Where would the UK be without pubs? They have been the backbone of communities for decades and provide a warm, friendly environment where customers meet friends, chat, sample the beers and socialise in a very laid-back environment. They come in so many shapes and sizes, too, from traditional quirky village inns to modern chains in the centre of town. And that's the charm of pub culture: the sheer variety and enormous authenticity.
Food has long been a staple of the British pub, with most serving snacks and many offering a range of hot food in dedicated restaurant areas. That brings something of a challenge to publicans, as thanks to the population's huge appetite for food-oriented media a generation of armchair chefs with very discerning palettes has resulted, despite the pub restaurant's informal approach.
Balancing low-key traditions with restaurant-level standards of expectation is an ongoing challenge and in this blog we look at some key areas and provide a number of top tips.
A hospitality mindset. All too often pubs recruit on the basis of “can you pull a pint?” and attaining the lowest labour cost. Both are important, but what's often missed is the new staff member's inherent ability to align with the concept of hospitality. What do me mean but that? Simple, really: what sets fantastic pub staff apart from any other is their ability to be hospitable.
Friendly but professional. In an informal business setting like a pub, rather than, say, the more formal restaurant environment, there can be a tendency for owners and staff to think that being friendly is what it's all about. Of course that's true, but diners -when it comes down to it – still want to see professionalism when it matters. There's a fine line to be struck here, but certainly friendly but shambolic service won't be remembered fondly by pub customers.
Attentive Vs overbearing. Diners want to feel relaxed when they eat in a pub, but also that the business owners or managers really do care. Foodies are a fickle breed: they want to be left alone to enjoy their meal without intrusive interruptions, but they also want to be attended to without having to ask. Staff should observe from a distance the key non-verbal signs for customers wanting drinks re-fills, plates clearing, wanting to order extra courses or the bill – all without passing by the table every two minutes with a cheery “is everything alright with your meal?”.
Accuracy. This is all about getting the basics right every time. Sure, that's a lofty ambition and errors will always occur, but pubs will very quickly garner a poor external reputation if customers constantly report incorrect orders or bills.
Do what they say. It is the little things which annoy discerning diners, however informal the setting. Many a diner has been left to ponder what's happening with their order, query or bill before wondering if the waiter has forgotten about them. That puts an unfair onus on the customer to take the initiative in the face of unknown circumstances.
Good quality. Ultimately a pub's food offer has to live up to its reputation, so that customers know beforehand the standard of food they can expect. There's room for everyone here, because pubs come in so many shapes and sizes – some with a food focus, some without. What's important is for pub owners to deliver the expected or better.
So if the board outside claims fresh, home-cooked food aligned with the locality, customers will be very disappointed if what they actually receive is clearly no different to what they can buy in their local supermarket and re-heat at home.
What’s on the menu? There are two types of menu: the physical one and the real one. Hopefully both are accurate in terms of the availability of dishes at any one time, but sometimes there will be a disconnect between what's stated as available and what is actually available. That's fine, because inventories are impacted by demand occasionally pubs simply run out.
However, consistently being without a particular dish, such that regular customers begin to notice suggests mismanagement in the kitchen or simply laziness when it comes to printing menus. What's needed in these circumstances is an open and transparent approach by staff when taking orders, requiring them to know what's available and what's not. No customer wants to try their hand at ordering two, three or four times due to their choices being absent.
The physical menu - Make clear what's included. Here's a simple and obvious tip: list what is included in an overall menu item, so customers can make an informed choice. Whether it comes with salad, chips or a red currant jus, say so.
Show allergens. According to the UK's Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, around 2 million people in the country are living with a diagnosed food allergy, so it is essential that menus clearly list potential trigger ingredients, and systems are in place back of house, if in-restaurant medical complications are to be avoided.
Quality and provenance. Not every dish or ingredient in a pub restaurant has to be Michelin-star standard, but diners do have their thresholds below which they are unwilling to drop. Naturally the price of a dish is dictated in part by the cost of its ingredients, but there is increasing evidence to suggest that customers are willing to pay more for good quality, rather than less for terrible quality. There really is no excuse for pubs to serve, say, the lowest quality sausages (those that appear to be made of sawdust) when a moderate improvement in quality can be achieved at relatively low cost.
Diversity. Menu planning is a fine art and a tricky path to tread, due to customers' broad range of preferences. Sometimes it is preferable for publicans to offer a smaller range of options in the spirit of “it is what it is”, thus side-lining the choice issue altogether. It is a very effective strategy, as long as the comments about quality are observed. However, too many pubs fall into the trap of alienating customers by the repetitive use of key ingredients, making the menu very limited in appeal for those who don't for example want cheese or chocolate in every item or are intolerant of other foods.
The physical menu. We won't dwell on this, but the physical menu really can't be a battered photocopy, threadbare book or fingerprint and food-stained folder. The physical menu represents the business: it is a first impression what's to come and customers want to feel they are the first and only people to interact with it.
In the current Covid age, non-contact menus are a safer bet and chalkboards dovetail well with a pub's traditional, informal appeal. Going a step further, pubs which embrace modern technology and offer online pre-ordering and order-at-table apps are winning new customers to the detriment of less tech-savvy pubs.
Remember the basics. Much of this has been covered above, but it is essential for pub restaurants to keep an eye on the basics. There's simply no point in, say, offering extravagant presentation if other areas of service ruin the diners' experiences. Customers really don't want to hear “we haven't got any lemons” after they have ordered a pre-meal Long Island Iced Tea.
Clean up. One famous boss of a huge airline once said that his experience of being onboard any aircraft is made or broken by the cleanliness of the tray-table. If it is clean, he feels like the first person ever to use that seat; conversely, a tray spattered with coffee stains just reminds him of the thousands of people who have used the seat before him.
There are clear parallels here with pub restaurants and, coming back to the basics, customers want to feel like they are the first and only diners to sit at a table. Crumbs, stains and dried food on a purportedly free table ruin fill the diner with fears for what's to come and do nothing to enhance the feeling of being special to the business.
Be delicate. Pubs offer a fantastic way for customers to enjoy great food in an informal environment, be it in a dedicated dining room or just at the bar. That informal atmosphere should not be used as an excuse for indelicate place settings, however, because cutlery wrapped in a paper napkin and dumped on the table does little to enhance the dining experience. Silver service has no place in a pub, but nor does clumsy service.
Customers may have a wide range of dining habits and food-related interests, so while they will enjoy the informal service in a pub restaurant, business owners should remember that those customers will be impressed by what are clearly high levels of hospitality skills. It is the little things which will be noticed and appreciated by discerning customers, cementing in their minds the pub's level of pedigree, experience and specialist knowledge within the industry. Again, we're not suggesting overbearing formality here, but small displays of expertise which hint at hard-won experience will be noted by the astute. Practising the restaurant-standard of clearing plates from the right of the diner and serving on their left is a great example.
Condiments. Did we mention attention to detail? The above comments about the state of the physical menu and table cleanliness apply in the same way to condiments. Salts and pepper shakers must be full and not look like someone else just finished with them.
Clear attentively. A superb pub meal will be seriously tainted if the diners are left with mounds of dirty crockery between courses. There is a fine balance to be struck here between not clearing the moment the last forkful is swallowed and leaving customers to wallow in dishes. Attentiveness is again the key.
Payment. Coffees have been served, napkins downed and it's the end of a wonderful meal. Conversation among the diners turns to paying, at which point they realise they have no idea of the pub's procedures and are left awkwardly wondering. By contrast, customers who have the bill presented to them the moment they finish their coffees are likely to feel unwanted.
Many pubs have the solution down to a well oiled machine – a bit of breathing space, followed by a gentle approach accompanied by a verbal quality check and a “that's great to hear. Let me know when you'd like the bill. How would you like to pay?” whereupon a conversation about options can be had without embarrassment.
Make some noise. It is so easy for pub owners and their staff to become used to the ambience of their property that sometimes they don't realise when it needs some positive attention. Usually a busy restaurant creates its own ambient sounds of chatter, plates and crockery and of course background music. When the restaurant has few customers, it is important that restaurateurs are aware of the effect this has on their diners' experiences. An environment in which diners can hear a pin drop is really no fun at all. Turn up the music.
Red lines. Pubs sit at a unique crossroads between the informal, community-based business and conventional hospitality outlet. That can cause something of a friction point when it comes to just how publicans should treat their customers: friends or patrons?
The answer is simple: they are always customers. For that reason, pub owners should have a number of red lines irrespective of how informal their relationship with diners, no matter the level of “pub banter”. The number one rule to follow is that when the customer is seated, the publican is not. The pub restaurant host who cooks and serves a meal, then triumphantly sits down – uninvited – at the same customers' table and picks up the bar banter from where it left off?
WIFI. It absolutely goes without saying that a great Wi-Fi network is essential. Poor Wi-Fi is as unacceptable these days as dirty glasses or undercooked food.
Customers want a joined-up technology experience, and the days of different software systems not talking to each other are long gone. For pubs, this means seamless connectivity between the and EPOS, and the ability to charge meals to guest rooms if the property has accommodation.
Pay at table. With a decent wi-fi network, pubs are able to offer a number of innovations now expected by customers, such as pay-at-table using a smartphone.
Order at table. The same technology provides a fantastic way for customers to make their menu choices and place their orders from their tables, with the order sent seamlessly to the restaurant management system.
Online booking. According to statista.com, 45 percent of restaurant diners prefer to make table bookings online. That's a huge shift and one which publicans should not ignore – without online booking buttons on their pub websites, they're missing out enormously.
favouritetable is the leading technology provider for food an drink businesses in the UK. For over a decade, favouritetable has provided world-class, easy-to-use and commission-free systems to enable pubs to maximise their revenue.
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