MCA market insight director Steve Gotham looks at whether the increases seen in pub menu counts are sustainable, particularly when extensive menu choice is not a particularly high-ranking consumer need.

One of the lesser spotted, but headlining findings from the menu analysis conducted within MCA’s recent report on the Pub market, was how menus continue to lengthen. 

Across all the value, mainstream and premium pub segments, menu counts increased by 10% to reach an average item count of 77. This was on top of a 6% increase the previous year. 

Are these increases sustainable? There has to come points where customers are overwhelmed with excessive choice and more importantly, where kitchen operations and capabilities are over-stretched, and standards drop.

It has long been a feature of British pub menus that there is a bit of something for everyone – particularly at the more price-led value end of the market. A core British cuisine focus, but with nods to internationalisation, not least in the directions of India, Italy and the US, have gradually been built upon. Previously, a combination of the rising popularity of burgers and adding more breakfast, small plate and snack-type options influenced the growing choice. More recently, responding to the rising importance of healthier eating, vegetarian and vegan trends has been the main catalyst.  

Consequently, our survey of eight value-led pubs, including the likes of Hungry Horse, Toby Carvery and Wetherspoons, found that the average item count on Spring/Summer menus had breached the 100 mark and risen to 105. Taking the dubious honour of the brand with the highest option count was Hungry Horse, with a stonking 138 menu items. Within the mainstream category the average stood at 79, while the typically more restrained premium club, also jumped on the bandwagon, growing by 10 or 20% to reach 61. 

Aside from consistency of quality concerns, part of the problem I have with these increases is that extensive menu choice is not a particularly high-ranking consumer need or indeed, subject to a linear relationship of more options equalling better perceived choice. MCA’s pub food research finds that the most important consumer needs relate to food quality, value for money and a decent previous experience. Wide menu choice trails in a lowly 13th ranking.

In terms of highest ratings for menu choice, Farmhouse Inns and Table Table are leading pub chains, though neither have particularly high products counts. Consumers may well be picking up on the multiple and tailored menu offerings at Farmhouse Inns (including dedicated mains, Kids and Golden Years menus) while at Table Table, efforts have been made to enhance the seasonality of the core menu offering with limited period options available. Conversely, the likes of Flaming Grill and Vintage Inns stand out with high product counts, but neither are rated very strongly in perceived choice terms.          

I readily accept that pubs, particularly at the value end of the market, are in a tricky position here. Operators have to be responsive to the sales development opportunities presented through tapping into emerging consumer trends while simultaneously retaining the custom from a more mature core audience with more traditional and conservative tastes. This is a tricky balancing act, but one that needs ongoing attention. Loungers is a good example of an operator that has responded and made some selective cuts in its Lounge offering and it would be difficult to make a case that its business has suffered. 

Ultimately, the longer term evolution of the pub market is one with ever more refined and tailored propositions, more skilfully targeted at dedicated consumer missions. Higher quality food will play a more important role in many of these pub segments. A one size fits all approach it will certainly not be – and neither will it be 100+ product counts on menus.