While pub patrons want spicy foods, decadent burgers and more craft beers, they also want healthier options and improved decor — making navigating and meeting expectations critical for operators. “Customers in all avenues and in all areas in pubs and restaurants want a better experience overall,” says Shaun O’Hearn, owner of Rockbottom Brew Pub and Your Father’s Moustache in Halifax, N.S. and a 20-year veteran of the pub business. “If you don’t sit down and talk about what people are looking for in a pub, you are going to miss something important.”
As narrowly as they can slice the pub-sports-bar sector, statistics from Chicogo-based Technomic show that among sports-bar chains, sales in 2015 were up 1.8 per cent (to $309 million) over 2014, but that’s compared to 3.7 per cent for competitors in the casual-dining sector as a whole. The word pub — originally “public house” — is a differentiator: a concept dating back to the 17th century when it denoted a business offering not just liquor, but food and lodging. Today, the demands on a pub aren’t quite as deep, but they are wide.
NEW SOCIAL CONDITIONS AND NEW IDENTITY
Far-reaching social initiatives are one reason pubs were forced to adjust recently, says Larry Isaacs, Marketing director for the Firkin Group of Pubs, a company with 27 franchised and corporate outlets in the Greater Toronto Area. Municipal smoking prohibitions and tougher drinking-and-driving laws have forced the industry to assume what Isaacs calls “a new identity.” These have had an impact on how pubs operate and how they market themselves in order to reach a broader and more diverse demographic, says Isaacs. “The pub has taken on a new format,” Isaacs says. Firkin describes itself as a “new breed” of British pubs. “It’s not as it was in the old days. The way people utilize pubs has changed,” he says. And the change will continue.
The numbers support the claim when it comes to food and drink: once upon a time, they shook out to a 65:35 ratio of liquor to food, according to Issacs. Today, he notes in many Firkin locations sales are more than 55 per cent food-driven. In terms of the original pub iteration, the figures represent a movement from a beverage place to a destination for a meal, adds O’Hearn. “When we first started out with Moustache, about 70 per cent of our sales were beer and liquor and 30 per cent were food. Now, those numbers have completely flipped to 70 per cent food.”
FOOD COMPETITION: PUB GRUB BUT MORE
As a result, the food element at pubs has shifted, too. “Pubs are making sure to cater to those guests who may want a lighter meal,” says Aaron Jourden, managing editor at Technomic. “There’s demand for healthier options at all types of restaurants. Some of the ways pubs are meeting this demand is by offering choices such as vegetarian items, salads and sandwiches that promise big flavour without a lot of guilt.”
It’s further complicated by an increasingly busy — and competitive — food landscape. A few years ago, Firkin embarked on a research initiative to understand where the market was going in light of food-and-beverage competition, even from coffee shops and retail food outlets. “You’ve got Longo’s and Loblaw’s offering full meals,” Isaacs says. “Hot-dog carts are now serving chicken and sandwiches.” In addition, many restaurants in Ontario will have an added complication of disclosing calorie information on menus beginning in 2017.
Jourden says one way pubs have adapted when it comes to food is with an indulgent classic pub category: burgers. They have been the focus of elevated bold flavours and decadent toppings, but not at the sacrifice of good ingredients, he says. “We are seeing over-the-top burger creations that really pile on the toppings, but operators are also paying more attention to the quality of everything, from the bun to the pickles to the sauces.” At the same time, patrons look for foods that eschew traditional pub grub, according to Isaacs. “They want a full meal with an appetizer and dessert too; they want diverse options. Not everybody wants nachos and wings,” he says, adding this has forced Firkin to increase its protein offerings and the way they are served as well. “That has required more product research, additional training in the kitchens and adjusting some of the kitchen equipment to accommodate some of these needs.”
In her six-year-old, 65-seat pub in Ottawa — The Hintonburg Public House — owner Summer Baird says it’s clear customers want casual, no reservations and simply better food in the pub setting. While the term may rankle some, “chef-driven” is an aspect of the new pub grub, she says.
“The food has changed,” says Baird who has cooked in Ottawa for 12 years. “There’s a lot of gastro-style pubs that have opened and that’s what we are. Local comfort food, but elevated.” At the relatively new Victoria’s Tavern in Regina, Sask., Greg Hooker has rejuvenated his pub food. “I wouldn’t call it an upscale menu,” says Hooker, who co-owns several pubs and taverns, “but it has more variety and more made-from-scratch. We’re geared to the downtown lunch crowd, but we keep our kitchen open until 2 a.m., too.” The menu picks up on a popular theme: about a dozen shareable selections, including what they call a meat-and-taco “plank.”
HIGH BEVERAGE EXPECTATIONS
The beverage side of the pub equation is equally important. The corollary of patrons drinking less is drinking “better,” as O’Hearn puts it. People are demanding better beer and better drinks. It’s a long way from the generic draft beer from a single tap of the olden days to today’s expectation of local and international craft-beer lists of several pages. “If you don’t keep up with those trends, then people will find pubs that have those varieties,” says O’Hearn.
Craft beer is certainly important. Technomic’s Jourden cites a correlation between smaller-batch brewing and better food. “We have seen a general rise in demand for higher-quality, more chef-driven foods at pubs and a lot of that can be attributed to the rise of craft beer. People tend to want the food to match the quality of the beer they are drinking.”
It’s not only beer. According to Isaacs, Firkin has added more craft beers but also new wines and ciders and has boosted its cocktail menus, drawing on the support of mixologists. O’Hearn at Rockbottom agrees cocktails in pubs have risen in popularity. “The older drinks are making a comeback with new twists and people are really into that now — when they aren’t drinking craft beer,” he says. For Baird at Hintonburg, “in-house” is the name of the game for both food and beverages. “Anything that goes into our cocktails, the mixes and other ingredients, are made from scratch.”
Fading, too, is the gloomy parlour-like decor traditionally associated with a “pub” in the classic sense. The new and broader demographic of pub patrons looks for contemporary design that is brighter, sleeker and “funky,” says Isaacs of the “new breed” Firkin. It’s part-and-parcel of an atmosphere of better wine selections, better food and an overall approach that is more welcoming to female guests. “The world has changed and the pub isn’t just a man’s world any longer. It’s a meeting place for everyone,” says Isaacs. In Regina, Hooker says they’ve purposely created a space that’s a “tight” fit for the 110-person capacity. “Our goal was to keep it intimate; there’s a better feel,” he says. While they are cozy, customers can choose from approximately 20 taps and several local craft-beer selections, including those of Rebellion Brewing of Regina.
All restaurants deal with fickle customers, but now there’s a discriminating and adventurous patron who is willing to explore — and move themselves and their dollars to another bar seat. “If you’re not keeping up with the times, you’re going to slowly lose customers. They’re not going to stay out of loyalty,” says O’Hearn, adding it’s an evolution that exceeds more than just being a trend. “The last 10 years, that has really been pouring on strongly.” It’s an increasingly competitive sector, too — and growing more so, notes Isaacs. “Western brands are moving east into Ontario and we’re competing against sectors that never used to be competitors.”
Like all restaurants, food and labour costs, electricity hikes and property taxes can be deleterious to pub growth, acknowledges Baird. “Costs overall have gone up. I don’t know if they threaten my business, but you can only raise prices so high. I have taken a bit of a hit in my personal pocket.” Hooker feels that pinch, too, explaining that Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA) laws add to costs when he tries to bring in unique brews from Oregon or San Diego. “The SLGA just marked up one keg to $300 and it was only a seven per cent IPA,” Hooker says.
In scanning the horizon, when O’Hearn travels from Halifax, he visits both independent pubs and chain venues as research — Earl’s, for instance, in the west and bar-restaurant outlets such as Moxie’s. “I’ll ask what’s hot, what’s selling on the menu right now?” A constant he sees is change. “We change our menus; we change the beers we brew,” he says. “Our brewmaster usually makes about three or four consistent beers that people can count on, but he is experimenting with different styles of beer that bring people in the door and gets them excited and trying different things.”
Volume 49, Number 9
Written by Andrew Coppolino