Interview with an Innovator

Brewhouse & Kitchen’s Tommy Knight: ‘Food in pubs is growing in general and pubs are starting to think more like restaurants’

The head of food and innovation at the craft brewer reveals to Sarah Sharples some of the dishes coming to the new menu in October, how he is using spent grains to make nachos and the possibility of a beer doughnut ice cream sandwich.

20 September 2019
breakfastdessertdrinkpubssustainabilityvegan

Knight on Paper – CV

  • Various chef roles at Wagamama, Bill’s and Honest Burgers
  • Head of food at BrewDog
  • Started role as head of food and innovation at Brewhouse & Kitchen in July

Tommy Knight is on a mission to put Brewhouse & Kitchen’s food on the map. He has only led food innovation at the pub chain for the last three months, but hasn’t wasted time making changes.

A new breakfast menu was launched about a month ago across half the estate with new offerings like the croll, a hybrid pastry with the taste and texture of a croissant and the structural hold of a bread roll, which people can personalise with a load of extras. He’s also overseen a big focus on affordability, boosting the amount of grub in the full English as well as popular small plates such as the chicken wings.

There’s a new lunch and dinner menu coming next month that has taken as much as possible out of the fryer as possible to offer healthier options while adding trendier ingredients, from avocado and sweet potato to falafel.

Knight is not afraid to play with pub classics either: an Indian-style fish and chips could be on the cards, while he also has an eye on long-term trends like veganism. He counts plant-based development as one of the biggest wins of his career. Brewdog was the third business in the UK to introduce the Beyond burger – a product he spent eight months chasing – which was launched in January in a pink beetroot brioche bun with chipotle slaw.

“It’s my biggest pride, because I’ve seen direct implications of what I put on the menu and how much it sold. We sold a whole pallet, so 14,000 units, in just under 13 days,” he explains.

Here he talks to Food Spark about how beer influences his food development, introducing local hero dishes into some of Brewhouse & Kitchen’s 22 sites and bringing an element of personalisation into pub meals.

In terms of menu design, innovation, food supply, our food philosophy, our strategy – I head it up.

The [Brewhouse & Kitchen] director was like, ‘I want you to take us to the next level ready for 30 sites and make us a more appealing food market.’ I think the food split in its prime was 60/40 – food being 40. But in more recent days it’s on the lower end of 30, which for a business that prides itself on food being a big part, that’s a really disappointing split.

We try to be a bit different to pubs [like] the Wetherspoons and the Greene Kings.They do classic [food] and very cheap, and in fairness they are not bad. With Brewhouse &Kitchen, we are a craft beer business, so it’s about that bit of premium, and I think our food should reflect that.

The style of food isn’t what you would expect from a traditional pub – it’s that next evolution to being a sit-down meal environment. [We have] your sea bass, chickpea and lentil dahl, your Cambodian curry. With the fall of the casual market and casual dining, there is that opportunity for pubs to look at a bit more premium offer, but still being affordable.

The most important part of the next six months, especially in this country in terms of food development and food menus, is affordability and the price point they are selling at. I think regardless if Brexit is yes or no, it’s going to be a really hard 12 to 18 months. I think the businesses that can react and be ahead of the game and manage to get their prices at a certain point that people can still enjoy a good meal, but not have to break into that £30 mark, will be a really important part of what everyone is doing.

Food in pubs is growing in general and pubs are starting to think more like restaurants. They are opening up their doors in terms of being flexible and versatile. Some of them too much, in my opinion. I went to Greene King the other day and the menu was folding out six times, and then it was a 45- to 50-minute wait on food, and I thought, that’s because you’ve made a menu that you can’t deliver.

I think pubs are growing because they are trying to think more about the food and there is an opportunity for it – the food splits are growing, pubs are becoming more renowned for their food as they are their drinks, and that’s what we are trying to take advantage of.

In terms of sustainability, obviously all of our brew pubs have a lot of spent grain which goes in the bin. What we are doing is taking the spent grain… cooking it and turning it into nachos, and we are going to sell that on the menu. So it’s like beer nachos…. Nachos is the great scenario as you can flat bake it, dry it and dust it; it crunches really well and it’s zero waste, so it’s recycling. It’s not about how can we not make money from it but how can we reuse it. I think that will help us get a bit of a story, and it will get a lot of interest if we market it right, especially with some of the other small craft breweries around. I think there will be a piggyback off that – once we start it a lot of people will do it.

We are also looking at packaging [the nachos] in biodegradable packaging and shipping them into retail. We are in very early conversations with the likes of Waitrose.

We are changing the menu in October and we are incorporating these kinds of things. It’s just about building the brand. We are developing our own table sauces like beer ketchup, beer BBQ sauce, it gives us that uniqueness and that niche product you wouldn’t find anywhere else, with our own label and our own beer.

We try and use our own beer as much as possible, because I think it’s a really good story when you have your kitchen 20 feet away from the bar and they’re using that beer to make the food.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been looking a lot to America in terms of beer and food, because I think they beat us to it and… they do some crazy things with beer and food… It’s not just the beer, its why does that style of beer have a certain effect on the food, why do we pair certain flavours with certain styles?

This is not confirmed that it’s going on the menu yet, because it’s a bit out there, but we were thinking about doing something like beer donut ice cream sandwiches. So, making the donuts with beer, making the ice cream with beer, making the glaze with beer, making the sauce with beer. We have been working with Speakeasy about making some beer desserts using our beer and ice cream.

With our main courses for our new menu, we have very much gone for lighter eating. We tried to take as many things out of the fryer as we can and put them in the oven or do cold serve or salads.

Avocado is a lot more prominent on our new menu, whereas we don’t really use it right now.

We started trying to use a lot of sweet potato in the business: using it as mash, adding some mango chutney and tamarind in it, using that with sea bass and broccoli.

Falafel, we have introduced that quite a bit on the new menu as it’s massively high in fibre and protein.

I think it’s important that you don’t close the door [on world cuisines]… We would try to keep it as British familiar as we can, but we definitely take influences from wherever in the world if the flavours are right.

Even though fish and chips are our signature dish, we had a conversation the other day about how in India they do a lot of spices and marinades on their fish before they batter it, and maybe we can work on an Indian-style fish and chips.

As a business the size we are, it would be very difficult to manage five or six different styles of menu… Fortunately 55 to 60% of our business is on the south coast, so I tend to base it more on what they would want. So we have a lot of fish and seafood on the menu.

But we are looking at… giving the head chefs some freedom and creativity to make their own local hero dishes… and really creating three to five dishes that really screams ‘local community’ and that is all sourced extremely locally… It’s something we could be looking at for our next menu in April.

It depends on the scale of the change, but ideally we trial things. For example, if there are three dishes we aren’t quite sure of us a team, we would put them in some of our busier sites, with more of a variety of client base. We can get a different opinion in a London, Brighton and Cardiff – it’s a good demographic for us to check… Ultimately, we try the crazy ones first, for instance the spent-grain nachos, we’ve been trialling them in London.

Our hero dish, something that we put back on the menu, something they have done a few times but never gotten it quite right, was our beer can chicken. There is no doubt in my mind that poultry will always be the biggest-selling protein, but it was like, how do we do it? We tried it before and served it as a whole chicken and that was the only option. I think we tried to worry too much about the kitchen delivering it, then actually what people want and how we can make that dish most versatile. We relaunched it in April. Basically, it’s almost build your own: you choose the chicken and what size you want, whether it’s a quarter, a half, or a whole; choose a sauce and you choose your sides. It’s very much like a create your own dish… Across our 22 pubs we sell between 3,000 to 5,000 a week.

We have tried sandwiches and I think it’s an important part of our lunch trade, but I think we can do it better. We need to do it in a way that separates us from other people. I think our sandwiches right now are pretty standard and you can probably get a cold serve sandwich from Pret around the corner and it wouldn’t be significantly worse than ours. So we are revisiting that and putting a lot of work and effort into them to relaunch them and also making them available in a wrap to make it a bit lighter to eat.

For pubs, the two things that are really growing are breakfasts and Sunday roasts.

We launched a new breakfast menu about three or four weeks ago and deliberately timed it in with the Rugby World Cup... We have noticed some sales that that you would be pretty surprised about considering it’s a pub.We sold nearly 700 breakfasts in three weeks and only 11 of our pubs do breakfast.

The full English, we basically doubled the size of it, made it absolutely value for money. I obviously spend a bit of time looking at the likes of Loungers and Bill’s for their breakfasts. A good-size breakfast, they charge anywhere between £12 to £14, and we charge the exact same size for £8.

There’s a product that’s been around for about eight months now, the croll. We introduced this on our breakfast menu and it has been really popular. Again, it’s that niche, it’s not a breakfast roll, it’s a breakfast croll, it’s sweet, it’s got the crunch. We just added the option of lots of different sides and extras so you can personalise your breakfast.

What we do see in terms of quantity is small plates, as they are easy to order when you go to the bar. So we have done a lot of work on these as well in terms of making them a bit more share friendly and a bit more colourful and on trend So, halloumi sticks is something we put on the menu and will always sell. We have changed our chicken wings and everyone is really excited about them. They are a significantly bigger offering than what we currently do.

Our vegan options needs to be more. We currently have two vegan mains and on our new menu we have gone for five… We really need to think about these people, it’s not a trend anymore, it’s a lifestyle – and there’s lots of people doing it.

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