Fresh, local, wholesome & tasty (or bye, bye box-meals)

There seems to be some ‘good’ that has come out of the horse-meat saga – the fact that punters of all Wetherspoon pubs can rest assured that everything they consume is as advertised. Also good is that high street butcheries are getting an upsurge of custom as people are doing with less ready-meals and opting for what the local producers have been trying to get them to do for ages.

But this begs these questions: Why do so many ready-meals get sold anyway? Is it for the convenience factor? Is it because they’re quick to buy, sling in the microwave and then eat? Many really struggle with the notion that they’re ‘just as tasty and nutritious’ as the ‘real thing.’ Good marketing will have the public believing anything. And the ready-meal firms and supermarket chains have some really good marketing campaigns.

There are restaurants, pubs and eating establishments across the country who are taking the opportunity to push home to the public the fact that careful selection of menu items can be a lot more wholesome and enjoyable than buying most of what is on offer in the ‘ready-meal’ genre.

Tapas Collage

Take any of the Capital Pub Company establishments, for example. Their variety and choice in the menus make it easy to enjoy good food at reasonable prices. Of course some would argue that a selection of three dishes from a tapas menu (to be shared at the table to add variety) is much more expensive than the eight quid you might spend on a combination of similar dishes at Sainsbury’s. Possibly cheaper … but you get what you pay for. And the ready-meal option doesn’t take into account any cost in getting to and from the supermarket, the business of making box-food presentable on a plate and then serving it. What it also doesn’t take into account is what this column has been going on about for quite a long time – it’s not just about the food. It’s about the enjoyment of company. The experience and enjoyment of the atmosphere. The occasion!

Establishments and chains who use stocktaking firms like Rutters have got a day’s march on those who are playing catch up with the programme of attracting custom away from the supermarket-diners to their own restaurants. With careful and sustained planning, structure and foresight, Jon Rutter and his team of professionals have been doing what they can to ensure their clients are ahead of the wave in the hospitality industry. So when a situation erupts over food standards or labelling, there are well established businesses able to ensure the public have no concerns if they choose to visit and enjoy their hospitality.

And the debate over pricing will continue – that ready-meals are cheaper. Chefs, gastronomes, food bloggers etc will also continue to argue that with a bit of effort, the same ingredients can be purchased and prepared for cheaper and in a more wholesome way than the box-meal. And supermarket dieticians and health experts will take issue with that statement. So be it.

The general raison d’etre is that people are ‘too busy’ or ‘don’t possess enough skills’ to prepare their own food. No one even dare mention the word lazy!

The good people of the UK are moaning about the closures in the high street, the supermarket invasions, the ‘plastic food’ and all that stuff. This is the perfect opportunity for those good folk to actively support the local producers, to avoid all the convenience meals, to enjoy what their local pubs have available. All it takes is an adjustment of habits and a change of mindset.

Is there enough resolve in the good people of Britain to achieve this? Or even, is there enough resolve among the people surrounding your locale to instigate a shift to local business that’s not run by a conglomerate whose only concern is the bottom line profit and doesn’t even take the customer seriously?

As long as the label is clear on what the contents are, will it be back to lasagne-in-a-foil-box when this all blows over? Bon appétit!

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“And the Winner is …”

The start of a year brings with it, apart from some really cold weather and bills from Christmas, the roll-out of the “awards season” … the BAFTAS, the EMMYS, the OSCARS and more. The hospitality industry aren’t left out either. Two that caught my eye are the “BII Licensee of the Year Award” and “The Publican Awards”. Both soirées will take place later in the year, but the process is now in place and some semi-finalists have been named.

There are some who are a teeny bit cynical about award do’s suggesting that they are just an excuse for a good party at someone else’s expense. But on examining the various criteria and some of the categories for these awards, it’s difficult not to feel respect for those making it through to the short list.

newyears_fireworks

The search for the BII winner is about to enter another phase of analysis and judges scrutiny as they look for “genuine passion, outstanding drive and the highest level of professionalism.” And after that is done, those still standing will be grilled in front of the judging panel until the winner is whittled out and finally announced on 14th May.

March 11th at the Grosvenor Hotel will see the presentation of the Publican Awards. These will focus on specific aspects of the industry and recognise their achievements. Awards for ‘Best Late Night Operator’ and ‘Best Pub Employer’ are among the many categories.

These events are the culmination of the process that various branches of the industry use to ensure their standards are at the level to which all should be aspiring. They also serve as a challenge to their peers to raise the bar in the various categories of service, décor, operations, initiative and so forth. Unlike the Oscars where it is all done for ‘entertainment value’ these awards are much more serious as they represent standards that directly impact on the public in the areas of food and drink safety, comfort and accommodation.

That the industry is taking all this seriously is good news for ‘Joe Pub-visitor’ as it ensures there are those who value him not only as a regular but that he goes home well satisfied, well fed, watered and rested too. So those not in the industry shouldn’t view these awards in quite the same light as those awarded for making them laugh and cry from a TV programme or film.

The players in the hard world of keeping the customer satisfied will value stocktaking companies like Rutters in their bid to attain and reach the standards their own industry demands. Without their professional help in the planning, feedback and advice they provide, it is virtually impossible to achieve the high standards these competitive awards are judged on.

The fact is, so many enter, but only a very few are able to achieve the acceptance-speech level. And this is where the unfairness of these awards creeps in. It is only the short list and the final winners who are paraded, photographed and lauded – that the public might conclude that the unnamed remainder of establishments are not good enough. Not so! It is a very tough competition with very high standards and there can only be one winner – it doesn’t mean the race wasn’t hard-fought.

Wouldn’t it be great to see your favourite pub with an award proudly displayed? But if it’s not the winner, it’s still the place that you choose to be – so don’t stop. Your Publican won’t stop trying, and maybe next year you’ll get the chance to have a swig out the trophy, along with the other loyal supporters.

Valentine’s … gentlemen, choose carefully!

While the Dutch get ready to send their UK cousins 32 million flowers of various varieties and colours, beaus across the country are trying to impress shopkeepers that they really do know the difference between good and passable chocolate by reciting cocoa butter percentages at them.

In the inevitable build-up to Valentine’s Day of planning romantic evenings, giving flowers and scoffing chocs, relatively few folk know that the earliest recorded poem associated with this day was penned as early as 1382 by Geoffrey Chaucer when he wrote: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (Now THAT’S how to impress your partner with your knowledge, by quoting Chaucer!)

Apart from all the ‘frills’ of Valentine’s gifts, cards and flowers, there is often the lead up to couples planning some place to visit to enjoy some time together. This is usually a restaurant or a place to share a meal. Which got me thinking about décor, and what makes a place attractive to a diner and for what occasions.

The wife won’t really think my attention is on her for Valentine’s if I book a table at the local sports bar and sit the entire evening facing the television as the Liverpool away game takes place at the Petrovski Stadium! No, she’d appreciate the quiet atmosphere of a cosy place with nice furnishings and soft music in the background while my whole attention is focussed on the ‘bubble’ around our table. It would also be a good time to turn the mobile off.

Chocolate dessert

Experience has taught that choosing a place that is well run, with carefully planned menus and a good support system makes for a much more pleasant dining experience. Establishments that have a good system, the likes of which Rutters have put in place, help to prevent the chaos that a kitchen can descend into when they realize they don’t have enough salmon for the starters or that the dessert is missing an ingredient! “I’m sorry madam, the Decadent Chilli-Chocolate Cheesecake is, err … off, can I bring you some bread-and-butter-pudding instead?”

We also like to choose a venue with good, but not bright, lights. The sort of place where the lines on my face have been softened by diffuse lighting but not too dark that I need a miner’s helmet or a waiter’s directions to enjoy the meal, “Here you are, Sir, the steak is at 12 o’clock, the chips at 4 with the peas and gravy between six and twelve. The brown sauce is 6 inches from the plate at eleven o’clock.”

Unobtrusive and neutral pictures and wallpaper all add to the ambience many regard as their ideal place to spend an evening to celebrate an occasion, whether it be Valentine’s or anything else for that matter. If I go to a themed establishment, I expect to experience all the appropriate décor they declare that their name may suggest: ‘The Victory’ or ‘The Fox’ and so on. I would hope that the décor would be ‘appropriate’ and ‘suitable’ too, and that any pubs named after Elizabeth I don’t replace their current portraits with the one recently unveiled at the Folger Sheakespeare Library in Washington DC – the likeness is a bit unflattering and even soft light won’t melt her wrinkles away like mine are.

Having this image of Her Maj. glaring down at us could quite put the wife off her delicious dessert and kill the mood of the evening!

Just a hole in the ground? … no, a marketing opportunity!

The newspapers are so full of doom and gloom lately, about the pub industry, about regulation, about tax, about licensing fees etc etc, so it was refreshing to hear reports on what players in the industry are doing to help.

Enterprise Inn’s Ted Tuppen indicated that about 800 pubs are going to get their “kerb appeal” enhanced. As any real estate agent will tell you, this is the strategy employed to make people want to stop and come in. This is a good plan and can only be of assistance – it’s much nicer to walk in to a place that looks inviting rather than a seedy looking joint, even if the chips are good.

Horse

This presents the perfect opportunity for restaurants and pubs in the vicinity of the Leicester City Council car park where they have just confirmed that “His Grace Richard Plantagenet, King of England and France, Lord of Ireland” met his fate and was unceremoniously dumped into a tight hole in the ground. An enterprising publican or restrauteur could dolly up his frontage and advertise a walking tour of the site, expound a bit on the history of the unfortunate Richard III and then repair to the pub for a “meal of the period” to enhance the experience. A package deal. Now as ridiculous as that might sound to some, there are people from all walks who would pay good money for that type of thing. And it’s current news that Henry VII’s predecessor has been confirmed as ‘the body in the carpark.’ A Shakespeare fan could even quote the “my kingdom for a horse” speech … just don’t let the chef hear!

Slangkop

And for even more enterprising folk, think of the opportunities the Bristol Channel provides for those interested in the history this stretch of water has seen over the centuries. The Gull and Leek is on the market, complete with an 86 acre beer garden! It’s a Victorian pub on an island and probably doesn’t have the problems of having to contend with binge drinkers. It even has its own lighthouse. This could be developed into the type of venue that would make it desirable and exclusive to a particular, targeted clientele. Rutters would gladly ensure that their excellent knowledge and planning skills would enhance the effectiveness of the place. All the owner would have to do would be to ensure a regular means of getting to one of the most remote bars in Britain. The Cardiff Council owns this beautiful place and it’s up for grabs.

The ongoing debate (war) about the screening of sports in bars took a twist too. Sky TV is offering discounts to tenants of certain groups. Probably as a measure to keep folk from using those foreign services. Nothing wrong with discounts, a pity they’re not offered more. Everyone has to make a living and no one really minds a bit of give-and-take in the process. Darragh O’Connor of Kenricks Bar is really smiling. He won the Sky competition and walked off with a years free subscription.

How about some more competitions, Sky?

Just not a competition like the one at the recent Super Bowl party where record-breaking food-wolfer Kobayashi made a pizza disappear in just one minute. Definitely not fine dining!