Monday 2 January 2017

Fox or hedgehog, Sir?

I was recently singing the praises of Friends of Ham in Leeds, which concentrates on a limited spectrum of food, but does it extremely well. Indeed, I’ve suggested that it would be a good idea for more pubs to specialise on a particular food area rather than providing a jack-of-all-trades menu that deters few but enthuses none.

But it’s important to look at why pubs do offer wide-ranging menus. There’s a well-known saying that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”, and that very much applies to pub food. Basically, (and forgive me for a broad generalisation) there are three types of beer sold in British pubs – bitter, stout and lager. Every pub will have at least one example of each. You may not care for particular brands, but it’s unlikely that they’re things you really can’t even force down, or have to avoid for dietary or medical reasons.

However, when it comes to food, as I wrote here, there is a far wider range of restrictions. Some people, such as coeliacs, need to avoid certain food types for genuine medical reasons. Others, such as many sufferers from Asperger’s Syndrome, find themselves with a strong psychological aversion to some foods, while obviously vegetarian and vegan diets are limited for ethical reasons. And many people are simply, for whatever reason, faddy.

If you’re in a the centre of a city or large town, you can afford to specialise in one food area and still get sufficient customers to make it viable. Indeed, if you do it well, you will get a reputation for your food that spreads well beyond your immediate area. This is certainly true of Friends of Ham, and used to apply, for example, to the famous cheese and paté lunches served at the Royal Oak in Didsbury. A local example of this is the hot dog centred menu in the Baker’s Vaults in Stockport.

Even if you’re a destination dining pub, you can take advantage of the fact that most customers will be travelling by car, and thus have a wider choice of potential venues, to provide a distinctive food offer that may gain you a reputation, although a lot fewer do now than once did. I remember in the 80s being happy to go out of my way for good pizzas and Mexican and Austrian food, but you can’t do that now.

But, if you want to appeal to as wide a range of customers as possible, and especially if you want to attract mixed-age family groups, you have to ensure that your menu is sufficiently wide-ranging that nobody is going to look at it and say “there’s nothing for me on there”. And, if it means placing a strong reliance on Brake Brothers and the freezer cabinet, so be it.

I would like to see more specialisation on pub menus, but I well understand the reasons why there isn’t. And “a sensibly limited menu” is a food snob phrase that fails to take account of real-world people’s dietary limitations and preferences.

(The photo, by the way, is a traditional Hungarian chestnut cake in the form of a hedgehog, and certainly not a real one)


  1. I'd like to see more pubs doing basic bar snacks well. You don't even need in a kitchen to be able to offer something nice and more substantial than a bag of crisps.

    1. What sort of thing did you have in mind? Bear in mind that any food actually prepared on the premises now requires a separate catering kitchen, which may be a reason why pubs don't tend to do the basic butties they once did.

    2. I agree with Kieran. It would be nice to see something like what the Belgians do. Cubed cheese and sausage. Nice to nibble on as you drink. Not too filling either.

    3. I was thinking of cold food. Separate kitchen not always required - it depends if you can satisfy your local environmental health officer. If you do hot food it's much more difficult but I make cobs/slice pork pies/put together cheeseboards behind the bar to order all day and the only requirements were a separate hand wash basin, cleanable surfaces to prepare on and a little paperwork and staff training.

      It takes a little extra effort but for me at least it's well worth it. Only accounts for 5% of the pubs sales but has a knock on effect of increasing drink sales.

  2. You can produce "basic butties" in the catering kitchen. The advantage of sandwiches and pies ready on the bar is that you know the lead time. If you have train or bus to catch in less than an hour then ordering something from the kitchen is a real gamble. And if I am served another sandwich on a plate with a knife and fork I shall silently screa. The whole point of sandwiches, the reason the Earl invented them is that you don't need cutlery and crockery to eat them

    1. And sandwiches should NOT be served by default with chips - that really is a pet hate.

  3. I've seen people eating takeaway food in pubs. I don't know the legality of this but it seems like a good idea - a pub that doesn't sell food but is located next to a chippy; get your fish and chips then eat it in the pub with a pint. Both business benefit.

    Bare Arts (real ale brewery and bar) in Todmorden sells food and has no kitchen. It is all pre-packed, sealed stuff from local producers. Small pieces of cheese, butter, bread rolls from Morrisons over the road; jars of mussells etc etc.


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