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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 21st Sep 2012 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Public health professionals, the economy and service and the chef shortage
Authors: Dr John Foster, Chris Gerard and Brian Whiting

Public health professionals: Good, bad and the ugly by Dr John Foster

I note with interest the experiences of Paul Chase at the Westminster Policy Briefing event. I was not there but it does strike me he appears to adopt the role of an Old Testament prophet proclaiming from the desert. I regularly read Mr Chase’s bulletins and whilst I have no doubt trading difficulties are difficult most mornings I note that there are parts of the sector that are expanding so perhaps he doth protest too much.

Clearly we public health professionals should now go around in black hats and smocks. Phrases such as “moral panic” and “neo-temperance” might provide some useful context but like many models or theories they become rather redundant when they have become by-passed by events. The majority of people I know from a public health persuasion are not teetotal, indeed some of our best collaborative has taken place over a few pints. The general impression I got from Mr Chase’s account was: “It is not fair.”

Indeed it looks as though the rules of the game have begun to change. Mr Chase might want to reflect upon why this is the case. It is true that the public health community has become a powerful anti-alcohol lobby however this is perfectly legitimate in a parliamentary democracy. It is a bit rich for Mr Chase to complain about effective lobbying of policy makers when this has been the methodology employed by various parts of the alcohol and hospitality industry for many years. I note that the government have recently refused to accept the case to restrict alcohol advertising further. No doubt effective lobbying contributed in no small way to this outcome.

One of the reasons why the public health community have become effective lobbyists is because they have over the past 15-20 years assembled a body of evidence that has convinced policy makers that they can no longer ignore the costs of alcohol. It is possible to criticise elements of this work as no doubt Mr Chase will point out but it points in one direction. This is that higher amounts of alcohol are at the very least associated with greater individual and societal risk across many health states, criminal behaviour, accidents and incidents. Some of the calculations relied upon in assessing levels of damage are “guestimates” but these are on the basis of robust epidemiological data. They are not as is commonly portrayed “on the back of a fag packet.” 

In contrast the case of the alcohol and hospitality industry is almost entirely based upon a commercial case. In this case employment provided to the locality and money for the exchequer. Clearly policy makers balance this against the harms that alcohol is at least associated with. Fifteen to twenty years ago the policy makers gave very little attention to general population harms associated with alcohol it appears this is no longer the case.

Mr Chase is forgetting that from the early 1990’s until 2003/4 there was a steady increase in per capita consumption. Over that period local authorities were not able to refuse licensing applications on the grounds that areas were already “saturated” with license premises hence the creation of cumulative impact areas. In addition a number of managers were paid large percentages of their salaries in commission. In short when there is a need to sell to survive this will always trump responsibility and checks and balances were/are needed.

What I suspect upsets Mr Chase the most is the fact that the proposal; to introduce minimum unit pricing has been introduced by a government (let’s face it, a Tory government) he would have expected to protect large and small businesses. Possibly, in times of plenty policy makers would have been quite content for the populace to eat, smoke and drink itself to death, however we are no longer in times of plenty and possibly never will be again. Thus we are probably witnessing a trend where the commercial case will now have to be balanced against wider health harms- time will tell. Even if there are people in the public health community who do wish to introduce a 70p minimum unit price they are highly unlikely to succeed. The British like alcohol, though where they choose to drink may change. How much attention is paid to general population harms will always be a pragmatic decision. The idea that the alcohol and hospitality industry could be consigned to be “sunset industries” is fanciful. However if Mr Chase does feel rather marginalised he might reflect upon how the behaviour of the alcohol industry in its many guises might have contributed to this state of affairs.
Dr John Foster is principal research fellow at the University of Greenwich-School of Health and Social Care. This represents his personal opinions and do not represent those of the University of Greenwich. Paul Chase will reply to this article in next Friday’s Propel Opinion.

Quality and our national economic indicators need have no link by Chris Gerard

I attended a presentation this week provided by NatWest on the economic outlook; these annual presentations in super comfortable surroundings are a bit of added value for favoured clients. They do offer a free lunch and opportunity to make new friends. The presentation was given by a young economist, who chose to explain, and I paraphrase, that “we were all doomed”. His thesis was that the UK economy and its future is mirroring the fortunes of Japan in the 1990s and 2000s and therefore we could expect more of the same. And this, he explained, was straight-forwardly terrible. 

He forecast bumbling management of future economic crises, with political swings, from attempts to reign in debt positions to unsuccessful macro growth strategies over the next five to ten, or even 20 years. He forecast little, if any, growth, with interest rates at or around zero per cent for some considerable time to come. After the presentation I had the opportunity to pose some questions: Why is John Lewis reporting 30 per cent improvements in performance and Apple showing a 14 per cent rise in share price in 14 days in the context of such a troubled world? There are always exceptions, he explained. As always, I find with an academic, the answer is: “It depends”. Companies that treat customers as Gods seem to be okay and it obviously does matter which sector you are in. But it also matters which part of the country you are in, and, of course, who your customers are.

So has it been uniformly awful in Japan over the last 20 years? By conventional measures, certainly. As an investor in the Nikkei, you would have been better off warming yourself by the fire using half the cash you had as fuel in 1990 rather than investing it in the stock market. But if you were a restaurateur in Tokyo you would probably have been fine. There are now more restaurants than ever in this city and they are all virtually full.

So two important conclusions: The first: geography really matters. The second: companies that treat their customers as Gods will prosper. To the first point, if we lived in the Viking kingdom once called Wessex with Londinium as our capital, we would be in substantial growth with tax receipts exceeding our public spending. We would have an all-powerful currency and we would probably have had to build a new Hadrian’s wall to keep out the Northern economic migrants. If we, however, lived in Mercia or, perhaps worse, Northumbria, our numbers would be truly dreadful and we would be looking to Greece for a bail out.

So on aggregate, going forward growth is going to be flat, but it will depend where you are and the national GDP numbers, even if you believe them, are not an indicator to trust or compare to the performance of your business, as national GDP numbers are just that, national. I came away thanking my lucky stars to be in Wessex.

To the second point, companies that treat their customers as Gods will prosper. I took this idea away with me and chatted it through with Patrick, my head chef at The Cross Keys in Saffron Walden.

What we need to do is treat our customers as Gods I explained. He nodded at me, agreeing with every word I uttered, but comprehending just the words but neither the meaning nor implications. And then we had a really interesting conversation. Patrick had, the week prior and against my better judgement, introduced a new special, Surf and Turf. This dish was a take on the delicious classic with an aged fillet steak combined with Palourde clams. My view had been and was, “Clams, you can shove them”, they are too niche and what we needed was a mainstream and delicious fish compliment. I told him: I want us to treat our customers as Gods; I want us to give them exactly what they would like to eat; I want you to change the clams for … seared monkfish. We have had Patrick’s version on sale for a week and now we would try monkfish and see which they prefer. Then we would just look at the numbers.

Patrick’s mouth dropped. But that’s not fair, he said, we are bound to sell more with monkfish on the dish as it is more popular. I looked at him and we both laughed as he grasped the ridiculous nature of his statement. Then, not giving up, he defended his position - clams are cheaper, monkfish is more expensive. And I replied so are John Lewis and Apple and he got the second point as powerfully as he had the first!

John Lewis and Apple are relatively highly priced, but non-distressed customers remain prepared to pay for what they want even if it’s at a higher cost. And it is for those of us setting out to receive customers in Wessex, wherever Wessex is, to treat them as Gods and give them what they want. The rumours of a stagnant economy spilling over from Northumbria must not frighten us into serving clams. I’ll let you know whether Patrick or myself turns out to be right on this.
Chris Gerard is chief executive of Innventure and previously worked at Mitchells & Butlers and rolled out Vintage Inns

Is it the lack of chefs that will stop us progressing by Brian Whiting

Isn’t it a shame? Here we are, they tell us, in the height of a recession and you have a company that’s trying to move forward and expand. Luckily, we don’t have a problem with customers turning up at our door; we seem to manage that quite well. Our biggest problem, aside from the ridiculous amount of VAT we pay to the exchequer every quarter, and the crazy duty that seems to pile on top of an already heavily taxed product year after year, is that we have a real shortage of chefs within the industry.

Being a former chef myself, I feel I can speak on this subject with some expertise. In my younger days working at The Savoy in London with 90 other chefs in the restaurant kitchen, I can tell you the passion and the love for the game was unbelievable. Yes, we worked crazy hours and endured intense pressure in an extremely hot working environment, but, by God, we loved it. We all had ambition; we wanted to be top of our game. So what’s happened? Is it the education system where my three teenage daughters can type quicker than I can blink, can work out any programme on a computer and surf the web without even having to think about it. But if I was to ask them to turn some raw potatoes into chips from scratch they would have no idea. Or is the problem programmes like the X Factor, creating a ‘get rich quick’ attitude that involves simply being in the right place at the right time, creating a detrimental mindset with young people?

We got involved in our local £70m rebuilt college, with catering kitchens that were bursting with equipment. I personally counted over 12 Rational ovens around the catering department only to find out that the drop-out rate for students starting in September was as high as 50 per cent by Christmas. When I went to catering college there was one place for every three students that applied. What has happened? Clearly, young people are not being wowed into our industry like I was. I remember my parents being quite excited when I declared I wanted to become a chef – I doubt if that would happen today. Nowadays, the emphasis is on going to university and getting a degree in some obscure subject that’s never going to help you in later life. So, what can we, the hospitality industry, do about it? 

Well, it’s clear we’re going to get no help from the government, even with high youth unemployment rates. They just don’t seem to ‘get’ that we could be the answer to their problem. I think any food-led company has a moral obligation to take on young chefs/apprentices so we can all benefit in the future. We are adding ten new junior chef positions to our payroll next month and we’re committed to training and developing these youngsters as an investment in the future. I think, by the way, that we’ve all got to stop over-promoting staff within the kitchen brigade. All too often a Chef de Partie becomes a Sous Chef and moves up the ladder too quickly, getting an elevated sense of self-worth, sometime bordering on grandeur. This can bounce back and bite on the backside when a young chef is found wanting in a new role.

More generally, let’s get back to basics, get back to the passion and the love for great quality food. I’ve never had a problem with chefs moving on from us as long as they’re trying to better themselves. They are always welcome back because they invariably bring greater knowledge that can only improve our operations.

I don’t have the magic formula to find and recruit these elusive chefs. There’s going to be no overnight fix - this will take years and we all need to do our bit if this food side of our industry is going to flourish.
Brian Whiting is managing director of south east gastro-operator Whiting & Hammond

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