Savvy pub operators nationwide have discovered a simple formula that boosts the bottom line: Serve better food and sell more beer, wine and whiskey.
These days, made-from-scratch dishes are commonplace in pubs, and the bar has decidedly been raised when it comes to the talent in the back of the house.
At Nose Dive in Greenville, S.C., there are two full-time, former fine-dining chefs in the kitchen, where they turn out everything from a host of gluten-free items to Vietnamese-inspired fare.
“A lot of love goes into things that were traditionally taken for granted,” says chef Rodney Freidank. “We break things down from scratch and for us that is very important.
“Everything on our menu is like, ‘Oh man, I would like to eat that right now.’ ”
Freidank, who is the corporate chef for parent company Table 301, works alongside chef Joey Pearson at the “gastro pub,” which seats 110 and opened in February after another company venture took a sort of “nose dive” in the same location.
The menu features a variety of reasonably priced items, with the most expensive being the New England lobster roll, which uses Maine lobster and is served all day for $16.
“We are not making our own bread, but everything else is made from scratch, even our pickles,” Pearson says.
The duo say that as long as they keep selling plenty of beer and wine, they can afford to sell entrees such as duck confit for $15. “The cost of beer is lower than the cost of food these days,” Freidank says.
The pub, which also has an in-house pastry chef who makes all the desserts, including Krispy Kreme Doughnut Ice Cream, features four wines and 12 beers on tap, and about 50 bottled beers. Business has been brisk, and lunch and dinner covers grow each month.
Pam Parseghian, a food writer, chef and consultant, says consumers have higher expectations than they did a few years ago.
“A dried-out dull burger is not going to go over anymore,” she says. “When they go out to a pub, they are looking for something that is fresh, has great flavor and goes well with drinking.
“Even if they are watching their pennies, they want it to be special.”
According to Horizons, a United Kingdom research and consultancy firm, pubs account for roughly 3 percent of the U.S. foodservice market.
Paul Backman, who is services director for Horizons, says many of the British pub trends have migrated to the U.S.
“Gastro pubs are becoming increasingly attractive. A lot of pubs are moving from the pub sector to the restaurant sector because more than 50 percent of their profits come from food,” says Backman about outlets in the UK.
He says the quality of meat and produce has improved, portion sizes are smaller, more food is locally sourced, and many pubs are experimenting with breakfast.
“People on the whole are drinking less alcohol than they used to, so other things have had to compensate for that revenue in the pub sector,” he says.
In the United States, special events, catering and creative marketing are some of the ways pub owners are gaining traction with consumers.
Boundary Bay, located in Bellingham, Washington, and open since 1995, has become a real gathering place for locals.
At Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro in Bellingham, Washington, a robust website touts numerous events such as community food fairs and local competitions, as well as recipes and an innovative video series on its menu and beverages.
“Come shake what your mama gave you every Wednesday night in our Beer Garden as DJ Yogoman spins reggae at 8 p.m.” is a recent promo on the Boundary Bay website.
The menu mix includes interesting made-from-scratch dishes such as Yellow Curry, Lamb Burger, Tofu Sandwich, Pesto Salmon Sandwich, Galbi (beef short ribs) and Yam AleChiladas, which is a mixture of American yams, Cheddar and Jack cheese, caramelized onions and roasted garlic, wrapped in corn tortillas and topped with mole poblano sauce and is served with beans and rice for $9.99.
Boundary Bay brews its beers on site and many are rotated on a seasonal basis.
“We sell as much food as beer,” says Tammy Findlay, marketing manager for Boundary Bay. “A lot of people come to our pub just for the food. It is kind of a unique place in that we have something for everyone. We get families, college kids and adults. It is a real mix of customers.”
At Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse and Raw Bar in Louisville, Kentucky, more than 100 whiskeys and numerous beers are offered, but it is often the food that brings customers back again and again.
“People are driving for miles and miles for our oyster bar,” says Brett Davis, one of the pub’s owners. “We sell more of those than anything else. We bring in oysters from the Northwest, East Coast and the Gulf Coast, so we hit all areas, and they are all distinct.”
While the majority of oysters are served on the half shell, there are baked and fried oysters on the menu as well. Prices range from $1.50 to $3.50 per oyster.
The menu celebrates Southern cuisine and ranges from pulled pork East Carolina-style, beef brisket Texas-style, baby back ribs, dry-rubbed Memphis-style, shrimp and grits from the Low Country, po’ boy sandwiches in the New Orleans tradition and brown butter ice cream with pralines, bourbon and caramel in a tribute to the pub’s home turf, Kentucky.
Davis says customers can spend anywhere from $15 to $50 a person, with business travelers tending toward the higher check averages.
The 225-seat restaurant, which opened in February near the YUM Center, which is home to the University of Louisville Cardinals basketball, was the brainchild of three Southern men who met in North Carolina and found themselves in Louisville.
“We all work on it together,” Davis says. “Our background is fine dining, and we bake everything in house. Our customers are eating simple Southern food in a beautiful atmosphere. We are serving food that people crave. I call it nostalgic food.”
Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the consulting firm Technomic, says that the pub segment is largely made up of independent operators who have realized they can drive higher revenues by offering better quality and more variety of its food items.
“The pub segment has flattened out, and we are not seeing a lot of growth,” he says. “Many of the breastaurants [featuring scantily clad waitresses] have taken some of that business away, so pub owners are putting a heavier emphasis on the food. Alcohol is going to drive a lot of the margins and pay a lot of the bills, but the quality of the menu is becoming more and more important.”
At Downtown Joe’s Grill & Brewhouse in Napa, California, which is on the picturesque Napa River, owner Joe Peatman has plenty of high-end restaurants to compete with, so his offerings have to be top-notch.
“Napa is a dining destination for the world, so certainly we can’t put cheap ingredients in front of our guests. We encourage our guests to try the critic’s choice restaurants, but when they are looking for a place to hang out, we are the answer,” he says.
The pub, which is located near the mouth of the river, is in a historic building and still features a shoe-shine stand and rings to tie horses up outside the entrance. “Our location is where the tourists meet the locals near the entrance to downtown,” Peatman says.
The pub uses all natural products, which are void of pesticides, purchases only naturally raised meat products, and maintains its buy-local policy.
Downtown Joe’s generates about 50 percent of its revenues from food and 50 percent from beverages, which are mainly microbrews.
“Microbreweries started sprouting up in about 1983, and that’s when I discovered beers other than light bubbly beers,” says Peatman. “I found out that craft beer has wonderful flavors, and it has been evolving even more since then.”
Some of the pub’s menu items are California New England Clam Chowder, Seared Ahi Tuna on Wontons, Calamari Medley, Bangers and Mash, Organic Tasmanian Salmon, Capellini Alla Pescatora, Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes and Brewhouse Fish and Chips.
“If you are not really featuring your food, you are doing yourself an injustice,” Peatman says. “There are only so many people who drink beer, but everyone likes to eat.”
John Piccirillo, who is director of the Fado Irish Pub chain, which is based in Atlanta and has 14 pubs throughout the U.S., says that even in a chain of pubs it is possible to operate scratch kitchens.
“In all of the pubs that we run, all of our food items are made from scratch, and that allows us a point of differentiation,” he says. “People want Irish and they want authentic, but they also want different.” In a nod to its authenticity, Fado, pronounced f’doe, is an Irish expression meaning “long ago.”
Fado, which has been in business for 15 years, offers several authentic Irish dishes such as Boxty, which is the Irish version of a crepe.
“Most people have no idea what that is until they come in,” says Piccirillo. “We take the Boxty and we do a lot of different things with it. It is just weird enough and odd enough that people want to try it. It is a big seller.”
Other Irish twists include a Guinness mayonnaise, lamb sandwiches, sliders made with the Irish ale Smithwick’s, a gourmet burger topped with rasher (an Irish bacon that resembles ham), and of course the Irish staple, corn beef and cabbage.
Piccirillo says that first-time customers probably aren’t looking for much from Fado’s food.
“We put a lot of time, energy and effort into our food, but many of our customers have really low expectations, so it is probably easier for us to wow them than a fine-dining restaurant.”
Part of that wow factor involves the beverages as well.
“Many of the taste profiles that we create are geared towards complementing the great beer and cocktails that we have,” Piccirillo says.
Beverage sales at the units range from a high of 70 percent to a low of 50 percent.
At the Happy Gnome in St. Paul, Minnesota, food sales are ahead of beverage sales despite the fact that the pub has more than 70 varieties of craft beer, with a focus on American craft beer, especially local whenever possible.
Known for its mussels, the pub uses beer instead of wine when preparing the dish.
Catherine Pflueger, general manager of the Happy Gnome, says the restaurant’s chef, Scott Brink, has taken food to the next level, including the mussels.
“Scott started using beer in the mussels instead of wine because he wanted to play off of what we are known for. “People kind of expect bar food in a pub, but we offer them food with more sophistication. We change the menu every three months, use local ingredients, and we always use local suppliers whenever possible,” she says.
The restaurant, which seats 220 in the summer and 124 in the winter, serves a duck burger with ground duck, Minnesota wild rice and mushroom duxelle, topped with goat cheese and bacon bits. Cherry aioli is served on the side.
“Scott puts such care into his food. He really makes people try new things when they come in, and they are always happy when they do.”
The pub sells a lot of pizzas, including a wild mushroom pizza as well as a steak pizza, which is topped with poblano peppers, caramelized onions, a creamy tomato sauce and, finally, cheese fondue.
On the pricier side, the Happy Gnome sells a New York Strip for $35, which is served with whipped bone marrow and Yukon potatoes.
“You can have a fine dining experience here and be wearing jeans at the same time,” Pflueger says.
Even with its large number of craft beers and its support of local breweries, it is the food that has put the Happy Gnome on the map.
As Pflueger says, “You can have as many taps as you want. but you won’t grow unless you have the great food to go along with it.”