Interview with an Innovator

Loungers’ Antony Bennett: ‘When you have a concept you can go anywhere with, it’s a product development person’s dream’

The head of food talks to Sarah Sharples about how he brings in new food trends at Lounge and Cosy Club, the ingredients he is using to add layers of flavour and why new menus are always trialled on real customers.

3 May 2019
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Bennett on Paper – CV

  • Started out in product development at age 21, working on briefs for retailers like Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco and Iceland
  • Went on to become head of food at La Tasca Restaurants
  • Has led food development and strategy at Loungers since 2015

Nailing down Antony Bennett to get him to reveal some of the secrets to the success of Loungers has been a difficult task. It’s not surprising, considering the head of food is constantly creating new menus and dishes for two concepts, Lounge and Cosy Club, which combined have over 140 sites nationwide – and are opening 25 new venues a year.

Loungers is an anomaly in the casual dining market, boasting incredible growth while many other chains are struggling. “I was looking at numbers for the past three years, particularly the Lounge business, and the food is now 54% [of sales] as opposed to 48%. That’s quite a big swing in food sales in a market that is quite tough out there in casual dining,” reveals Bennett.

“Our likes-for-likes over Christmas were up 11% over five weeks of trading, so we took about £19m across the two businesses in terms of sales. When you can combine innovation, happy customers and happy teams, and actually deliver it on a good commercial basis, it’s really important.”

Bennett can point to a number of factors that he believes make the chain stand out: it’s nimble approach to innovation, testing new dishes in a live environment without a tasting panel and the chefs making much of the food onsite, but also the enviable position of being able to experiment with new trends and ingredients across every cuisine imaginable.

Here, he talks about his approach to food development, the new dishes capturing the consumer imagination and the trends he sees influencing the casual dining market in the future.

 

In Lounge, we are not trying to create dishes that are top end or fine dining or too far away from what the customer would try and make at home.

We trial everything… We will agree a menu through the normal development process and then put that into six sites and they will run on that menu for five weeks. They will have a full supply chain set up, menus are printed properly – not floppy copy or paper, full print menus and full cookbooks.

These six sites are dotted across the country, so we’ll get a different demographic and get real feedback from our customers. We tweak dishes, so we might change the plating or oven bake it first or put in the pan for two minutes and not three as it reduces the sauce too much. We do things in a live environment.

We found for Lounge and Cosy Club that that is the most personal way of developing, you are so close to it. The customers are giving you daily feedback you can react upon.

Right now we have a specials menu on trial at two sites in Lounge. We have some nice dishes on there. We have a Bhangra Balti burger with a lamb spiced patty, onion bhaji, raita, nice tomato salsa, rocket, cheese and a mango pulp.

If we look at Lounge in terms of the most popular dishes, brunch is very powerful for us.

We also launched big breakfasts within Lounge. What we found is a lot of customers were adding to our core breakfasts so they would say: ‘Can I have extra bacon or egg?’ So we’ve actually decided to create that and it has been incredibly successful. But the interesting thing is new dishes that we have introduced to that section in Lounge have also stepped up – more innovative dishes. Like we have a halloumi and sweetcorn pancake with Mexican black beans and red pepper ketchup, avocado and a poached egg.

At Cosy on the brunch section, over the past six months we have introduced things like a scrambled tofu – and to make it vegan and gluten-free we are using golden linseed bread, which I’ve worked on with a really nice little bakery called Incredible Bakery. There is some gluten-free soy, tamari, to give it a punch of flavour. Citrus comes through from ponzu and there’s some zingy flavour coming from the lovage pesto, so lots of flavours on a brunch dish as you want breakfast and brunch to jump out at you – every mouthful needs to kick-start your day.

We are developing quickly here. I’m not a food developer that goes: ‘What’s the next big thing in 18 months? We just don’t operate that way. I think that’s probably the secret to our success. We can get onto something really quickly. If we see a trend happening we can develop it, work on a dish and have it trialling on site the next couple of days.

It’s not always about trying to be leading edge all the time or trying to get the next big thing. It’s about understanding what we’re good at and understanding how to make those things better. So our customers will thank us for improving something like a sausage or a better quality bacon or a new recipe for hollandaise sauce or a new patatas bravas sauce or making a dressing vegan. We are constantly improving.

When you have a food concept you can go anywhere with it’s actually a product development person’s dream… You can take different elements of the cuisines to make a dish without saying its Mexican per se. I think it’s a bit harder, but it’s a great challenge.

In Lounge we have worked really hard on the burger section, to improve the product and the way we deliver the dishes as well. We have spent ages working on a bespoke burger bun that is vegan… We launched Beyond Burger and worked with the team to bring it over and put it on the menu and we’ve had great feedback.

I think the burger boom has happened, but we are still enjoying a lovely time with burgers in terms of sales. I’m finding it interesting to create new layers of flavours. We’ve just done a new one in Cosy Club, which is a beef patty with pulled beef brisket, blue cheese, roasted garlic mushroom, garlic mayonnaise and pickles, so you can be really creative with the burgers and I think people are still looking for that.

We are very proud to make things in-house – and considering our size that’s quite a challenge, but we won’t be stopped and we believe it's part of our success. With that there are some inconsistencies, but we give [the staff] all the tools to help them deliver, like cookbooks, videos and methods.

I have done a really nice Lotus Biscoff biscuit cheesecake. It’s got the caramelised biscuit and smashed up biscuits on the base, and then we fold in some of the Biscoff spread into the cheesecake mix as well. That’s gone on to become our top-selling, number-one cheesecake, which is really cool. And it’s homemade.

Bang Bang chicken on our main course in Lounge is really tasty. We make our own panko chicken with a gluten-free crumb. Every day the guys come in and butterfly the chicken breast and put ginger, garlic, some madras powder, ras el hanout spices, some gluten-free Worcester sauce and then loads of buttermilk, marinate for 24 hours. They will panko that to order and then it will be fried in the wok with pak choi, sweet chilli noodles and Thai sesame dressing, spring onion, carrots, mushrooms. It’s got loads of different flavours, but it’s a one-pot wonder. It looks really nice on the plate and the peanut bang bang sauce that we make in-house goes over the top. When you put that together on a plate and all those flavours harmonise and work and we sell thousands of them every week across all our Lounges and it goes into our top 10, that’s when I can sit back and go: ‘Yes!’

We are seeing a good uplift on our salads across different day parts, starting from 11am to right through to the evening. I think that’s a trend of people’s perception on health and trying not to always have chips.

We have just done a choice of salad dressings in Lounge which has been a huge success. We have three base salads – a supergreen salad, halloumi and falafel salad, and a chicken, bacon and avocado salad – and a choice of chilli and lime dressing, a Caesar dressing and a honey balsamic ginger dressing. A little customisation is a trend.

Porridge doesn’t sell particularly well in a Lounge. We desperately want it to work. During the winter months it will be lovely to have a nice porridge with honey, and we’ve even tried it a bit naughty before with salted caramel sauce and roasted apples to try and make it a bit more interesting, or berry compote or jam, and that doesn’t particularly sell brilliantly. I often think: ‘How can other operators sell loads of it and we just can’t?’

Roasted cauliflower is quite a big trend. I’ve seen it in lots of places. I wanted to take that as a dish and make tapas out of it and as a main course, so we are taking cauliflower, we are rubbing it in dukkah, making a tahini puree, and then we’ve got pomegranate molasses, flaked almonds and we are making our own kale crisps on site.

Posh kebabs are a thing at the moment and we have had a look at that. What we’ve done is a lamb skewer that’s marinated in chermoula. We are using fresh diced lamb leg, cooking to order, and we’ve done a big fennel, pomegranate, red onion, radish salad and it’s served on a nice oval flatbread. We make our own tzatziki on site too. It gives a relatively light, colourful plate and tasty dish.

We have done a nice Asian sea bass on noodles and pak choi – picking up that ramen trend – and it’s got a miso sesame broth and that’s served in a big willow bowl.

We have been lightening up the Cosy menu as we found it was quite meaty and heavy and we wanted to put a few more lighter dishes on that, which would pick up that trend of healthier eating. So we’ve done a really nice aubergine salad, marinated it inras el hanout spices and olive oil, cooking off the aubergine as big wedges, and it comes with base of hummus, and we are using radish, fennel, dill, lemon and pomegranate molasses and seeds and making a big piled up salad. It's lots of flavour in one dish.

In Cosy we put a melting chocolate bomb on. It’s about interaction and theatre is still important to us, particularly in Cosy Club, as our venues are pretty grand and we want the food to jump out just as the venues do.

We use things like popping candy and dehydrated tomato powder for layers of flavour but we don’t shout about it on the menu.

Apart from things like charcoal, turmeric, vegan dirty food, there will be much more space for vegan foods on the shelves, and more gluten-free options and healthier food plates coming to the fray in the casual dining sector.

I think we will see an even bigger demand for removing dairy –dairy-free milk alternatives are already big for us.

At Cosy we have been working hard to work on comfort food done brilliantly, wholehearted old school dishes and flavours with nostalgia. I think we will see a lot more dishes that were once ordinary but now capture the imagination of people eating out in the UK, whether it’s a fish pie an apple crumble or a banana split – there will be lots of fun on the menus.

I have been using dukkha, chermoula, zhug, harissa and ras el hanout as staple ingredients to add layers of flavours to dishes across both Lounge and Cosy Club. I think that these types of ingredients and flavour profiles are going to come forward, as well as chefs making their own pickles and pickled veg on sites.

Ancient grains are continuing to be on the rise, it wasn’t that long ago that people were like: “What is quinoa?’ Now chia, spelt, flax and other protein rich grains are being used. Customers want us to help them be healthy too with low-calorie but high-flavour dishes, as well even more call for restaurants to shout about sustainable seafood, meats and local growers.

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