The future of pub food lies in simple, quality food, meeting customers’ rising expectations, delegates at the Eating Out conference heard today. “Food quality is crucial to the offering moving forward,” said Christian Rose, director of food for Spirit Group, who said that the company was aiming to double its current turnover from food to £1bn a year by 2010. “The customer is also saying that we want to believe the food hasn’t come too far, so local sourcing is important, Although we have to make sure that we don’t end up with 1,000 suppliers,” added Rupert Clevely, managing director of Geronimo Inns. The panellists expressed concern over the impact of legislative changes, with Peter Linacre, chief executive of the Massive Pub Company, estimating that around 25,000 pubs would be forced to close, mostly from the bottom end of the tenanted market, under the twin impact of licensing changes and a potential smoking ban. Rose warned that future legislative moves could see fat content and calorific values added to menus, along with information about the distance that food had travelled, possibly against consumers’ wishes. “You don’t want to be told about calories when you go out for an event,” he commented. Jonathan Webster, retail director for Hardys & Hansons, estimated that the increases to cost bases, bought about by changes including the Minimum Wage, meant that “you have to be growing your food business by 2% to 3% like-for-like just to stand still”. Webster added: “The whole fiasco of licensing could happen with smoking. If the guidance comes out a week before it comes in, it will be difficult.” However, Webster conceded, “It might not be a bad thing if some of the weaker operators drop out.” Despite the white paper on health suggesting a number of different restrictions on smoking, the panel’s consensus was that a ban would be total. “The idea that different citizens have different health rights is ridiculous,” said Linacre. The ban was thought unlikely to have an impact on food offerings, with most customers already accustomed to not smoking in restaurants. The issue facing pubs was seen as how to maintain a pub-like atmosphere without smoking.