Since the smoking ban, food has become so much more important to the licensed trade – but with M&S doing a meal for two, plus wine for a tenner, and other supermarkets following suit, how can the restaurateur or publican compete? Susan Young reports.
Food-led pubs and restaurateurs are in a conundrum – how do you keep your margins and still offer value for money and quality? With food inflation running as high as 20% on some items, it’s never been more important to get your menu and offering right. Especially since, in the short term anyway, prices are only going to go one way, although some people feel that prices will level out by the end of the year. But the rising price of food has emphasised an area that could be improved, and that is relationships with suppliers.
Restaurateurs and chefs are a step ahead when it comes to having a relationship with their food suppliers, while licensees appear to have better relationships with their drink suppliers rather than their food suppliers. When it comes to food licensees tend to deal with suppliers on a ‘needs must’ basis, and often they leave all the decisions to the chef. This is often the easiest route, but not necessarily the way forward when it comes to keeping your bottom line healthy.
Keeping abreast of trends, embracing seasonability, and keeping your menu tight, can make all the difference. And Chefs are not always known for keeping their eye on the bottom line. Their job is to produce good food that sells well and hopefully has a 70% + GP.
Certainly chefs definitely have their work cut out, but one thing seems to be the saving grace, and that is provenance. Every chef worth their salt is looking for fresh ideas, and local produce seems to be the answer. Despite these recessionary times it seems that customers want to eat locally sourced produce, they want to support their local economies and they are prepared to pay a bit more. And that can only be a good thing. Customers are not looking for cheap food they are looking for value for money and that is a completely different thing.
People get passionate about provenance – that feel good factor about knowing exactly where the meat, fish and vegetables come from that end up on your dinner plate.
Ronnie Clydesdale, who passed away last year, was one of the first chefs to recognise this, and he built up his restaurant The Ubiquitous Chip through this very practice – he put Scotland on a plate, and his restaurant was renowned the world over. Thirty years on his legacy is that chefs around the country are following suit.
Sandy Fraser of the Oak Tree Inn, which boasts its own market garden at Balmaha comments, “Many more customers are curious about where the food on their plate is coming from, many more will travel for quality, and we have worked hard in the last few years to set the bar high. I’m not suggesting for one minute that we are supplying all the food needed for the Oak Tree, but it’s a significant share, and growing. There is now a huge awareness of provenance, and especially in these hard times. Customers are coming out less, so when they do venture out they’re demanding more choice and quality. I don’t want to be one of the casualties of this, and so far so good, as my turnover is already up on last year.”
In fact, when you look at restaurant reviews from critics and from others using websites such as Urban Spoon and Tripadvisor, the number of people who write positively about restaurants and pubs that use locally sourced food, is growing. Provenance is becoming a by-word for ‘quality’ and it is a global trend.
Research undertaken by Scottish Enterprise indicates that visitors prefer to buy food and drink with local provenance. They want to know where, when, how and by whom it was produced. Research also shows that it can affect your bottom line positively if you buy local. On average, customers could spend nearly £1 more on food and drink at your business if authentic local and Scottish produce is offered. This could add up to an increase of an average 20% more per year.
Most good chefs know this, but sometimes in an effort to maximise their food GP, some resort to using imported goods because they presume that buying local costs more. That may be the case, however that also comes down to effective negotiating with food suppliers. And although it may cost more, you can also charge more. In fact a survey carried out by the University of Reading revealed that consumers were prepared to pay a premium for locally produced food over imports. Its sample of 222 people were asked for their views on topics such as origin, organics, price, freshness, food miles and support for local businesses. Principal investigator Professor Bruce Traill says, “Consumers think of local food as being produced and sold within a 30-50 mile radius.”
Provenance is the general term, but another familiar term used in conjunction, which is familiar to restaurateurs and chefs is ‘food miles’, it’s not a term I’ve ever heard a publican mention. This is the distance from where the food is produced to the plate. And obviously from the research, consumers are conscious of food miles. Green issues are becoming more important and the licensed trade can do their own bit for the planet by buying from local suppliers.
George Dickson of Reids Food Services comments, “People are certainly looking for and expecting to see products that have been locally-sourced. For instance we are the main supplier of the Lockerbie range of butter and cheeses and there has been a sharp increase in orders for this product. I think that a good supplier has to react to market conditions, especially nowadays when licensees are being squeezed. We are a low cost operation and this is reflected in our pricing structure.”
If you look at the websites of well-known restaurants and speak to chefs they are more than happy to talk about the suppliers and the quality of the produce that is supplied. The same names often come up again and again… Simon Howie, Rodgers and Campbell’s Prime Meat, fish and seafood from companies such as MacCallums, and the Fish People as well as Andy Race in Mallaig and many others, while Mark Murphy is renowned for the quality of his fruit and veg. There are also a host of other good butchers, seafood suppliers and fruit and veg suppliers around the country, who can offer a service that you just don’t get from the local cash and carry. There are plenty of other local suppliers who specialise in everything from berries to potatoes and forming a relationship with local suppliers, if you don’t already have one, should be priority.
Alastair Roy, a former buyer for Apex Hotels and prior to that Stakis comments, “If you build up a good rapport with your suppliers they will share information on what is coming in at a good price, and you can also arrange to buy, for instance, fruit and veg that is less than perfect, for soup and some other dishes. A good relationship means that you get in first.”
Chefs generally agree. Said one, “I firmly believe that chefs should listen to their suppliers. Advice on certain cuts of meat, curing times, game seasons and pricing are all part of our regular conversations.”
Malcolm Binnie of Townhouse Restaurants comments, “Customers are looking for a value offering, but that doesn’t mean that the product should be compromised. We source food locally and buy Scottish meat as much as we can and shift high volumes of it, although we utilise cheaper cuts as well. We work closely with our suppliers and this is important for both pricing and staying on top of emerging trends.”
When you are watching your costs one of the key things to do is consider seasonality when preparing menus. Says Alastair Roy, “Seasonality is also important. You always pay more for items that are not in season. And if they are imported you are obviously paying for the food miles. For instance if you have asparagus on the menu at Christmas – you are obviously paying a premium because it is out of season.”
Advice from ‘Experience Scotland’ is the same. It suggests, “Think seasonal – take advantage of the changing larder to drive margin and variety, eg. Spring greens, summer fruits, autumn harvest and winter roots.”
However Alastair also suggests fixing prices. He says, “The price of food is driven by the market, but for instance you could fix your meat prices for three months with your butcher. He will also advise of different cuts of meat, which could be more cost effective. That’s why lamb shanks came back on the menu. They went from being popular with dog owners to being fashionable again because butchers suggested that their clients re-examined it.”
He continues, “Using imported meat may be cheaper, but if you want to project your green credentials, and make a name for yourself, it is better to use Scottish lamb and beef. And by using different cuts, not only can you maximise your GP, you can also introduce customers to new cuts, for instance you are now seeing ‘skirt of beef’ on menus now.”
Some restaurateurs have gone a step further than just provenance they are also looking to be ‘sustainable’. And the number one restaurant for sustainability in the UK, according to fish2fork, is The Captain’s Galley at Scrabster. The Galley’s ethical policy, part of its overall environmental policy, determines that whenever possible all the produce is sourced within a 50-mile radius of the restaurant. All the seafood must be in season, and a non-pressure stock species, caught in sea areas of Scotland where the stocks are sustainable. The restaurant says, “This policy is primarily to serve food of the highest quality that is fresh, in season and local. Our menu changes every day after we have studied what is the freshest and best quality available, either direct from boats or on the fish market.”
Fish2fork says of owner Jim Cowie, “He is widely recognised as one of the top experts on sustainable seafood with a number of Michelin-starred chefs coming to him for advice.
The Am Birlinn on Mull is also well thought of as is Ondine in Edinburgh, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles and the Seafood Restaurant at St Monan’s and St Andrews, and Glasgow’s Gamba. In fact since Derek Marshall became chef/proprietor, Gamba has become the first Glasgow restaurant to join the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
He told DRAM, “The Gamba menu is based around sustainability, so in a way we are throwing this in the customer’s face and educating them. We have Icelandic cod because Iceland is more sustainable than Barra, for instance, and hand-dived scallops over trawled. The more environmentally aware the customer the more interest they have in ethics and where the food is coming from, but the majority of customers aren’t really that curious about where the fish is caught.”
Says Alastair, “Everyone is becoming more aware of green issues, whether that is food miles or sustainability or carbon reductions. One way licensees could embrace this would be to organise composite deliveries from their suppliers. The fewer vehicles that deliver the better. This is ideal for publicans because it would mean fewer interruptions. Suppliers could be persuaded to link up. There is no reason why the people delivering, as long as they have refrigerated lorries, couldn’t be supplying your butcher meat, dry goods, spirits and chemicals. Obviously, the more people asking their suppliers to partner up, the more chance that they will do it. Again it’s all back to having a good relationship with suppliers.”
Jim Rowan of Dunns Food and Drinks agrees. In fact not only does DF&D supply spirits and soft drinks, but through its sister company Duncans, it also supplies a range of dry goods, frozen and chilled foods, and is set to launch a range of some 300 new products ranging from black pudding to cheese. He says, “Our new ‘Best of’ range, which offers the best products on offer in Scotland, is designed to give chefs a greater choice. Our new range comes from Scottish-based companies, who are local to specific areas. We have the distribution to give them a wider audience, and as more and more customers like the feeling of keeping it local, and keeping and spending their money in the local economy, it’s a service which we feel will help restaurateurs and chefs keep their menus interesting.”
He continues, “Special boards are making a comeback and our customers can now put, for example, the 2011 World Champion Steak Pie – a Gold Medal winning Steak Pie from Ft William, on their menus.”
He advises chefs, “Don’t sacrifice quality. Good plate coverage, quality products and good service are all seen to add value. Poor quality masquerading as value doesn’t work long term. You want customers to come back and come back again. They will do this if they feel that they have had a quality experience.”
Alastair concludes, “It’s important not to compromise on quality when trying to maintain costs. There are simple, effective ways to maximise cost savings – cut the size of your menu; if you regularly change the menu apply a ‘just in time’ strategy for buying; if you want to keep you menu in situ for three months or more, fix your prices with suppliers – this allows you to know what your GP is. Work with your suppliers, use their knowledge.”
(Legislation which came into practice in August means that restaurants and hotels will no longer be supplied live dived scallops, now they will all have to be shucked prior to sale.)