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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 26th Oct 2012 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Alan Yau, the bigger alcohol debate picture, losing customers, and objectivity and alcohol
Authors: Paul Charity, Paul Chase, Ann Elliott and James Nicholls

The secrets of Alan Yau by Paul Charity

There’s a multitude of approaches to the job of serving food and drink outside of the home. Few, though, can claim to give it the depth of thought of the multi-concept industry legend Alan Yau. The intense and studied Yau, who has risen from humble beginnings as the son of parents running a takeaway in King’s Lynn to become one of the UK’s most influential restaurateurs, had his audience spell-bound, at a rare public presentation offered to the European Foodservice Conference in Zurich, with his description of the sheer quantity of thought that goes into each of his concepts – Wagamama, Hakkasan, Cha Cha Moon, Yauatcha, Sake No Hana and Busaba Eathai. Yau said that the creation of Wagamama was borne of the confidence provided by a rigorous training in process that he learnt when he worked for McDonald’s. “The one thing that McDonald’s is able to teach you is systems,” he said.

Yau realised that the Wagamama concept would be based on the simplicity of a single product with three components – soup, noodle and toppings. “I thought, “I can do that and that was the beginning”. The Wagamama name means “spoilt child” and Yau reported that he also liked the symmetry of the As in the brand name, which picks up the vowels in his own name, something he has sought to repeat with his other restaurant concepts which also carry the key vowel in his name. Wagamana was also the first realisation of what Yau described as the perfect “spatial blueprint” for a restaurant. He described the lines of communal tables at 90 degrees to an open kitchen as a perfect “dynamic” relationship that could be applied to any type of cuisine. “You could apply it to pasta, Indian food, kebabs – whatever,” he said. 

He created a manifesto for Wagamama based around five key principles: positive eating and positive living; Wabi Sabi; kaizen; “Ramenology” and communalism. The notion of “positive eating and living” Yau argued was the “key ideology” for the brand. Wabi Sabi relates to Japanese design aesthetics and the brand sought to embrace a Western interpretation of minimalism while the principle of kaizen was tied to a determination to make continuous improvements to Wagamama. Yau said Ramenology was about the over-riding importance of having a “total focus and commitment to Ramen noodles” – a “dedication to ensure our product is amazing”. Lastly, communalism underpinned Wagamama’s distinctive shared tables. “I like people sharing tables as an ethos – the egalitarianism of it,” he said. “We had a “no reservations” policy based on the idea of serving all with equal dedication.”

Yau ticked off each and every holistic consideration that comes together to form the “emotional architecture” of a restaurant. “It’s about the feel of a space rather than aesthetics function or form. It is about finding the soul of a restaurant, how you engage in the process of making a house a home.” Yau believes that there are perfect dimensions for table size and height to create the optimal dining experience based on the dimensions used by Harry’s Bar in Venice. Tables should be 680mm in height and 600mm in depth, with seat height at a fixed and unchanging 380mm. Table lighting should be Osram Halospot with the power at 50 watts and the angle of the lamp at eight degrees. He waxed lyrical about his love of ceiling fans creating “kinsthetics” – the flow of air around a restaurant. “I love the flow of air that fans make you feel and I put these things in everywhere.” Yau also tries to create a unique “olfactory” identity to his restaurants. “The best execution of this is the Hotel Kos in Paris which has candle scent everywhere. At Busabi Eathai we have the burning of lemongrass incense.”

The space given to each customer should be around one metre square. “The tighter the circulation space, the more you are able to build the intimacy of that space. The energy you are able to create from this is incredible.” Yau also applies feng shui to each restaurant twice over –a first fix of feng shui followed by a second. “I’m seeking harmony through the arrangement of space,” he said. Yau was ordained as a Buddist monk in 2010 and he told his audience that at each new venue “he meditates in the space where we want to develop a concept”. At the end of Yau’s cerebral presentation he had one last ethereal observation: “concept development should be more than the articulation of space”.
Paul Charity is managing director of Propel Info

What puts customers off by Ann Elliott

A few weeks ago I had breakfast with a great operator who runs the most superb group of pubs and bars- one I have always wanted to work with. He knows us well. I was talking about how we help operators ‘get bums on seats’ and how we work with our clients to drive covers. He stopped me in my tracks when he said ‘I don’t actually think that’s where you add the most value. What you’re really good at is telling operators how, and where, they stop covers. We don’t always see that – we are often just too engrossed in our own business to look around us and see our operation from our customer’s perspective. That’s what you should talk about. That’s what you should do’

So I took the opportunity last week to talk to some customers about the sorts of things that operators do that really really irritate them, stop them staying in a pub, recommending it or coming back.

Here is what they said they disliked about pubs and what they said stopped them buying more than one drink or meant they wouldn’t come back for another meal.

1. Bringing back of house, front of house. They really thought there was nothing much worse than hearing the team chatting about their own personal lives and ignoring customers standing at a bar who just wanted to be served. No one really wanted to hear the bar staff talking about who they got off’ with last night (to put it nicely). Disney talk about ‘off stage’ and ‘’on stage. In so many pubs, the staff seem to have lost the idea of any sort of distinction between the two

2. They really disliked going into a pub and having that feeling that they were walking into a group of people who belonged to a special club that they were just not part of- and weren’t about to be asked to join

3. They really didn’t like walking across the proverbial sticky floor (they still are out there), leaning across the bar and then finding out they couldn’t lift their arm as it was stuck to the surface (yes they exaggerated to prove a point)

4. They talked about asking for a beer (as in ‘ What’s your best?’ ) and the bar man / woman having absolutely no idea what ‘their best’ looked like - looking at them as if they had asked them about the theory of relativity. Or they asked for a gin and tonic and that’s all they got – no ice and no lemon – oh and no hospitality

5. They wanted something to eat but the menu was typed and photocopied which they thought meant that the menu had been the same since Xmas (and it was now September). They really didn’t like only having a limited menu choice on the specials .. and not because they were special

6. The couldn’t believe it when the person behind the bar sloped up to them and then just took their glass without asking them if they wanted another drink. Why take their glass?!!

7. They dared to risk ordering some food (‘can’t go wrong with fish and chips) which they had to pay for without being asked if they wanted to run a tab. Then waiting the half an hour before being served one meal with the rest of them arriving with the dessert

8. They didn’t dare talk about the toilets but they still sometimes smell

9. And lastly they hated it when no one smiled. Please, they begged, don’t work in a pub if you don’t want to smile

I imagine that will do for now but it gave me food for thought.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of Elliott Marketing and PR

Seeing the bigger picture by Paul Chase

There have been two interesting recent developments in respect of the Alcohol Health Alliance’s (AHA) strategy: the publication of research into minimum pricing in Canada, and Alcohol Concern’s alcohol-related health costs map for England and Wales. What links the two is how they fit in to the AHA’s overall strategy.

The AHA’s strategy has but one goal: to achieve a continuing fall in alcohol consumption per head across the whole population. There are two thrusts used to achieve this: raising price and reducing availability. Each of these strategic thrusts has a set of tactical demands attached to it – MUP is part of raising price, along with support for the duty escalator; reducing outlet density and resisting new licence applications are examples of the drive to reduce alcohol’s availability.

The Scottish government doesn’t like being reminded that there is absolutely no evidence linking alcohol MUP and lower health harms. It suggests that they are merely moral entrepreneurs pursuing an ideological obsession, so, unable to produce an evidence-based policy they produce policy-based evidence instead. The report into minimum pricing in Canada is an example of this. The research was conducted by Tim Stockwell, PhD. Tim Stockwell was on the research team for the Sheffield Report, which is the Bible of Medical Temperance. The Sheffield Report is a mathematical model which attempts to predict the consumption and health outcomes of MUP. The attempt by Alcohol Concern to present the Canadian research as validating these assumptions is highly misleading.

When reporting this research to prove MUP “works” both Alcohol Concern and the Scottish press strongly suggested that the pricing structure in Canada is the same as that proposed by the Scottish and UK governments, namely, basing a minimum price on a unit of alcohol – the more units a drink contains, the more expensive it becomes. A detailed analysis of this research reveals that in Canada they don’t structure their alcohol price controls in this way. For example, spirits with an ABV greater than 55 per cent are priced at $1.18 per unit (standard drink), whereas spirits with an ABV range of 35 per cent to 44.9 per cent are priced at $1.37. Similarly, beers with an ABV greater than 8.5 per cent are priced $1.39 per unit, whereas beers at 6.5 per cent to 7.5 per cent are priced at $1.72 per unit. What we have here is ‘statutory pricing’ in which some drinks with a higher ABV are cheaper than those with a lower ABV – not MUP as proposed in the UK at all!

All the report actually proves is that Canada’s price regulation has achieved a fall in alcohol consumption, which is what happens when you raise the price of anything. It has not measured alcohol harm reductions at all.

But there’s an even more telling point to be considered: the licensing system in which statutory pricing in Canada operates is based on a government alcohol monopoly. Only the Canadian government can import alcohol and the sale of it is strictly controlled. In all but two of Canada’s provinces alcohol for consumption off the premises can only be bought from government-owned liquor stores. The on-trade is subject to the same high-price controls and availability is strictly controlled. In Manitoba, for example, you can only buy locally produced chilled beers for consumption in the on-trade from hotels!

For those who still believe that MUP is a one-way bet that can only benefit the pub, the Scottish enthusiasm for the Canadian government’s alcohol monopoly is a timely warning. Canada is not alone in operating a government alcohol-monopoly. Most of the Nordic countries operate them too, with the exception of mainland Denmark. Scotland, with a population of just 5.25 million is just the right size for such a monopoly to be established with relative ease. And with the possibility of Scottish independence looming I suspect that is the direction policy will move in the medium term, with more and more government control.

What of Alcohol Concern’s alcohol-related health costs map for England and Wales? This is old wine in new bottles. Alcohol Concern uses the same bogus counting methodology that the NHS Information Centre uses - ‘alcohol-attributable fractions’ - which over-states the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions by a factor of five. They simply break these figures down on a regional basis to produce their ‘map’. The publication of this ‘map’ coincides with the government’s consultation on whether ‘health harms’ can be a relevant factor when deciding on a ‘cumulative impact policy’. In other words, it is designed to provide local “facts and figures” that will assist Health Care Trusts if they decide to object to the grant of a new licence.

The AHA’s strategy is a simple one, but its implementation is sophisticated and clever. They know that MUP is going to be delayed by at least two years, but the twin-track strategic thrusts enable them to switch from price to availability using bogus statistics, while keeping the argument going on MUP with false comparisons.
Paul Chase is a director of CPL Training and a leading on-trade alcohol policy commentator

Objectivity and alcohol by James Nicholls

I work for Alcohol Research UK and have been described as “gloating” over the success of minimum unit pricing during a recent public talk. This was a misperception: I had, in reality, simply been seeking to account for the remarkable fact that minimum unit pricing had progressed from a largely unknown concept to government policy across the UK in little over five years. 

It seemed to me that the adoption of MUP was partly due to the fact that it satisfied the interests of both public health advocates and a significant swathe of the drinks industry. Conventionally, politicians have shied away from interventions that smack of the ‘nanny state’, and both Conservative and Labour leaders rejected MUP when it was proposed by the Chief Medical Officer in 2009. However, the fact that MUP – unlike other price instruments – split trade interests, created unexpected coalitions (such as between CAMRA and Alcohol Concern) and tapped into widespread public concern over very cheap alcohol, meant it opened what is often called a ‘policy window’: a moment when otherwise impractical political options become viable.

This was, on my part, simply an observation, but it is indicative of the nature of debates on alcohol at the moment that it was misconstrued as self-satisfied advocacy on behalf of the policy. Objectivity, it seems, is often not an option where alcohol policy is concerned. Public debate on alcohol is currently as polarised as it has been for a very long time, and battle lines are drawn at a level probably not seen since the political furore over licence suppression and compensation schemes in the first decade of the 20th century. 

This polarisation is, to some degree, understandable. Recently, debates on alcohol have turned on fundamental issues: how easy should it be to access alcohol? Should the state be responsible for reducing overall consumption? Is alcohol a beneficial substance that has limited negative effects, or, essentially, a drug of dependence that happens to create some positive outcomes? Such axiomatic questions are bound to generate impassioned responses on both sides. However, those passions can, to put it bluntly, cause something of a tin ear when it comes to the nuances that really (and quite rightly) characterise this issue.

I am especially conscious of this dynamic having recently moved from academia into a role at Alcohol Research UK. Alcohol Research UK has the important – but some might say unenviable – task of providing an objective source of research information on alcohol. We are committed to facilitating research, and therefore improving the evidence-base for policy. That is not the same as being an advocacy organisation. However, when what people expect to hear is advocacy, rather than analysis, then that is how viewpoints are likely to be construed. Sadly, that risks reducing the debate to a kind of intellectual trench warfare, when what is needed is something far more open and dynamic. 

Of course debates will be forceful, impassioned, angry, even: everyone has some stake in this, and for many people that may be their livelihood. However, alcohol research and policy is not black and white – even though at the extremes differences of perspective can be fundamental. I don’t think we can, or should, all be friends, but I do think it matters that arguments are taken on their own terms, not forced (often erroneously) into unhelpfully rigid boxes.
James Nicholls is research manager at Alcohol Research UK

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