From the smokehouse to your house – how Hickory’s transformed their classic dishes into heat & eat

Megan Lipscombe

Megan Lipscombe

Head of Marketing

Over the last 10 months we’ve all had to adapt to, dare we say it, the ‘new normal’. And an industry that has had to get particularly creative is one very close to our hearts – hospitality.

With no alternative other than to close their doors on multiple occasions we’ve watched in awe as a number of our clients have transformed their restaurant offering into something we can all enjoy at home. Our virtual Christmas party this year gave us the perfect excuse (not that we needed one) to try out some of these meal kits, one of them being Hickory’s At Home.

As we tucked into our Memphis ribs, Texas brisket and BBQ beans we found ourselves asking ‘How have they executed this so well?’, ‘Where did the idea come from?’ and importantly ‘Is Hickory’s At Home here to stay?’. Queue an interview with one of the team from Hickory’s.

Last week I caught up with Hickory’s Managing Director, John Welsh to grill him on all things Hickory’s At Home. So, if you’re an operator trying to work out where to begin with your own meal kit, or are just a Hickory’s fan and want to know a bit more about where it all began – then pull up a chair, this is a story worth reading…

What made you decide to introduce Hickory’s At Home?

Hickory’s At Home was born out of a desire to help the local community during the first lockdown by providing thousands of less fortunate families with a hot meal. We worked with our charity partner Cash 4 Kids and sent out hundreds of meals each Thursday from our restaurants in Wall Heath, Poynton & the original Smokehouse in Chester. To enable us to raise the funds to repeat the process the following week and raise money for the charity we offered a curbside pick-up menu. This let guests order their favourite smokehouse classics online to then pick up at the restaurant, completely contactless as we would drop it in the boot of their car.

Hickory’s Cash 4 Kids delivery – Day 1

We raised over £65,000 for the charity during lockdown and provided over 3,000 meals. The demand for this was humbling, guests truly missed their Hicks Fix. So when the restaurants re-opened we quickly got to work on a next day delivery service; something we had seen on one of our many research trips to the southern states of America, where guests would order their BBQ online and reheat at their convenience at home.

It’s proved very popular, especially going into a second and third lockdown, guests order online, it’s delivered to their home the next day, or they can book it for a future date. It’s given us the opportunity to keep a heartbeat running through the company in these difficult times and to let our guests old and new enjoy Hickory’s in their own home.

What operational changes did you have to make in order to execute the roll out of Hickory’s At Home?

Hickory’s At Home revolves around our smokers which form the heart of our kitchen in all of our restaurants. Our pitmasters are following the same smoking process too – everything on our menu is lovingly smoked low ‘n’ slow for up to 16 hours, but then rather than serving to our guests we have to chill all the food before we vac pac it ready to ship.

We’ve introduced new equipment into our kitchens and new processes for the team to follow, which have been adapted and evolved as we’ve learnt on the job. Rather than a hot plate we have an area dedicated to packing the boxes and for preparing the non-food items for our guests.

It’s obviously a smaller team than in a restaurant but our chefs and “front of house” team work really closely together to make sure that every item is on point and correct when it goes in the box. There are lots of new systems that the team have had to learn – how to use Shopify and Ship Station for pick lists, itemised orders and packing slips, plus the DPD systems and processes.

Getting to know our guests and southern hospitality are core to Hickory’s and we haven’t lost that element. Our team is in constant contact with guests over the phone or on email, so personality and passion are still just as important, for the whole team now, as when they were in a restaurant.

What challenges have you faced from introducing Hickory’s At Home? Is there anything you’d do differently if you were to do it all over again?

We’ve learnt a lot of the past 6 months and have adapted some things very quickly.  Having our very own online shop has been new, we tested this in the first lockdown with curbside so had some learnings before we launched Hickory’s At Home, but ease of ordering has been key, we learnt quickly to make it as easy as possible for our guests to order.

The same can be said for the heating process, we’ve definitely made it easier and quicker for our guests to heat their food at home and have reworked the instructions so everything goes in the oven at the same time and takes less time to heat, which is the win for lots of guests as it uses less dishes, so less washing up.

The delivery side was probably the most difficult thing to grasp as that’s so new to us. We work with DPD and a strong relationship with our Account Manager has been vital to get us through the first few months.

So definitely lots of lessons learnt, guest feedback has been key to informing improvements and making the experience even better for guests, although we’ve tweaked some things and changed others, we wouldn’t have done it much differently.

How did you decide which elements of your menu to include and which to omit?

When we developed the food and drink for the menu we made a commitment that if the food or drink didn’t taste as good, once heated or “shook” at home, as it did when served in our restaurants then it wouldn’t go on the menu. We listened to feedback and comments from curbside to find out whether guests thought it lived up to our restaurant quality as well as asking them what else they’d like to see on the menu.

We coupled this with the dishes that are most popular in our restaurants – Memphis ribs, Texas style smoked brisket, slow smoked chicken wings and BBQ pulled pork were easy choices, as they are classic smokehouse favourites. Hickory’s is a family friendly restaurant so we also made sure that we had dishes that children love, like the mac ‘n’ cheese. And of course all the sides were a given to complete the meal.

Hickory’s At Home – Family platter

Putting the drinks menu together was equally as intuitive – we’ve got a mix of some of most popular cocktails like the Game Changer and Cotton Candy, the famous Grape Soda (no trip to Hickory’s is complete without a glass of Grape Soda) and our pale ale. So, a good selection that goes well with the food.

We do get requests for other dishes like burgers and fries, and we’re always looking to develop new dishes. We haven’t even scratched the surface yet really. We’ve just launched an NFL wing & beer box, a special Super Bowl box and we’ve got exciting plans for Valentine’s Day and the summer. The list is endless and we envisage having a lot of fun with it, from merchandise to sauces and rubs it has so much to offer.

What advice would you give to other hospitality businesses wanting to introduce meal kits?

You need to make sure your offering is unique. It’s an increasingly crowded market and you need to be able to stand out.  And, stay true to who you are. There’s so much to learn from chilling, packing and delivery. Plus entering the world of e-commerce that keeping the food and drink to what we know and what we’ve spent over 10 years developing made things a lot easier. For us it was also about making sure that we didn’t just bring our guests the food and drink to their door, we tried to bring them the ultimate Hickory’s experience at home – so little extra’s like a Spotify playlist with the songs from our restaurants and a complimentary bag of popcorn, just as every guest receives when they arrive to help bring the experience to life

Would you consider continuing to offer Hickory’s At Home once you reopen?

Definitely, Hickory’s At Home is here to stay. It gives diners the chance to sample an authentic Hickory’s experience at home, so it’s perfect for regular guests who can’t get to Hickory’s (not just during lockdown, but perhaps they can’t get a babysitter for the night) or BBQ virgins who just want to try something new. Feedback from our guests has been really encouraging and we are extremely excited that we can now bring the Hickory’s offering to a national audience.

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