With significant increases to the price of fresh produce, publicans and their chefs are having to adapt their menus to soften the impact.

Prices are on the rise across the board, and pubs are far from immune to feeling the pinch, as materials, wages and produce costs climb.

The cost of a pub feed has been largely stable for a number of years, but recent inflationary, supply chain and interest-rate pressures have seen operators start to change menu prices, or in-house practices.

Striking the right balance

One such operator is Andrew Guthrie, who owns the Pinnacle Family Hotel and O’Sheas Hotel Mackay alongside his wife Karen Guthrie. Guthrie spoke about the situation facing his venues, and how they have altered their offerings to address these challenges, while maintaining a high-quality level of service.

“We’ve not changed the structure of how we’re making food, we’re still fresh and we’re still buying fresh, we’re still cooking fresh, even our desserts are fresh… The trouble is, you’ve got to put the prices up.”

Sam Bull (ex  Bondi Icebergs, North Bondi Fish, The Winery), recently appointed chef at the Cat & Fiddle Hotel in Balmain, also said he and his team have had to make changes.

“Obviously there’s been a lot of adaptations over the last two years,” Bull said.

“You need to write a menu that’s suitable for a small kitchen team, and that goes with the produce as well. Produce has gone up ridiculously, and it won’t come down now. It’s like petrol, gone up and it’s not going to come back down.”

The cost of petrol also affects the cost of shipping goods, in turn impacting the price of produce, and Guthrie stressed that there are hidden costs that might not be immediately visible to consumers.

“Every single thing we’ve done in the last couple of months has hit us fast and hard, a lot of us can’t comprehend it. Little things like our 20-litre cooking oil, that’s nearly tripled in price in the last 12 months.”

Bull gives another example of a time when he had to adjust offerings at his venue.

“Last year basil got to the point where you’re paying $8 a bunch, and you just can’t have that on your menu.

“The veggie suppliers, Sydney Direct, they’ll let you know what’s going up in price, and you’ll be smart and you’ll adjust your menu, find a replacement, or take it off.”

Bull said pub venues have increased prices, but have broadly tried to keep things fair for customers.

“Pricing has gone up over the last two years, but it hasn’t gone up dramatically,” the chef continued.

“We’re not trying to overcharge, and then also, we’re not undercharging either.”

At the Cat & Fiddle, there’s now Rita’s Bar and Restaurant which serves up-market meals, in addition to traditional pub counter meals on offer. Bull says this allows the venue to tailor its approach to customers who might be wanting different things, at different times.

“The same people who come in for a restaurant meal, will want to come in for a pub meal, so we spread it across the same menu across the whole venue.”

However, the traditional pub menu is trimmed back a little to ease the pressure on a small team.

“We have four counter meals: chicken schnitzel, fish and chips, lasagne that we make here, and steak and chips. We’re not offering: ‘Do you want chips, or mash, or sides?’ So that reduces the workload there, and then it’s a balance to write that menu to work and fit everything in,” Bull explained.

Chicken schnitzel at the Cat & Fiddle. Image credit: Kitti Gould.

Fragile food supply

The produce issues are felt all the more keenly by pubs in regional Australia, many of which are already contending with increased supply chain vulnerability and associated costs. The delicacy of food supply in Australia has been demonstrated recently with the collapse of Scott’s Refrigerated Logistics – a trucking firm which was thought to be holding as much as $500 million worth of frozen foods.

Tricky market conditions are particularly apparent with the potato and chip shortage that continues to impact the hospitality trade.

“Everybody wants to eat chips… I’ve noticed some pubs in Mackay have taken the large chips and gravy off the menu, your kid chips and gravy off the menu,” Guthrie noted.

In response, the owner of the Pinnacle Family Hotel says he’s made a few subtle and imaginative changes to help bring some costs down too. Guthrie gave the example of airlines removing olives from salads, making a saving millions of dollars cumulatively.

“We haven’t taken anything off as such… Nobody really eats beetroot in a salad, but you know, why don’t we get a fresh beetroot and grate it, just for colour on top. You’ve got to change your way of thinking.”

Bull says his team have also approached the challenges imaginatively.

“We look at using seasonal produce, [with] specials to really focus on that… and then, fish of the day – we’re looking for what’s on special at the moment, as we change with that as opposed to just sticking with one snapper or something like that.

“We make a silverbeet and spinach lasagne with ricotta, and then we have all these stalks left over, so we’re using that in a silverbeet stalk and potato gratin. We’re really looking at the whole product and we’re really making sure we do that.”

Guthrie addressed a recent media furore surrounding the cost of a chicken schnitzel at the Five Dock Bowling Club (as a result of which, the venue has changed its name to The Home Grounds).

“At the end of the day, as everyone knows, every single thing is going up and up,” Guthrie said.

“Most country pubs make everything fresh. The days are gone when you can buy a fresh chicken breast at $9.99 – they’re $14.99.”

Bull concurs, saying: “We charge $30 for our chicken schnitzel. We make our schnitzel here in-house, it’s got a parmesan-herb crumb, it’s 200 grams of meat, and we don’t get any complaints, at all. It’s actually one of our top sellers.”

For Guthrie, these cost increases are likely to spell the end of a traditional means of getting customers through the door – the loss-leader meal.

“I still notice a few pubs doing the loss-leader meal, like a 250 gram rump, chips and gravy, but I believe that they’ve got to disappear. Unless they’ve got 20 or 30 pokie machines – that’s gone. Five or six pokies aren’t going to cover that cost any more,” Guthrie explained.

Hold fast and keep the faith

Both Guthrie and Bull had final words of advice for pub operators and chefs trying to weather this latest in a series of storms for the hospitality industry. For Bull, a focus on quality is the key to securing repeat custom, even in difficult circumstances.

“I’m a big believer that pubs have a really good platform to be better than what they’re doing, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do the last couple of years,” Bull said.

“The thing is – you have a great neighbourhood, and Balmain is an excellent neighbourhood with some really good pubs in it, and really good people that love to dine out. The best way to deal with it is not discounting at all.

“You can get a discounted schnitzel, and it’s rubbery and not great – are you going back there?

“We used to do $15 meals at lunchtime… And we stopped doing that and we’re actually making more money than we were with it,” Bull reflects.

Guthrie concludes by similarly reflecting on the continued importance of pubs to their areas, urging owners and operators to remain steadfast in the face of difficulty.

“The pub is a local icon of any community. Just stay strong, stick to your guns, and don’t, whatever you do, let them close down.”

This piece was first published in the April issue of Australian Hotelier. You can view the issue below.

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