Mitchell Davis and Lantern Group shine a light

Mitchell Davis is Executive Chef of a hotel Group that includes the Dolphin Hotel, Commodore Hotel, Bowral Hotel, General Gordon Hotel, Uncle Bucks Hotel and Cairns Courthouse Hotel.

Mitchell Davis was initially ‘discovered’ by Sydney Weekender at The Duck Inn Pub and Kitchen. Mitchell Davis quickly became Sydney Morning Herald’s 2013 Pub Food Guide pin up boy being voted in as AHA Best Pub Chef when he made a huge impact at Eastwood’s Landmark Hotel. A pub with humble history Mitchell quickly put the venue on the foodie map with great steaks and outstanding burgers.
Then came the opportunity to redefine the food offering in one of the country’s most successful hotel groups, The Lantern Group.
Lantern was established as part of the restructure of the IEF Real Estate Entertainment Group and is listed on the ASX under the ticker LTN.

So how do you provide patrons a dining experience that feels local and authentic but still manage to provide bottom line success that an ASX company expects? Mitchell Davis takes time out to discuss with BISTRO

BISTRO: You have venues spread out around Sydney, Cairns and country New South Wales. How do manage to keep an eye on them all.

Mitchell Davis: The pubs I look after are quite spread apart so I try to engage with chefs as often as possible by phone, email or dropping in. I am lucky to also have great Licensees who are confident to handle the day-to-day problems that may arise in their venues. I can also monitor kitchens using our POS System, all my costing’s have been entered into the system and I can see real time P&L reports by Day/Week/Hour/Minute. I have a great accounts team and receive in depth reports every week on volume/best sellers etc.

BISTRO: The Group is certainly eclectic in terms of patronage. How do you design and adjust menus that fit in with each venue. Do you design the menus yourself?

Mitchell Davis: I myself write Menus with input from our Head Chefs, General Manager, CEO.
All my menus are based on demographic & food trends in the area, you can find out a lot about a suburb from census report and work out how much disposable income a typical household may have this plays a huge part in how you price your menu, competition is another major factor in pricing and designing menus there is no point being more expensive than the guy down the road you just need to work out how to do it better for the same or less money. You don’t always need to re-invent the wheel sometimes it may just need some new tyres.

BISTRO: The Lantern Group is a publicly listed company. What advantages does a large organise provide you with in terms of resources?

MD: I guess I am lucky to have a lot of sales data at my fingertips; we have a great accounts department led by Will Hardman who provides me with very detailed weekly reports. The company also purchased Food Costing Software, at my recommendation, which stores my recipes in a database and provides very accurate to the cent costing’s. I am also lucky to work with some Pub/Hotel veterans like Bob Tate & Will Hardman who have over 50 years combined experience in the industry

BISTRO: Are there disadvantages in working with such a large company like this?

Mitchell Davis: Sure, I have worked with Owner/Operators for many years and if you want something done you ring them up with 3 good reasons why and it’s approved and actioned in 48 hours.

Though with a group there is a chain of command, which much is respected, everything is costed and analysed before being actioned, there is a lot at stake and we can’t be seen to be wasting money on whimsical ideologies.

BISTRO: Does Head Office give you any riding instructions regarding menus and pricing?

Mitchell Davis:I write the menus based on demographic/location of venue, I also do a lot of research of competition that is in close proximity of the venue. Once a menu is developed, my General Manager Bob Tate & I will review the menu and discuss prices plus direction and promotions to give the menu the best possible chance of success.

BISTRO: Do you have set GP’s you need to achieve at each venue? How do these differ venue to venue?

Mitchell Davis: I cost all meals to land maximum 30% food costs most meals come nowhere near this and are much lower. Some venues require heavy promotional discounting to get the customers through the door – this is especially prevalent out west so obviously we are not going to hit the desired GP however in this case we are working on volume, once we have volume we can see other parts of the venue grow ie Gaming,Bars etc. It is important to look at the Pub/Hotel as a bigger picture where you either discount booze and watch the bistro grow or you discount food and watch the whole pub grow. The “us and them” attitude is completely wrong and venues should look at performance of the whole venue not just Bistro/Bar/Gaming/Keno etc as it’s one business and not several small businesses operating independently under one roof.

BISTRO: Does a lot of venues give you purchasing power that you couldn’t get at The Duck Inn Pub and Kitchen and The Landmark? Can you estimate the percentage savings you achieve over one venue?

Mitchell Davis: Absolutely,the prices we get now are probably the best I have had which makes my costing’s look great. Group buying power also enables me to contact manufacturers of certain products and get rebates on top of our prices.

BISTRO:The Dolphin is in a very competitive part of Sydney. I understand you have made recent changes to the menu. Can you give us a brief run down.

Mitchell Davis: Surry Hills is a very competitive market with every pub along the strip trying to outplay each other on the discounted lunch trade, we do all “Pub Classics” Mon-Thurs for $12, we don’t hold any extra items just give you the same great meal at a lower rate. I did a lot of research up and down the street to see what the other mobs were up to, my General Manager Bob Tate believed the street was lacking a great steak venue so we designed a more traditional pub menu with great steaks & pub classics that are proven crowd pleasers. Everyone is going pretty hard on the whole American/’dude-food’ thing which is great and I love that stuff – you will see plenty of influence on my menus but I still believe when people come to a Pub/Hotel they always gravitate to the same items. Great Steak, Big Schnitzel, Burgers, Battered Local Fish and this is proven week in week out across all venues with sales data from POS System.

BISTRO: You are well known as a ‘burger king’ – how important is it to have great burgers on a pub menu?

Mitchell Davis: Burgers are always in the Top 2 sellers at all our venues; Burgers have great GP and double up as a lunch/dinner option. Burgers are great for promo’s we often use a $10 Burger & Beer Promo across the group for big sporting events like State of Origin.

BISTRO: Can you complete please. A great burger needs…….

Mitchell Davis:
• Great mince with high fat content, coarse grind and seasoned well
• DO NOT add egg & breadcrumbs to pattie 100% Beef is all you need
• Hamburger bun that is sweet and the right size for your burger we use potato buns
• Burgers, like all great meals, need balanced flavours
• Melt your cheese on meat
• Nail your sauces and use plenty of it
• No sauce touching bread! Nobody likes soggy buns!
• Use bacon wherever possible
• If served with chips have a custom chip seasoning

BISTRO: Your venues are very red meat centric. Not so much poultry, pork or fish. Is there a reason for this?

Mitchell Davis: To be honest I haven’t really noticed, chicken I think is a very boring protein and is eaten by the customer who doesn’t know what to eat, cooking chickens in busy service times can prove painful also, pork belly is used at a lot of our venues and one of my specialities is a slow cooked Pork Hock which often appears by request on our Sunday Roast Specials .
I like to use locally sourced seafood where possible & keeping this seafood at a venue that does let’s say $5k a week can prove to be a logistical nightmare. We start to get a lot of wastage on our hands and I prefer to run seafood as a specials dish so it can be monitored and sold with minimum wastage. My menus coming into summer will feature a lot more seafood.

I also like to include a few vegetarian dishes at each venue.

BISTRO: Some of your venues have a very strong lunch crowd – The Commodore Hotel is a case in point. How do price points differ from a lunch to a dinner crowd?

Mitchell Davis: Some venues require you to discount to get the weekday lunch crowd as there is so much competition in those areas or they are often in remote locations. Commodore is an exception to this and I believe this is due to the reputation the venue has of offering great food and fast turnaround of meals – it is not uncommon for the chefs to put out 300 meals in a 1.5 hour period. Lunch crowds differ from dinner crowds as most people have 1 hour to eat and get back to work so if you can’t cater to this your weekday lunch trade will be a non-event.

BISTRO: Can you give us your take on where good pub dining is going over the next few years?

Mitchell Davis:I have noticed the trend to “Theme” your restaurant as of late and there are definitely some great players in the industry doing this and doing it well. With the increase of cooking shows like Master Chef, customers seem to have a better understanding of what good food is and expect this when they decide to fork out money for a feed and pubs are renowned for serving good quality food at a good price. These days you cannot afford your venue to not have a great food offering and more and more operators know this, you need a good food operation to make venue look busy and create foot traffic this in turn will help drive other areas of venue.