Man on a mission

16 October 2017, Pubs & Bars

Steve Alton is out to lead a cause, but he doesn’t want to go it alone. He’d rather everyone involved in the beer industry – brewers, wholesalers and operators alike – mobilise together to stamp out one of the biggest threats to a pub’s bottom line. Bad beer.

Through his role as managing director at technology company Vianet, he has access to significant amounts of data about businesses, which he would like to see operators use to their advantage.

It’s been a few months since Alton hosted a panel debate about beer quality at The Morning Advertiser’s Future Trends: Beer and Cider event in London on 26 June. But he feels a lot of good came from it, not least the panellists’ agreement that action must be taken now to solve the issue of poor beer quality in pubs.

However, the systems and data business has other strings to its bow, and Alton is insistent Vianet is not just a company that harps on about cellar management and how clean beer lines are. To get this message out, Alton is spearheading a repositioning of Vianet’s offering.

“It’s a repositioning to get our customers to understand we’ve been in other markets for some time and it’s getting that across,” he explains. “Big data being one example of what we can offer, which we’ve been doing for 20-plus years.

Not only does Vianet offer insight on cellar management, it has methods of gathering data on all aspects of a pub business, including refrigeration, staffing and stock management.

He adds: “We’re very keen to share that message because, as pubs start to think about ‘how do I get some proper insight that is rich?’, hopefully they’ll come to us to help with that.”

To put it into perspective, Vianet has access to data from 250,000 devices – whether multiple tills in single venues or independent operators – across various countries, and therefore offers unrivalled insight.

Smart zones

In short, Vianet will rephrase what it offers as ‘smart machines’, covering single devices that monitor stand-alone outlets; and ‘smart zones’ that are multiple devices in one outlet.

He explains: “Smart machines are more about autonomous stand-alone devices that are in retail, whether that’s a coffee shop or traditional and non-traditional vending.

“So, we’re going to have smart machines and smart zones as two new areas of focus. Smart zones is where we have multiple devices in one environment. A lot of those traditionally have been around beer management systems, but we do take in other points of difference, such as gaming machines, EPoS, environment systems and back bar refrigeration,” he explains. “But the point is, you bring them all together in an intelligent way.”

The purpose of looking at data from all parts of the pub is to help operators run more efficient businesses and spot issues before they become detrimental, he explains.

Data comes in two ways, real time, actionable data, which is in the hand of the operator on their phone or computer. Such data is provided through an app or web-based log-in, and shows the publican vital information, like the temperature of a cellar, in a succinct format. “Then it’s about strategic insight that will aim to answer the bigger questions,” he explains.

Avoid lost opportunities

Strategic insight goes into more detail about the operation. For example, if a pub is sports-led, then how can the most be made from big events. “It’s not the revelation that you should be busier when there’s a sporting event, but how do you ensure you gain the best from that?” he says.

Opportunities could have been lost through operators having poor business standards – bad customer service, under-stocked bars or the wrong number of staff working at the wrong times, adds Alton.

“It’s more about moving into predictable analytics, because you want to say for that venue to have a really good performance, you have to manage the opportunity.”

One trap operators can easily fall into, especially with the current amount of investment in venues, is believing the issues won’t occur because equipment is new or the staff have been trained in the most up-to-date ways. However, the same issues are just as likely to occur with a new piece of equipment as with an older one if it’s not monitored and maintained properly.

“Discovering an issue after it’s happened when you could have been alerted to it prior to things getting really messy is frustrating, so avoidance should always be a priority for operators,” adds Alton.

Discovering an issue after it’s happened is frustrating so avoidance must be a priority

Treat other operations like food

More publicans need to think about their overall operations in the same way they do with food, he claims. With food, there are many checks and balances in place that any decent operator would not dare to miss out on at any time. “If you go to any operator and talk about their food systems, they are probably very articulate and would be able to tell you about waste and recipe management systems and that the tills will tell you what you have sold,” he says. “It is the methodology for running a clean and efficient kitchen.”

One area in particular need of a mindset change is how pubs deal with their beer. Vianet’s beer management system, which is used to compile the data for the annual Beer Quality Report, looks at how often beer lines have been cleaned, the temperature of the cellar and even how much is left in the keg or cask, among other areas.

“We’ve invested heavily in the Beer Quality Report for the second year in a row and one of the reasons is because we’re passionate about the industry and there is an ever-growing number of people looking to get into the category – whether consumers or operators looking to sell new brands,” Alton explains.

Whether a pub is getting the quality of its beer right is a barometer of the business. “If the beer is not right, then what else is happening in the business?” he questions.

“We’re now at a tipping point between two areas when it comes to beer. We’ve got this fantastic opportunity created by craft. It offers variety and is almost customised beer. But getting the quality wrong ruins that buzz.

“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to getting the quality thing right. It’s a mix of using insight and technology to its full advantage and raising quality on the bar around training. It’s also about where you start or finish what you ask people to do because you’re employing them to do a job and you define what they do when they come to work.

“And we know training is a hard task that all of the guys on the panel talked about, but training is a continuing thing, it’s not something you can do once.”

App to avoid so much wastage

The risk of unclean beer lines is serious to a pub’s bottom line, as explained in the Beer Quality Report earlier this year. Profits of £709m are lost each year via sub-standard quality; £73m of that is wasted through taps, £182m as a result of missed quality uplifts, £206m due to pouring losses and £248m because money is not reaching the till.

To save on beer wastage, Vianet launched its new and improved iDraught app last month, which is aimed at driving direct and measurable improvements to operators’ revenue and gross profits by reducing beer wastage. The app shows publicans, in real time, how much beer is being poured and whether the correct money is being taken for each drink sold.

Alton, however, is extremely optimistic when it comes to the future of beer quality. “We’re better equipped to deal with it now than we ever were. We’re beginning to see some fantastic initiatives coming from the brands and brewers around quality.

“And there are new bits of tech and support that some of the brands have got, with the likes of Heineken starting to bring a new way of working to how they line clean and bring better tech to provide a better pint.”

Ultimately, though, it all boils down to the operator, because all of the support to serve better quality beer is there,” maintains Alton. There are some outstanding operators in the sector who are doing things right, he points out.

Things, however, are starting to change. Comparing last year’s Beer Quality Report with this year’s shows improvements have been made within the space of a year. Overtapping is down, with fewer operators having too many beer taps on their bars and, therefore, able to sell-through their beer properly.

Craft offers variety and almost customised beer. But getting the quality wrong ruins the buzz

Boost to quality

But what about providing consumers with that all important choice? Alton adds: “It’s a really interesting point because I see data on the other side of the argument that says consumers actually want quality.

“We see it ourselves in some of the big cities compared to the traditional country pubs where they’ve only got three cask beers on but they have great throughput because everybody knows every pint is great and it doesn’t rotate because it’s one solid offer that the locals love.”

The next steps to boosting beer quality and helping operators to become more efficient and savvy is changing the narrative, believes Alton. “In simple terms, we should be talking about quality as cash because, ultimately, that’s what business is about.

“It’s about recognising the operator and the fact it’s a tough and demanding job. I have huge respect for great operators because there’s a huge amount of effort that goes into their businesses. The entire sector needs to come together to make beer quality better and the industry more profitable.”

This article first appeared in the 9 October issue of the Morning Advertiser magazine


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