Tapas in Bars: The bites are right

Drinks: Drinks

Tapas-style cuisine is taking off across the UK, and it’s no longer limited to restaurants. James Wilmore talks to the bars and pubs who are finding that sharing plates makes business sense

When Michael Kheng, owner of The Cloud Bar, in Lincoln, first introduced tapas onto his menu four years ago, he had a problem: some locals didn’t know what it was. No other bars or restaurants in the area were doing it at the time and, to some, the tapas concept seemed strange. Now, thankfully, the good folk of Lincoln have come round to the idea.

‘Sharing food is a more European, less formal way of dining’ PETER BACKMAN

But it’s not just in Lincoln where attitudes and trends have changed. More and more venues across the country are introducing tapas-style options – both traditional Spanish and English – in a bid to cash-in on this growing consumer appetite for all things bite-sized. In a way, it’s amazing that it has taken so long for this trend to catch on. Sharing platters have been popular for some time now, but across the country, tapas – in whatever form – has only taken off properly during the last 12 months.

So what’s driving this trend, and how can operators make the most of it? Many commentators point to the idea that this style of eating is seen as more sociable by customers – and it is a natural development of the wider trend for sharing. When people go out, they want to enjoy the company of others, and with tapas, food – as well as buying rounds of drinks – can be part of this interaction.

Kheng believes that it all ‘makes for a better experience’ for customers at The Cloud Bar. ‘It just puts a different slant on the evening. Rather than people sitting down for their meat and two veg, you have lots of different plates coming at you, and it makes for a more memorable experience,’ he says. ‘And, ultimately, that’s what we’re here for.’ 

Peter Backman, managing director of hospitality analysts, Horizons, agrees. ‘Tapas and sharing plates emphasise the fact that one of the main reasons people eat out is one of conviviality,’ he says. He also explains the shift in attitude: ‘Sharing food is a more European, less formal way of dining that has become popular in the UK as eating out has shifted from being something reserved for a special occasion to something that is a way of life.’

The tapas trend could also be down to diners feeling like they’re getting more value for money in these economically straitened times. With many dishes coming in at the £3-4 mark, customers feel like they are getting a bit of a bargain. The one disadvantage for operators with these kinds of smaller servings is that the average spend per head can drop.

‘It makes for a more memorable experience, and ultimately that’s what we’re here for’ Michael Kheng

However, this factor can be offset by customers staying in the venue longer and spending more on drinks. Kirstie Yates, marketing director at Atmosphere Bars and Clubs, which operates venues such as Jumpin Jaks and Chicago’s, explains: ‘If customers are enjoying themselves, then they might buy that extra bottle of wine or prosecco.’

The company recently opened a new site in Bedford, which is offering traditional tapas options such as chorizo and calamari. Of the tapas trend in general, Yates adds: ‘It feels like it’s here to stay. The retail world is constantly changing. But at the moment we are certainly adapting our offer to include more sharing food, and we’re hopeful that the tapas we’ve introduced will work well.’

Speaking to operators, the advice for those considering a tapas offer is: do your research, find a good chef, design the menu for your clientele, and have some local food elements to get people interested. Read on for some ideas…

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The Queen’s Head & Artichoke, London

Owner Michael Kittos has been serving tapas at his central London pub since he bought it eight years ago. Originally from Cyprus, Kittos says tapas was ‘what I grew up on’, adding, ‘I wanted to show people here how sharing can work.’

The pub has a Spanish chef and serves up a tempting mix of Greek, Spanish and Italian dishes, as well as a traditional à la carte menu. Kittos says tapas has been popular from day one, and the key to its success has been using lots of fresh ingredients and catering for a wide range of tastes. The current best-seller is salt and pepper calamari, priced at £6.50.

‘The advantage of tapas is that it caters for all tastes and appetites,’ he says. ‘So if someone just wants to eat a little then that’s fine, but other people can order more dishes if they’re hungry.’ The disadvantages for Kittos are that, with so many different dishes, tapas is ‘a lot of labour and effort’.

The Living Room, Chester

At The Living Room in Chester, nine tapas items are offered on a board as one of a number of sharing options. The offer was redeveloped in October, and since then the tapas option has already proven to be extremely popular.

General manager Rob Herd says that, although the choice of sharing and tapas is most popular with customers in their mid-20s, he was surprised by who the first customers were for tapas.
‘It was two ladies in their 60s,’ he says. ‘So it proves it’s not just the youngsters who are prepared to be adventurous these days.’

According to Herd tapas has been a ‘very, very, popular choice’. And the reasons for this? ‘I think people just enjoy the greater interaction you get with sharing a plate of food. When you go out for a meal with someone, it’s nice to have that extra level of interaction. It’s a real conversation piece, people just getting their hands dirty together, there’s a bit of theatre there too.’

Herd also believes that customers are attracted by the value for money aspect that they perceive these types of smaller dishes to offer. He also thinks that consumers are just a bit more adventurous these days.

‘People are a lot more open to trying something a bit different,’ he explains. ‘When I first started working in a restaurant 10 years ago, somebody told me they didn’t eat pizza because it was foreign. It seemed strange at the time, but diners really have changed their attitude to different types of food.’

The Cloud Bar, Lincoln

The Cloud Bar started doing tapas from the day it opened, back in 2007, due to owner Michael Kheng’s desire to do ‘something different’. ‘There was nothing like that in Lincoln and tapas was up-and-coming at the time,’ he explains. ‘It fulfilled that need to do something different. We didn’t want to be just another bar, so it has become a USP for us.’

The bar has one Moroccan and two Spanish chefs in the kitchen, but they put an English spin on the tapas menu, using local ingredients in the dishes, such as Lincolnshire sausage.

‘People in Lincoln didn’t have a clue what it was, or understand the concept of sharing,’ he says. ‘Some people saw it as a problem, but once they got over that it became popular.’

The tapas menu is generally seasonal, so Kheng changes it around during the summer and winter to make the most of the freshest produce.

The Barley Mow Inn, Dorset

Over the last two summers, The Barley Mow Inn has run what it calls Tapas Tuesdays, which have proven very popular with locals. The food served is traditional Spanish tapas, with five dishes between two offered for £12.99. To add to the theme, the pub also offers sangria by the jug or glass.

Lee Bardsley, the pub’s chef, thinks tapas is popular because people like to ‘sit around and sample lots of different dishes with friends.’ He adds: ‘The advantage for us is it’s quick and easy to get out and it’s giving people value for money.’

Initially, The Barley Mow Inn had similar problems to The Cloud Bar, in that people were suspicious of the offering because it was ‘foreign’. But as it proved so popular the pub is also considering introducing English-style tapas. ‘We’re looking at doing classic dishes, but in a tapas-style, so things like whitebait, prawns, black pudding and Scotch eggs.’

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