Head of Food at HQ Theatres & Hospitality, Paul Lawman, was tasked with reducing the number of meat dishes on the menu; introducing plant based and veg-led meals; whilst also keeping menu items on trend. The company aims to be first to market in the sector across a number of sustainable initiatives – this being one of them.
“I really wanted the chefs to understand that veg-led dishes could be delicious and as good as – if not better than – meat-based ones.
At the time, plant-based really was just a bolt on to the bottom of the menu for a lot of food outlets and I didn’t want our menus to follow suit. Our customers, while predominately aged 45-55 are diverse in terms of their food choices – due to varying nature of the shows and events we present. We felt we could entice all age ranges with great veg/plant dishes on the menu.”
The SRA planted an idea
The HQ Theatres team were in touch with the Ylva and the membership team at the SRA who explained that they work with restaurants that focus on more plant-based dishes and that their chefs would be happy to share their expertise. Paul was immediately keen to take them up on the idea.
The Good Egg helps HQ Theatres crack veg-led menus
“I was delighted that 11 of my 12 head chefs went with me to The Good Egg in Carnaby Street and met the owner, head chef and development chef. We talked through their menu, tried a tasting menu and discussed provenance, menu language and the positioning of dishes on the menu.
My chefs were absolutely blown away. They finally understood what you can do with simple ingredients. That you can make them taste great, and by describing them alluringly, sound great too. It was fantastic to see them realise what can be achieved, that there really is a market for veg led food and that you don’t have to put meat on every plate to make customers feel like they’re full and are getting value for money.
The Good Egg’s dishes looked really colourful, but most importantly they tasted fantastic. One dish in particular floored my chefs – a whole cauliflower with tahini and chilli. That really helped the penny drop – they just needed to see it on the plate – and of course taste it.”
What happened next – nurturing those seeds of an idea
The HQ Theatres team held a menu development meeting a month later for their spring menu. The contrast with previous days could not have been greater. Most of the chefs in attendance had come up with fantastic new dishes; had taken the new ideas fully on board and run with them to create a fantastic range of new menu items.
“As well as the new menu items, the process really opened my eyes to engaging more closely with our fruit and veg suppliers. I get a monthly crop report with what’s in season and what’s a bit wonky as well, I can then liaise with chefs on that – they can sort out the ordering and plan ahead. So if there’s a glut of wonky tomatoes we can get them in and make soup for example.”
The proof is in the eating
The demographic of diners at HQ venues is mainly theatre-goers in their 40s and 50s – and they tend to be quite traditional in their tastes. Historically the company’s biggest selling dish is fish and chips – accounting for around 33% of main course sales before the introduction of the new menu. Alongside this a burger meal has been amongst the most popular dishes.
“This summer we’ve taken all meat off the starter menu and introduced a jack fruit curry as one of the mains. It’s having a real impact, proving really popular – and that demand is surprising lots of the chefs. The curry now accounts for 6% of sales.
Sales of Fish and Chips have reduced to account for around 27% of sales – whilst the burger sales have also reduced as the new menu items have been introduced. This demonstrates clearly that even in our Northern venues, where menu choices were typically even more traditional – there is a real shift happening. There was even some initial resistance from our restaurant teams to us including avocado on toast with Mediterranean veg on the menu – but now that accounts for almost 8% of sales.
Our next development day is in August and I’ve already had some brilliant new dish suggestions in from the chefs. In our autumn menu, we’ll be adding two more veg-led dishes because we have the data and the customer feedback to demonstrate that the demand is there!”
Word up, margins up!
Paul explains that another lesson learned from Good Egg workshop was the importance of placement of the new dishes on the menu.
“We’ve positioned the jack fruit curry in the middle at the top of the right-hand page of the menu – prime positioning. We’ve also moved the fish and chips to the left-hand page. In doing so we are trying to encourage customers towards more veg dishes and it certainly seems to be working. It’s good for sales, of course, but just as importantly it’s a more sustainable approach. We’re experimenting too – we will be changing the fish back to its original position to test the placement theory and we’ll continue to measure the move from meat sales.
The margin on the jack fruit curry is better too – which allows us to offer it slightly cheaper than the meat dishes – so we’re offering value for money as well as a range of new options.
An additional benefit that I hadn’t anticipated is the inspiration my chefs have taken from this approach. They’re really enjoying making new, interesting veg-led dishes from scratch.
Paul credits the SRA and the Good Egg teams in helping to develop this new approach:
“Thanks to the workshop with the SRA and the Good Egg we are now on a completely different path. The results have been phenomenal – the numbers speak for themselves. There’s still a long way to go, both in terms of the menu itself and, of course, there are one or two staff who remain a little hesitant – but we’re confident we’ll win them over! Overall, the initiative really has been an overwhelming success.”