Packing a Punch

There are 5,000 Punch Tavern pubs in the UK, leased and tenanted by self-employed landlords. Each licensee is responsible for running the operation and, like any small- or medium-sized business owner, is confronted with making daily decisions on everything from generating cash flow to attracting new customers.

From time to time, key decisions affecting the back-end of the business will also need to be made, including the kitchen facilities and food menu. When this happens, and a new piece of equipment is needed or some expert advice is required, it is invariably Chris Webb and his colleagues that get a call. Webb is a member of Punch Taverns’ Catering Development Executive team, which, in short, is tasked with helping licensees make their venture a success.

“Our job is to basically help partners grow their business and drive food sales,” he explains. “And part of that is enabling them to have the correct kitchen kit to deliver the food offering that they want to deliver.”

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Punch Taverns doesn’t buy in equipment on a wholesale basis and ship it out to pubs, however. That role is left to catering equipment provider RH Hall, its preferred fulfilment partner for the past four-and-a-half years. But what it does do is negotiate deals and special offers directly with manufacturers that are then passed onto its licensees.

While each licensee is responsible for the maintenance of the equipment once it arrives onsite, they can rest assured that Webb and his team will have done everything in their power to ensure the initial transactional cost is as attractive as possible.

“Because of the amount of pubs we have got, we use our size to negotiate really good deals with brand owners and then RH Hall delivers everything for us. For example, our partners now get 60% discount off a Panasonic NE 1856 microwave. They would never ever get anything like that [buying individually],” says Webb.

The job isn’t simply about haggling over list price, though. Punch — which last year announced a strategic restructure that involved the demerger of its managed pub arm Spirit Group — also negotiates warranty terms and other support programmes that will benefit partners investing in new equipment. The deals and product offerings it agrees on are then published in a quarterly and annual directory that is sent out to all the pubs.

With the exception of those pubs that have developed a comprehensive gastro offering, many licensed Punch establishments still fit into the classic wet-led mould and therefore typically require nothing more than individual items of kit, such as tabletop fryers or four-plate electric burners, rather than fully-fitted industrial strength kitchens.

There are also several hundred pubs around the country that don’t currently have working kitchens, which is something that Webb and his team are determined to change.

He says that getting some form of catering equipment into these venues is a “big priority” this year. “I have currently got about 130 closed kitchens on my territory [Midlands and Yorkshire] at the moment, so there is quite a lot to go for and I am looking to reduce that by 30 this year. There is a five-year plan to get them all up and running,” reveals Webb.

With around 100 sites in the south of the country identified as being in the same predicament, as many as 250 licensed pubs will have facilities to offer their customers a food choice by 2017 if Punch has its way.

The group has conceived four off-the-shelf ‘kitchen in a box’ packages for partners that do not currently earn any income from food but have space within their premises to do so. The most basic package costs around £1,000 and consists of a small tabletop fryer, undercounter freezer, commercial microwave and griddle, with the price rising to £4,500 for the most comprehensive suite.

If every pub the company is targeting went for the most expensive option, it would equate to more than £1.1m being invested in new catering kit.

Punch’s team of Catering Development Executives will also advise landlords on the type of equipment they should consider installing based on the food menu they intend to introduce. While, in most instances, the equipment will be of the plug-and-play electric variety, Punch will help arrange the appointment of a catering company to oversee the project if more extensive measuring and design work is required.

“If it was going to be a kitchen suite then we would get involved in making sure it is right for the pub but we would let the catering company do it,” explains Webb.

When it comes to sourcing and recommending equipment that is suitable for partners throughout the year, Webb insists the most important factor is the level of service offered by the supplier — and, of course, that the kit is fit for purpose.

“It is not hard to find cheap kit — it is hard to find cheap kit that does a job,” he says. “The last thing we want is another headache for partners because they have enough on as it is, so it is about how quickly the [suppliers] will react if there is a problem.” [[page-break]]

A strong element of the role centres on advising and guiding pubs to ensure they spend enough on equipment to get the job done but not too much that it becomes an extravagance.

“Because of these hard times, a lot of pubs may well want to go and buy a domestic microwave for £100 and say, ‘well, that will do’. Whereas our job will be to say, ‘yes, it will, but it will probably break down in three weeks and then you’ll spend another £100. So, in three months, you’ll actually have spent what it costs you to get a commercial-grade one.’ And that is kind of where we go — we are not there to spend their money, but we are there to make them spend it wisely.”

Compliance with gas regulations is driving many of the purchasing decisions being made by the licensees at the moment, says Webb. “Having to put gas interlocks with new gas appliances is edging a lot of our partners to think about electric kit,” he explains.

“There is such a lot of old canopies out there that if they want to put new gas things in, they can’t. Again, it is about the level of what it is delivering back to you. If you’re only looking at [weekly food sales] in the hundreds of pounds, do you really want to be spending £6,000 or £7,000 on a canopy to bring you up to legislation when there is nothing wrong with your extract except that it hasn’t got gas interlock and things on it? You can put electric kit in and deliver it quite happily”.

With so many independent landlords to deal with, all of whom want different things for their businesses, Punch Taverns’ catering advisory team has its plate full as far as licensees’ food service needs are concerned.

Clicking for kit

If a Punch Tavern licensee wants to order new catering equipment they would generally have to do it over the phone or by email. But at some stage in the future they will be given the option to purchase online through the Punch Buying Club, a web resource that is currently used to process and facilitate beverage procurement.

“It is a reasonably new thing that we have got and it is proving very beneficial for the wet side of the business — the beer and the drinks. I think the next step is to integrate the equipment and the food onto that, but it is just making sure that it can all work properly due to the complexity of it,” says Chris Webb, catering development executive at Punch Taverns.

Webb insists it is too early to predict when such a tool might be available for the equipment side of things, but he believes it will be well worth the wait when it does eventually happen. For a start, it will provide a dedicated place that landlords can visit whenever they want to look at options for new kitchen kit.

“It just means that everything will be in one place for the licensee, which will save them time searching the internet because we try and get the best prices we can and beat the open market,” comments Webb.

“It also means more of them will have an awareness of what’s available because it is really only the ones who read the [directory] publications and who are aware of us that get the benefit at the moment,” he concludes.

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