Raising the bar

The trend towards less formal dining presents exciting opportunities for pubs, writes PETER BACKMAN

The food offer across Britain’s pubs has improved dramatically over the past few years, as pubs have gone head-to-head with high street restaurants. Customers have responded positively, giving pub operators a strong and faithful customer base able to stomach a price increase that more accurately reflects the operators’ overheads.

The average price of three courses in a restaurant has dropped 4.6% year- on-year, from £21.65 to £20.66, while the average price of three courses in a pub has risen 7.4% from £17.38 to £18.67 during the same period. This is the fourth consecutive period of price increases in pub menus, which indicates the sector’s ongoing confidence in the eating out market and their customers’ ability to accept price rises.

What’s new and changing

  • BURGER BUNS: Burger buns are no longer just seeded – brioche is up 143% year-on-year.
  • GLUTEN-FREE: 23% of eating out brands now include gluten-free options on menus.
  • HOT DOGS: Hot dogs have become a menu staple – up 19% year-on-year.
  • PULLED MEATS: Pulled meats have grown 105% year-on-year, with pork the most popular.
  • MAC ’N’ CHEESE: Mac ’n’ cheese dishes have grown 52% year-on-year.
  • LOBSTER: Lobster dishes are up 11% year-on-year.

Year-on-year, the average price of a starter in a pub has risen 2.7% to £4.93, up from £4.80. An average main course dish in a pub now costs £9.39, up 10.7% from £8.48 a year ago.

Desserts saw a similar price rise in pubs over the past 12 months, with a hike of 6.1%: in winter 2012, the average price of a dessert in a pub was £4.10, rising to £4.35 a year later.

Restaurants, on the other hand, have now shown two consecutive periods of price decreases, with pricing back to winter 2011 levels. Across the board, they reduced the cost of their starters over the same period, the price dropping by 9.2% from £5.68 to £5.16. An average main course in a restaurant now costs £10.95, down 3% from £11.29, while des- sert prices have fallen 2.8% from £4.68 to £4.55.

This upward pricing trend illustrates how well the pub market – in particular, managed pubs – are performing. From Horizons’ consumer research, we already know that people are opting for less formal dining. Pubs also have the advantage of being local, they have car parks and often gardens, they are usually happy to cater for families of all ages without worrying how about how they behave and they are happy for people to order what they want, when they want it.

These factors – and the fact that their prices tend to be cheaper than restaurants’ while service and food quality have improved – mean that customers are returning to pubs in their droves.

Flexibility

Today’s customer likes flexibility, which explains why we’ve seen the continuing rise of sharing platters, desserts to share, small portion sizes, bite-sized starters and wine by the glass – important trends that savvy pub operators have picked up on by evolving their menus to incorporate these new approaches to eating.

Not only that, but pub opening hours have expanded to include breakfast, afternoon tea, and early or late dinner. Some are offering takeaway food; others are turning into shops, cafés and meeting places. All this is helping them become the new buzzword in eating out.

box_quote_right]The cost of the average main course dish in a pub is now £9.39. This is up 10.7% from £8.48 a year ago[/box_quote_right]

Pub restaurants are the type of establishment visited by most respondents. In our research, some 22% of those who had eaten out in the previous two weeks said they had eaten in pub restaurants – an increase of 2% year-on-year and a 4% increase since July 2013.

And maybe in addition to their flexible approach, they also offer the sort of home-from-home British dishes that customers are looking for. The most frequently listed dishes on pub menus are surprisingly traditional: beefburgers top the bill (average price: £8.98), with fish & chips second (£9.01), chicken burgers third (£7.89), rump steak fourth (£10.35) and sausage & mash fifth (£7.73).

Sunday lunch (average price: £7.72) appears on pub menus far more frequently than on restaurant menus – in particular, roast pork, roast beef and roast chicken – while the top 20 main course dishes in pubs include other traditional British mainstays: beef & ale pie, pork ribs, mixed grill, and sirloin or rib-eye steak.

Trends across all sectors reveal how these menu mainstays remain ever-popular, particularly meat-based dishes. Beef- burgers are still the top main course dish across all outlets, and despite a small drop since summer 2013, their appearance on menus is up 6% year-on-year. Hot dogs have become a menu staple and are still growing strongly – up 14% since last summer and 19% year-on-year.

Raising the steaks

Premium cuts of steak are a growth area, with rib-eye and sirloin increasing, while rump steak showed a decline. Over all sectors, traditional roasts appear to be having a revival, with roast chicken and roast beef making their first appearance in the top 20 most often listed dishes.

A distinctive 23% of eating out brands now include gluten-free options on menus, an increase of 4% since last summer and 37% year-on-year. This backs up our YouGov consumer survey that revealed that 41% of the 2,058 adults surveyed said their choice of eating-out venue was influenced by one of several factors, including the availability of vegetarian options (15%), calorie information (14%), reduced fat choices (9%) and the availability of low-carb dishes (4%).

[pull_quote_right]Pub opening hours have expanded to include breakfast, afternoon tea, and early or late dinner – helping them become the new buzzword in eating out[/pull_quote_right]

An impressive 56% of respondents said that knowing the origin and provenance of main ingredients was important to them.

Like many of our surveys, these results remind us that consumer needs are changing and that operators and suppliers need to be one step ahead of these trends to survive.

Our pub and restaurant diners are becoming ever-more demanding, but it seems they are still a little bit traditional, too.

The operators that can cater and adapt to these changes will be the ones that continue to get the customers through the door.

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Peter Backman is the managing director of Horizons, the analyst and specialist information consultant for the foodservice and hospitality sector.

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