrase, even further. JD Wetherspoon, as my Twitter timeline argued, is a part of the answer. But the group itself has a wide spread of prices, according to the location of the pub. And the estate hasn’t grown by that much, despite perceptions.

You have to include many more traditional community pubs in the calculations. They are facing soaring inflation like everyone else, but they are less able to pass those extra costs on to their cash-strapped customers.

While there are big regional variations in price, among the regions, London has the biggest spread. An investigation by the Evening Standard at the end of last year showed the price of a pint can double between one pub and the next.

It reflects the wide gap between rich and poor in the capital. ONS stats also show that since 2010, inequality and differences in disposable income have steadily grown across the UK.

The price of a pint is a matter of class. What’s worrying is that many pubs serving local communities are being squeezed between rising costs and feeling they have to keep their prices as low as possible or lose their customers.

That’s precisely the predicament that the Bevy in Brighton, the country’s first community-run pub opened on a council estate, quite near me, currently finds itself in, having to raise money to survive.
Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist

Food for thought on food for sport by Stephen Freeman

A big British summer of sport is upon us, with huge crowds soaking up the action at the men’s and women’s Ashes, Major League Baseball’s (MLB) London Series, the British Grand Prix and Wimbledon in recent weeks, and plenty more still to come over the rest of the summer. 

It’s the time of year when domestic tribalism in sport falls away and is replaced by something a little more idyllic. Picture sun-drenched, pristine turf, or tarmac glittering with heat haze, adorned by crowds clasping pitchers of ice-cold Pimm’s, punnets of fresh strawberries and portions of crisp fish and chips.

There’s nothing quite like the British summer’s sporting events scene, a sub-sector of the hospitality industry that generates more than £20bn in sales from May through to September, with £3.5bn purely attributable to food and drink.   

The ‘foodification’ of events
When we think of sport, we don’t typically think much about the food and beverage offer associated with it. When we do, it’s probably little more than pie and mash at the football or strawberries and cream at the tennis. But £3.5bn is a significant figure, and one that has grown by 50% over the space of just ten years.

The proof is well and truly in the pudding in that, over recent years, the events industry has experienced a major shift, something that I like to refer to as the “foodification” of the sector – whereby spectators have become almost as excited about the food and beverage offer available to them as they are about the action taking place out on the field or racetrack. 

There are a number of factors that this could be attributed to, but the primary one is that tastes and trends have developed and evolved rapidly over a very short period of time. If we can cast our minds back to the rise of a new wave of celebrity chef around the early 2000s – the most prominent being Jamie Oliver – this is when food really started to change in this country.

New ingredients, methods and techniques were making their way into the mainstream, and dishes like the humble hamburger or satisfactory salad were suddenly propelled with flavour and excitement that everyone could recreate at home. Fast forward 20 years and social media is now playing this role, giving us access to amazing recipes at a rate that simply wasn’t possible before. Last year alone, #foodtiktok pulled in more than 106.6 billion results, which is just incredible.  

Donut burgers, anyone? 
But how does this all link to the food offer at sporting events? Put simply, food is more accessible than ever before allowing for our imaginations to run riot. Spectators expect high quality, innovative and delicious food in the out-of-home environment, and the events industry is now no different to the wider hospitality market.

The food and beverage offer at the recent MLB London Series face-off between the Chicago Cubs and the St Louis Cardinals at the London Stadium, which Freemans Event Partners delivered in conjunction with Delaware North, is a prime example of this.

The one-off menu featured a wide-ranging selection of classic American dishes and favourites from both Chicago and St Louis, including the St Louis Donut Burger and Chicago Cheesy Brisket Sandwich. The idea being that fans could take their respective rivalries to the next level through food, all while creating a sense of “fear of missing out”, gave them the chance to capture some amazing food-based content for their social channels. 

The role of technology
Another primary factor behind the “foodification” of the events industry can be attributed to the evolution of new technologies and processes. Long gone are the days when event organisers could rely on a handful of vans serving food and drink out of a hatch, which is exactly how Freemans Event Partners started out at the Silverstone circuit almost 50 years ago.

The process now requires intricate planning at all levels to ensure that specific outlets are placed in the most optimum locations, that each concession is well-stocked and unlikely to run out of top-selling items, and that cutting-edge payment technology is on hand to ensure spectators have as seamless an experience as possible. 

These are all things that have come to be expected in the hospitality industry but have only recently entered the events space, showcasing how the sector is advancing and better able to provide guests with the kind of experience they have come to expect from their favourite pub, bar or restaurant. 

It’s clear that there has been a significant shift in perception, and that food and drink has a huge role to play when it comes to our enjoyment of major sporting events. So, regardless of whether this summer’s sport brings triumph or tragedy, you can rest assured that whatever happens, at least the food and drink offer won’t leave a bitter taste.
Stephen Freeman is chief executive officer at Freemans Event Partners 

Stop wasting your time with technology by Karen Turton

Disclaimer: This isn’t a plea to return to analogue days, and I’m not talking about the bottomless sinkhole of social media, relentless clickbait news, or the addictiveness of Candy Crush!

Digital technology has revolutionised our world, reshaped the workplace and is even rewiring our brains. We now have more data points, platforms, widgets and gadgets than we know what to do with. There are undeniable wins with this unstoppable tide, but for the most part, we’re simply wasting our time.

Technology has the potential to drive huge efficiency when used properly. The problems start when yet another new platform, digital process or piece of kit is rolled out with a promise that this will solve all our woes…and then teams are just left to get on with using it. 

Without a proper plan to embed it and help teams understand the how and the why, “game changing” tech changes nothing. Uptake is erratic and inefficient. “I can do it better myself”, “the old way is easier” or “I just don’t trust it to work” are common attitudes. 

Once upon a time, area managers had to physically visit their venues to see what was happening there. Nowadays, the range of data available means you could get a clear picture of performance entirely from the comfort of your home office.

There are obviously many reasons why this isn’t advisable in practice, but the point stands that all the answers you need to unlock efficiency are there in the data. To be truly efficient, however, requires not just the technology and data, but also the mindset to integrate it and interrogate it effectively. 

Launching new tech without including the behaviours required to support it is a results-centric approach that will have limited success. When the launch includes the proper training on the “why” and teams have the opportunity to appraise it, the approach is built on trust and challenge, creating a solid base for success.

A key model we reference at Purple Story is the “Pyramid of Trust”, based on Patrick Lencioni’s “5 Dysfunctions of a Team Model”. Simply put, teams that have trust as a foundation upon which challenge, belief and accountability can be built will see the best possible results. 

This isn’t just theory either. Think about the data you get from your customer review platform. Reviews provide valuable insight into customer experience, but when coupled with an understanding of how to interpret the data, teams can make better decisions on how to deliver truly exceptional service. 

Every hospitality business sits at the centre of a wealth of sales information that can give you detailed site-specific customer behaviour and local market information (if you know where to look). Sounds great already, but how many managers can critically evaluate this data to find untapped revenue in your sites and create meaningful behaviour change in your team? 

And when it comes to your team, there are many people-focused platforms to track training, offer benefits or enable consistent communications. But do they also deliver the leadership training that underpins why these things are important (clue: a happy, fulfilled workforce leads to high performance) and how to use them to maximum benefit?

These are three key areas that drive success – customer satisfaction, sales revenue and your people – where embedding the behaviour is just as important as the tech. Otherwise, we’re just wasting our time.
Karen Turton is founder and chief executive of entrepreneurial learning consultancy Purple Story

Good things come to those who wait by Glynn Davis

Tucked away on a side street near King’s Cross is a lovely little pub called the King Charles I that I’ve been irregularly visiting for many years to enjoy the superior quality of its beer. A recent visit involved a couple of pints of perfectly served cask pale ale, followed by the same beer that was not a patch on the previous pair.
This was puzzling. The only noticeable difference for this discrepancy was the person serving the beer. When I asked the old guy behind the bar why his beer was so superior to that served by his younger colleague, he shook his head and said he’d asked him numerous times to pull the final part of the pint slowly through the hand-pull in order to deliver a perfect pint, but he’d ignored his advice. Needless to say, we sought out the senior guy for our final pale ale of the night.
This extra few seconds of effort was deemed a waste of the younger server’s time. I’ve come to the conclusion that this incident amounts to much more than a small insignificant act and that it possibly highlights how beer – especially at the craft end of the market – is being stripped of the experience. When people go out to the pub or bar, they want that extra component for which it is worth paying a premium. This is increasingly the case in a cost-of-living crisis.
Part of this experience is simply about time – the server committing time and effort with the customer to deliver the product in the perfect way. Guinness has long recognised this crucial element and has become the UK’s best-selling beer partly on the premise that this is a beer worth waiting for.

We all accept this waiting factor when ordering a pint of the black stuff. It is no coincidence that Diageo is spending £73m on a seriously chunky development in London’s Covent Garden that is all about emphasising the Guinness experience, which is replicating the model found in Dublin at the Guinness Storehouse.
The Czechs have also understood the theatre of the beer pour and traditionally dispense their lager through a unique side-pour tap that gives a thick foamy head with a creamy texture. Such taps are a rarity in the UK but would certainly add to the experience of beer were they to be more widely used in the on-trade. 
Phil Lowry, founder of the London Brewers’ Alliance and expert beer guy at global hop merchants BarthHaas, reckons beer has been losing out to cocktails, which have been building market share through delivering a rich on-trade experience that successfully commands a premium in the marketplace.

This encompasses not only the delivery of the product, which may involve many steps of preparation, but also in the rise of high-concept, richly furnished cocktail bars and hidden speakeasys that have sprung up. The likes of Mr Fogg’s, The Cocktail Club and, at the more affordable end, Simmons Bars, have stolen a march on the beer world through the delivery of a much better overall experience.
This is such a shame, because reminiscing with Lowry, we recalled the heady days of the craft beer boom around a decade ago. Brewing had become cool and product launches were truly exciting events. Suddenly, chunky premium pricing was attached to beer and it was no longer the cheaper cousin of wine and spirits.

Dedicated beer festivals followed, which all helped nurture communities that supported these new craft breweries. There was real excitement in the sector, and craft beer bars and hybrid bottle shops became a feature in the hospitality industry.
Many of these businesses have sadly struggled and buckled under the reality of the harsh economics of small-scale operations. The wind has also been taken out of craft beer sales by the product becoming all too accessible. The likes of BrewDog, Camden Town and Beavertown are not only becoming ubiquitous in every supermarket across the country, but also in the on-trade, which has contributed to something of a commoditisation of the category.
One part of the beer market that continues to prosper is the taproom. These typically sit alongside the craft breweries, and in many cases, represent the bulk of the business’ sales. Not only are drinkers at these establishments tapping into localism, but they are also being immersed in the experience. Taprooms are dedicated to delivering the optimum product, served by knowledgeable servers, within unique surroundings. 
If this sense of experience could be imbued across the craft beer category generally, then there would be a chance of returning to the previously exciting times that Lowry and I, along with many other beer drinkers, very much miss. Sadly, parts of the industry are maybe more interested in shaving seconds off serving times in the drive to greater efficiency to the detriment of the experience. That was a memo Guinness clearly chose to ignore, and maybe others should take note.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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