Spirit Hotels’ traditional approach focuses on indulging the customer

As National Food Manager and Group Executive Chef for Spirit Hotels, Gary Johnson oversees some 88 pubs around the country which employ around 300 chefs. Sixty of these are open for Christmas Day, and even those that aren’t cater for an extensive range of corporate end of year functions and events over the festive period.

There are five categories of venues within the group – from well-known franchise brands like Roadhouse Grill and bistros serving modern Australian cuisine through to Italian trattoria – enabling each pub to cater to its local demographic: a classic pub menu in the regional areas and a more diverse selection in urban centres.

“In our branded hotels like the Roadhouse Grill or Charlies, the seafood buffet is the typical centrepiece of Christmas day functions, but this is themed to tie in with their popular regular dishes,” Gary explains. “We’ll take our most popular mains and do a miniature version so if you’ve ordered it on previous occasions you’ll be able to get it at Christmas time as well.

“We also do a lot of pre-Christmas functions and there’s a wide variety of menus on offer for those. Sometimes people are looking for a sit-down menu, in which case we’ll offer a couple of different pricing levels for entrée, main and dessert, but what we find is most popular around this time of Christmas is that a lot of corporates want to book a party for something like $30 a head, so we tailor the menus to their budgets and at the same time we’ll offer platters, grazing menus, canapés, some snacks and bits and pieces on arrival, then bring out some curries and some pass-around bowls … the aim is to keep everyone well fed and watered over a two to three hour period, depending on budgetary and time constraints.”

For the most part the festive fare Spirit offers conforms to the traditional Christmas approach – “The customer’s expectation around this time of year is for a little bit of indulgence, so we’ll have our oysters, prawns and seafood buffet but they also want turkey and the traditional Christmas pudding.

“So when we’re doing Christmas cocktail parties, we may offer little plum pudding balls on spoons with brandy custard, or set up a carvery station in a corner of the pub – we do some fun stuff but it’s all based around the expectations of what people generally eat at Christmas time.”

The key to meeting the challenge of so much function catering is obviously to have your food orders in place well in advance. “With so many pubs in the group, we can’t afford to leave things to chance and having organised this for so many years now we’d be crazy not to set ourselves up for success.

“For example, we generally order our prawns in September to make sure we’ve got enough at the right price, that way we don’t have to shop around two or three different suppliers – we can let our suppliers know what quantities we need.

“Having been in the game here for six years, we’ve got great history and data and because I prescribe the menu for 90 per cent of our hotels, I know what’s needed and I’m able to communicate that to our suppliers – in other words, we take the guesswork out of the process.

“The other logistical issue is simply the fact that everyone wants to eat at the same time – so between seven and nine o’clock it’s extremely busy!”

Gary cites the Melbourne Cup race day of the first Tuesday in November as the marker for making sure everything is organised for the festive season.

“Once we hit that point, it’s the peak of the wave and we know we have to ride it right through until the first week after January – that’s when we generally fall off the cliff and things begin to slow down. But certainly between early November and New Year’s Eve, all our pubs are heaving at the sides and everyone’s in that celebratory, festive mood.”

The extra workload at year end necessitates taking special care to prevent staff burn-out. “We definitely try to prepare staff – we muscle them up and also try to ensure they have a bit of advance R&R, because once we hit this point it’s like running the last length of a marathon and we know we have to hit our stride and take it hard.

“So I make sure I talk to all my head chefs and check that they are looking after their teams and doing all they can to keep morale high. We can’t afford to have a glitch in the system at this point, and because we have so many pubs we might have one or two ‘floating’ chefs so it’s up to me to plug any holes in staffing and anticipate and prepare for any last-minute personnel changes. We have to be ready for those sorts of challenges so there’s no compromise in the quality of the operation.”

Aside from ensuring each venue has the right team members in place at the right time, Gary makes the point that it’s critical at Christmas that everyone’s personal presentation evokes good spirits and good health.

“It’s a fun time of year and we need to reflect that to our customers, and the best way to do so is to make sure that every day is a great day for our staff. So there’s probably a bit more celebration over those six weeks than there would possibly be at other times of the year.

“That said, we always remain conscious of the fact that we have to deliver what we call ‘excellent execution’ every time. We stake our reputation on that along with our repeat business. Customers go to a particular café, restaurant or pub for their celebratory events because they see those venues as synonymous with the guarantee of a great time, and that’s what we strive to provide.”