Home / News / Plight of the pickled onion: how pub snacks went from simple nosh to properly posh

Plight of the pickled onion: how pub snacks went from simple nosh to properly posh

Posted on Sep 30, 2021

In the past seven years, the snack menu at Sheffield micropub the Beer House has been on quite a journey. If you like a bag of peanuts with your pint, it’s one you’ll recognise.

Owner John Harrison’s original snack range was simple: pickled onion Monster Munch, KP nuts and Walkers crisps. Today, salted almonds are his biggest seller and his selection includes Snyder’s jalapeño pretzel pieces, pork pies, olives and sausage rolls, the latter sourced from fellow independent businesses in Sharrow Vale. “It’s rare to see people eating crisps now,” says Harrison. But if you do fancy a packet, the Beer House stocks upmarket Pipers. Karnataka black pepper and sea salt, anyone?

Such change has been driven, says Harrison, by customer suggestion and his belief that, in a turbulent pub market, offering something different helps develop a loyal audience. “You don’t go to a pub because they’ve got great snacks. But decent snacks ensure people have a better time. Micropubs are successful because, like the beer, you’re getting something you’re not getting anywhere else.”

But is that still true? In recent analysis of 1.5m orders, the app ServedUp found that hand-cooked and healthier baked crisps, olives and cashews are enjoying soaring sales in pubs, as pickled onions and salt-and-vinegar crisps decline.

The pub snack’s function has not changed since Victorian regulars were downing oysters with their stout. Landlords want peckish punters to stay put and stay thirsty. “Saltier snacks, pork products and moreish mild heat are good for business,” says Harrison. But snack ranges are increasingly sophisticated and, among those who regularly buy something to nibble on in the pub – 19% of pub-goers, according to manufacturer Tayto Group – so-called posh snacks are on the rise.

Nick Attfield, the director of properties at the Suffolk brewery Adnams, is baffled by biltong. “I think it’s dreadful. I can’t stand chewy meat.” But he imagines Adnams’ 10 managed pubs will soon stock it, alongside rice crackers, cheese straws and homemade pork scratchings. “And in pretty Kilner jars, where it used to be crisp boxes under the bar. Customer expectation has gone through the roof. It’s the general food trend, isn’t it? People are fascinated with food.”

Over the past decade, food has become a significant attraction at about one-third of UK pubs and, in such venues, snacks act as a shop window for restaurant-style menus – they set the tone. As a child, Alice Bowyer remembers pubs serving Mini Cheddars and cubed cheese on the bar. Now, as the executive chef of Bristol-based Butcombe Brewery’s 119 pubs, all of which serve food, she oversees snack menus that, alongside Tyrrells crisps and Mr Filbert’s “hand-crafted gourmet” nuts, might include kale crisps in Bristol’s vegan heartlands or Somerset Charcuterie’s spicy cider chorizo pokers, “like posh Peperamis”.

“If you had the best scotch egg in our pubs, I’d be delighted,” says Bowyer. “It doesn’t have to be shit. Or an afterthought.” But she adds: “We want to make sure our pubs are not too pretentious. We’ll absolutely still sell pickled eggs and Monster Munch in some.”

The idea that mainstream brands or traditional snacks are endangered by a growth in gourmet nibbles is moot. In March, a Perspectus Global survey of 2,000 pub-goers found that pork scratchings were still Britain’s favourite pub snack, with dry-roasted and salted peanuts, salt-and-vinegar and ready-salted crisps completing the Top 5. Olives trailed in 13th and wasabi peas a fitting 20th. Because why would you want that much heat when drinking beer or wine?

That survey chimes with what David Massey has observed over the past 10 years. A director at CG Supplies in Stoke-on-Trent, AKA lovepubsnacks.co.uk, Massey supplies about 2,000 British pubs and describes a market in which all snacks are flying (“August was the busiest month we’ve ever had”), but which has become far pickier.

For example, Tyrrells, Real and Pipers are now Massey’s bestselling crisp brands, with flavours other than the traditional big three – ready-salted, cheese-and-onion and salt-and-vinegar – markedly more popular. Particularly in “proper real ale pubs”, says Massey, many owners, “wouldn’t dream of having anything other than a hand-cooked crisp”.

‘A substantial meal’ ... a Butcombe Brewery scotch egg.

“When you can buy five packets of crisps for £1 in the supermarket, people don’t want to pay £1 a packet in the pub,” says Massey. “But if it’s something special, they don’t think anything about it.”

If the popularity of hand-cooked crisps reflects how Jamie and Nigella have transformed British attitudes to flavour, other shifts in pub snacks similarly track wider food trends. The past decade’s nostalgia for childhood flavours – seen in the playful menus at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant or when your local suddenly started stocking Nik Naks and Wotsits – is still in play. “We sell a lot more Monster Munch than we used to,” says Massey.

The high-protein foods trend has, more recently, transferred from the gym to the pub. Massey previously tried to sell biltong and beef jerky, “two or three times and it failed miserably. But they sell really well, now. There’s definitely been a change somewhere.”

Thriving, perhaps at a point where retro-modern British food and hipster notions of authenticity intersect, Massey has also noticed a significant revival of interest in ultra-traditional scratchings. After a feverish wave of artisan brands (see Mr Trotter’s “triple-cooked pork crackling”) and novel flavours from peri peri to pickled green chilli, it is back to basics. “We’ve got a Proper Black Country scratchings that is, by far, our biggest single-item seller. It’s a little bit the opposite of the crisps. You had so many new pork scratchings coming out. It’s gone full circle. Everyone wants proper old-fashioned scratchings.”

The pandemic may subtly change our relationship with pub snacks. Stuart Smith, the merchandising director at the foodservice giant Brakes, says that, instead of packets to rip open and share, individual items in recyclable packaging are on the up. “We’ve seen a huge increase in sales for meat snacks in paper bags.” Meanwhile, scotch eggs are still enjoying a PR bounce from last December’s cabinet-level debate over whether or not they counted as a “substantial meal”. “It’s fascinating. I’ve got them on quite a few menus now,” says Attfield. “It started off as a joke, one I don’t think publicans found particularly funny, but it got people talking.”

There will be those who see gentrification in £1.20 bags of crisps or £3 scotch eggs. Or landlords chasing profit. True, as wholesale per-bag costs are similar and they command a higher price, pubs make more per bag on posh crisps than standard. Tayto Group research suggests we will pay 30% more for premium brands.

But these are peripheral sales. The Beer House’s snacks generate roughly 5% of turnover. In smaller independents, landlords often serve snacks that are popular or a fun USP, rather than hugely profitable. The £1 beetroot or scotch bonnet pickled eggs at the Cock Tavern in Hackney, east London, are, says its manager, Joel Wood, “a total loss leader” to get people talking and drinking. “To loads of regulars and myself it’s a really decent snack. The working man’s scotch egg, where you shake a pickled egg in a packet of crisps – bangin’!”

At Corto, a craft beer and natural wine bar in Clitheroe, Lancashire, Katie Mather serves sourdough and miso butter or pan con tomate, because she and husband, Tom, love food. “We’re trying something different that we enjoy about European cafe-bar culture. We’re not making a huge profit. We use expensive ingredients. But it’s something people come back for.”

At the same time, she says: “That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy traditional pub snacks.” Corto sells Monster Munch, “and we’re looking at making pickled eggs”.

This is surely the way forward. Why choose between gourmet and big-brand pub snacks? You can have both. Yes, if you must, even wasabi peas.

Pub-goers enjoying bar snacks at the Spaniards Inn, north London, in 1958. Photograph: Picture Kitchen/Alamy

From whelks to wasabi peas – 200 years of pub snacks

1800s Oysters were plentiful and, by the mid-1800s, according to David Long’s book London’s Secret Square Mile, pickled eggs were so popular at one London pub that its address, now Crawford Passage, was known as Pickled Egg Walk. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor recorded hawkers going pub to pub with pickled whelks, pies, boiled peas and sheep’s trotters.

1910s to 1940s By the 1920s, Frank Smith, of Smith’s Crisps, in Cricklewood, north London, was selling packets of crisps to pubs alongside salt cellars to season them with. According to company legend, these were regularly stolen – inspiring the salt sachet in Smith’s Salt ’n’ Shake. By the 40s, Smith’s crisps were everywhere. “A 1949 article from the Economist summarised pub food as ‘crisps or a flaccid sardine on leathery toast’,” note the pub historians Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey, authors of 20th Century Pub.

1950s to 1980s KP starts selling nuts in 1953, pork scratchings emerge as a pub snack and pie-warmers appear on bars alongside filled rolls. The “fish man” tours pubs before last orders selling pots of cockles and prawns, tolerating merry punters asking: “Have you got crabs?”

1990s to 2021 Kettle Chips arrive, joining bombay mix and Twiglets on adventurous menus, paving the way for the hand-cooked revolution. The early 00s saw many pubs getting nostalgic (corner-shop sweets, prawn cocktail crisps). More recently, swanky nuts (cashews, pistachios), Mediterranean imports (olives, charcuterie) and spicier items (wasabi peas, jalapeño corn kernels, chilli crackers) have made inroads.