FEATURE: The most important meal of your business

It’s easy for bed & breakfast proprietors and boutique hotel owners to focus all their energies on the core accommodation and let the food offer go a little, well, stale, but when Hotels.com surveyed 1,000 worldwide travellers they found that breakfast is now the number one most important amenity for guests when booking accommodation. Caroline Sargent reports.

Keeping abreast of foodservice trends and adapting to consumer behaviours can not only help small businesses monetise their early morning starts, but reduce waste, increase guest satisfaction and, subsequently, generate new and repeat business.

In a report for Euromonitor International (New Concepts in Foodservice – Best of 2017), consumer foodservice senior analyst, Stephen Dutton, says that people’s changing relationship to food is manifesting itself in a desire to eat in more informal, home-like places that simultaneously incorporate an element of exclusivity – a real opportunity for the luxury bed and breakfast business to step forward, particularly if it already offers meals at other times of the day.

The thirst for media and travel continues to fuel a global food culture, exposing consumers to new cuisines and formats, such as the mid-morning brunch. The popularity of brunch has sky-rocketed, leaving the institution that is the Great British Sunday Roast under threat. It’s not the obvious benchmark for the luxury B&B sector, but when Wetherspoons replaces its traditional Sunday fare with all-day brunch options at 900 restaurants across the UK and Ireland, you know something’s up.

As trends go, this is unlikely to catch on within the B&B community as quite often the person doing the cooking is going to be the same person changing the beds, and check-ins wait for no man. Consumers’ growing awareness of food provenance and dining styles may have led to higher expectations for quality produce and more flexible mealtimes, but aside from extending breakfast to 10 or 10.30am, proprietors will struggle to deliver on the latter meaning this trend, like the bottomless cocktails which accompany the big city brunch menus, will have to stay on ice.

Quality produce, however, will not be new news. The best establishments already know that reputations can be won and lost on the porkiness of their breakfast bangers but 2018 demands B&Bs flex their frying pans further than a full English. Getting creative with avocados and almond milk is all well and good in theory but seasonality, supply and demand can challenge the most fervent of foodies, and make discernible dents on margins.

The British dairy industry, as an example, continues to lurch from one crisis to another. In 2016 farmers were being asked to cut back milk production in a bid to help stem over-supply and stabilise milk prices; now they’re being urged by behemoth processors like Arla to increase productivity and prevent a national butter and cream shortage this Christmas.

The price of butter on supermarket shelves jumped by as much as 53% in the past year, while generic price hikes have seen spend on supermarket own-label products rise 5.5% year-on-year versus the usual branded alternatives. However, in cheerier news, The Grocer reports like-for-like grocery inflation remained at 3.2% for the 12 weeks to 8 October, noting that we could be welcoming a slowdown in price rises in the New Year.

Guests’ preferences

Looking at other data, the October IRN survey found a big jump in consumers buying organic, vegetarian and ‘free-from’ products as well as those with less sugar, salt and fat (72% of shoppers), helping to reinforce the Euromonitor research which states that price point becomes less of an issue – in retail and foodservice – when consumers are wanting genuine, authentic and memorable eating experiences.

Veganism and gluten-free is presenting its own challenges to the foodservice and hospitality sectors. More and more people – from teens to millennials and baby boomers – are dumping dairy and meat in favour of a healthier, cleaner ‘Flexitarian’ lifestyle. In America, veganism has grown 500% since 2014 and vegan food and drink options have increased threefold globally between 2012 and 2016 (Innova Market insights). June’s GlobalData report Top Trends in Prepared Foods in 2017 identified ‘going meat free’ and veganism as the #1 consumer trend, with ethical eating in the top six.

Plant-based innovations are providing new directions for existing products or categories. Manufacturers like Pioneer Foods, who produce own-label cereals for all the major supermarkets, are experimenting with vegetable flavours like beetroot, which brings sweet, earthy notes to baked goods and obvious health benefits, being a rich source of iron and naturally occurring folic acid.

Pioneer’s recipe for Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range of muesli is an appetising blend of oats, spelt, toasted wheat flakes and raspberry flavour barley flakes, topped with crisp dried beetroot, dates, apples, cranberries, coconut, pumpkin seeds and roasted hazelnuts. A seasonal granola boasts Belgian dark chocolate, Valencia orange oil, Brazil nuts, almonds and crunchy seeds which, says Pioneer’s marketing manager, Susanne Fraser, will head off consumer desire for super deluxe, special weekend breakfasts over the indulgent Christmas period.

Granola growth

The granola phenomenon shows no sign of abating. Lizi’s Granola was launched in 2003 by a farmer and food scientist as a ‘good for you’ granola that was lower in sugar, high in fibre and protein and low glycaemic – GL labelled – so good for blood sugar control (it contains no honey so is also suitable for vegans). This USP has catapulted Lizi’s to become the UK’s second largest granola brand; exponential growth that has seen them branch out into on-the-go, ‘treat’ and low sugar, high fibre children’s varieties.

Low sugar consumption is another key trend with consumers increasingly cutting out sugar completely as part of a more healthy and active lifestyle. However, while consumers search out products that are lower in sugar, they won’t compromise on taste.

It’s a major balancing act for anyone running a small scale kitchen but luxury bed and breakfasts and boutique hotels need to keep pace and adapt. When it comes to trend forecasting, social media is hard to beat. After experimenting with Pinterest to research a family holiday, Karen Thorne, owner of Hopton House, near Ludlow, now relies on it and Instagram to market her business as well as research new recipe and interior décor ideas. Her website now receives more than 200 hits a week from Pinterest users, many of whom are over 50.

Figures from Pinterest reveal there are 200 million users on the site with 67% being under the age of 40. Particularly of interest to the luxury hospitality sector is that 54% of women aged 34 to 55 are frequent ‘Pinners’, with 35% of them claiming household incomes of over $100,000.

A kind of online pinboard, the platform is used for collecting visual pieces of multimedia. Images are mostly shared on Pinterest but video enjoyed a 60% uptake last year and brands who include it in their social media strategy report strong followings, brand loyalty and excellent ROI – according to Pinterest, “87% of Pinners have purchased a product because of Pinterest” and “93% of Pinners have used Pinterest to plan a future purchase.”

Instagram is similarly visual, notorious for its daily deluge of foodie photos in the vein of, ‘Look what I’m having for breakfast!’ This makes it the perfect partner for the travel and hospitality sectors, which have always depended on strong imagery to sell in.

Properties are often good at defining what they offer through the static platform of a website, but Instagram allows them the chance to expand on their unique qualities and spin a visual narrative around it. Scenic views, interiors and pictures of food tend to get the most likes and shares on this platform, so it’s worth spending some time creating a story and snapping away at every opportunity (Instagram has some fancy filters and effects to help the ailing David Baileys among us). Boasting 700 million monthly active users, can any independent hotel or B&B afford not to be part of it?

Bespoke breakfast

Karen Thorne is a big believer in the power of networking and uses local groups and media, as well as social (Facebook and Twitter in addition to Pinterest and Instagram) to promote Hopton House and her side-line hospitality training business bedandbreakfastacademy.co.uk.

On a day to day basis, platforms like Pinterest help keep her inspired and in touch with what’s new. She uses the virtual pinboard as an alternative to a kitchen scrapbook, keeping notes and formulating ideas for guests she’s expecting and might hope to attract in the future.

“Breakfast here is something of a USP and I really love cooking,” she says. “I spent ages creating whole Pinterest pages on vegan recipes when I knew I had a vegan gentleman booked in, as I would never want to just serve up a boring old Linda McCartney sausage, but when I finally asked what he might like for breakfast he just said ‘Beans on toast.’”

Having expanded and shrunk her accommodation over the years to work around her family, Thorne now runs just two annexe bedrooms at £120-130 per night, but enjoys an excellent reputation across the Heart of England region for her local food offer. Included in the room rate is gluten-free lemon drizzle cake and the option for every guest to state their breakfast preferences before they arrive – whether linked to special dietary requirements or not – whereupon she will go and shop those products to order.

So if someone asks for smoked salmon to go with their scrambled eggs she might pop down the lane to the Shropshire Smokery for a small consignment. Local producers and suppliers are important at Hopton House, with meat from the butchers in Leintwardine, milk from the farm in the village, mineral water from Radnor Hills (at trade prices because they’re on the delivery route) and locally grown, seasonal fruit, including her own plums for homemade compotes.

While buying piecemeal and in smaller quantities sounds like a more expensive method of running a kitchen, Karen has made continuous economies, succeeding in cutting back on waste through tricks like getting her butcher to vacuum pack her bacon order into separate smaller packs so it lasts longer, and freezing sausages and black pudding.

Enquiring what guests would like to eat in advance not only lends the business a personalised, high-end touch, it also helps stave off unnecessary bulk buying –  how many cooks have splashed out on a litre bottle of pricey nut milk when all that was needed was enough for a cup of tea?

“I used to put a top brand organic fruit yoghurt out on the buffet,” says Thorne, “until I realised it was only being eaten once every two or three weeks. You could end up spending so much money just in case someone decides to pick it up, but I’ve come to understand you can’t please all of the people all of the time. One great advantage of being a B&B over a small hotel is that if we do over-buy, most things the guests don’t eat we can eat ourselves so there’s very little waste these days.

Reflecting the modern preference for something special, Karen supplements her standard full English with an extensive, constantly changing menu of daily dishes that bend to her guests’ evolving tastes, lifestyle choices and specific dietary requirements. Herby mushrooms and poached eggs, buttermilk pancakes, omelettes, eggs Royale and avocado toast are amongst the most popular, with 50-60% of Karen’s guests now selecting a special over the traditional fry-up.

“People are used to travelling widely, so today a sweet pancake with crispy bacon and maple syrup is commonplace where a few years ago it would’ve been, “Er, what?” she explains. “People also expect a wider choice of breakfast when they’re paying a premium room rate,” she concludes.

And so we come full circle, to the concept of eating well in an environment that feels like home, but offers that luxurious touch and the excitement of a special ‘birthday breakfast’ any day of the week. Get that down, make breakfast the most important meal of your day. and you’re on track to be one of the trendiest picks for 2018.