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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 22nd Aug 2014 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Local food for non-local people, alcohol policy, and capturing mobile customers
Authors: Martyn Cornell, Paul Chase and Matthew Kirby

Local food for non-local people by Martyn Cornell

I had, pound for pound (or euro for euro, to be exact) one of the best meals I can remember last week, in an open-air restaurant a few feet from the beautiful, warm, turquoise-fading-to-deep-blue waters of the Messenian Gulf, in the tiny Peloponnese village of Limeni. It was grilled grouper, plucked from those same warm waters, accompanied by wild greens gathered from the Taygetos mountains, through which we had just driven. This was the acme of local eating: I doubt anything on the plate had come from more than three or four miles away. Everything was delicious, perfectly cooked, the flavours clear, clean and striking, the bitter greens a perfect partner to the muscular, almost sweet fish. Even more remarkably, the whole meal, including wine, beer and dessert, came to around €22 a head – £17. That’s pretty expensive by the usual benchmarks of southern Greece, where a party of six can still dine out well for less than €70 all in (a price that, thanks to the hammering the Greek economy has taken over the past few years, has not altered at all since at least 2006). But by British standards it’s quite astonishingly good value. I wouldn’t have been surprised to pay – and wouldn’t have minded paying – three or four times that much in a restaurant in London for food that good. And I wouldn’t have had such a fantastic view from my table, either.

Nor, of course, would very much on my plate have had such local provenance as it did in Limeni: and even if those exact same ingredients had been flown to London, I doubt I would have enjoyed them as much as I did in Laconia. I’m a great fan of the idea of terroir, a concept associated primarily with wine, but which is an under-rated idea, still, when it comes to food. Food psychologists will tell you that much of our reaction to what we eat and drink is in our minds. My enjoyment of those bitter greens from the Taygetos was greatly enhanced by knowing that right after my meal I could have, if I wished, walked up into the mountains where they had grown.

Does that sort of thing matter to sufficient numbers of people, though, to be any sort of force worth marketing to in the context of British hospitality? Is it even manageable? The chef-entrepreneur Simon Shaw is boasting that the free-range chickens spit-roasted at his Bird and Beast rotisserie restaurant in Leeds come from the Yorkshire Wolds, which is satisfying from a terroir viewpoint for Tykes, but it will be less satisfying for the people of Manchester to be told they are eating White Rose birds when Shaw opens his second Bird and Beast outlet in Deansgate next year. And if Shaw achieves his stated ambition of challenging Nando’s as the nation’s premier chicken outlet, it’s hard to see how localism in terms of chicken supply could be maintained.

Certainly few or no London restaurants can justify trying to source ingredients locally for any other reason than the warm glow it might bring. Earlier this summer the Culpeper pub in East London opened with much noise about its “rooftop farm”, where it claimed it would be growing herbs, salads and the like, and “every dish will contain at least one ingredient from the pub’s rooftop”. Sadly, it is hard to disagree with the food critic Jay Rayner, who gave the whole concept a thorough kicking in the Observer last month:

“The carbon footprint of small-scale urban farming – which requires vast inputs in the shape of wooden-cased beds, brought-in soil and dedicated tools for a tiny yield – is awful. And then there’s the carbon footprint of whoever labours over it for that tiny yield. Localness isn’t an argument either. Once you do a full life-cycle analysis of your food, you find that the transportation generally accounts for only 2-4% of its carbon footprint. That’s why the rest of London gets its ingredients from farms outside the city. It makes more sense. Against that, notions of ‘freshness’, which are in the eye of the beholder, start to look flimsy.”

So: a full plateful of truly local food of the sort I enjoyed in Limeni is unlikely to ever be anything but a pleasure for a very small minority. But that’s not to dismiss the idea of terroir completely. I was delighted this week to read about Daniel Szor, the American whisky enthusiast behind the new Cotswolds Distillery, in Stourton, Wiltshire, who had an epiphany two years ago in a Cotswolds barley field, and decided that a whisky capturing the “terroir” of one of the most beautiful agricultural locations in Britain had to be made. Even more “local”, Szor wants to make gins flavoured with local plants, some of which will be grown on site. Will the first chef to put Cotswold lamb flavoured with Cotswold gin on the menu please get in touch …
Martyn Cornell is managing editor of Propel Info

Why alcohol policy is like “Whac-a-Mole” by Paul Chase

As a kid I confess I didn’t have much of a misspent youth. But I used to enjoy an arcade game called ‘Whac-a-Mole’. A typical Whac-a-Mole machine consists of a large, waist-level cabinet with five holes in its top and a large, soft, black mallet. Each hole contains a single plastic mole and a mechanism to move it up and down. Once the game starts, the moles pop up from their holes at random. The object of the game is to knock the individual moles back into their holes by hitting them directly on the head with the mallet, thereby adding to the player’s score. The quicker this is done the higher the final score will be. It was all very therapeutic.

Sometimes I feel we’re playing a somewhat less therapeutic game of Whac-a-Mole in relation to alcohol policy proposals. Just as you think you’ve vanquished one silly idea, up it pops in a different form and you’ve got to whack it all over again! Two groups have come up with Whac-a-Mole proposals this week: first-up is the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), which is a think tank that used to be fronted by Iain Duncan-Smith MP. They’ve produced a report titled ‘Ambitious for Recovery’ which has proposed a ‘treatment tax’. The proposal is that a tax should be levied on alcohol sales from the off-trade, starting at a half-penny per unit in 2015 to 2017, and rising every two years to one penny, one and a half pence, and then to two pence per unit from 2024 onwards. This money would then be used to fund abstinence-based treatment centres for alcoholics. Now, haven’t we just got rid of the alcohol-duty escalator? Yes we have – but up it pops again like the furry little nocturnal animal in the Whac-a-Mole game beloved of my childhood!

And why would this treatment tax only apply to the off-trade – isn’t this a rather obvious attempt to divide and conquer? And why should people who don’t have a disordered relationship with alcohol directly pay for treatment programmes for alcoholics? We all contribute to the NHS in any event. It’s just another way of making alcohol less affordable for everyone. The report cites the usual bogus statistics: that 1.6 million people are ‘dependent’ on alcohol, but that 260,000 people are ‘alcoholics’. What, you might ask, is the difference between alcohol dependence and alcoholism? Well, the basic idea is that dependence is a spectrum ranging from light to heavy, whereas alcoholism is a full-blown ‘disease’ based on a kind of chemical enslavement. This enables public health lobbyists to engage in their favourite game – problem inflation – and to claim that we all need to drink less, whereas some people – the alcoholics – need to become lifelong abstainers.

But the CSJ wants to go even further by involving Job Centres in identifying drug addicts and alcoholics, with jobseekers “screened for addiction”. Once identified they would be referred to abstinence-based treatment centres; failure to participate would result in benefit cuts. We’re back to the concept of the deserving and the undeserving poor.

This report was published in the same week that the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Alcohol Misuse published its ten-point Manifesto. Here a number of other Whac-a-Mole proposals make an appearance: minimum unit pricing, a fifth licensing objective – public health, restrictions on alcohol marketing to “protect children and young people”, and health warnings on all alcohol labels similar to those appearing on cigarettes packs. If this manifesto reads as if it was written by Alcohol Concern that’s because it was. The All Party Parliamentary Committee on Alcohol Misuse is a back-bench interest group funded by Alcohol Concern. Interestingly, Alcohol Concern is once again in receipt of government funding – from the Department of Education and from the Welsh Assembly. So here we have the spectacle of a charity using public money granted by government to lobby government for policy changes. I stand to be corrected, but I thought that civil service rules prohibited the use of public funds for the express purpose of political lobbying. Somewhat hilariously, Alcohol Concern is also partly funded by Comic Relief. Clearly they recognise a bunch of clowns when they see them.

At the heart of the proposals from both these organisations is the belief that the next step forward in public health involves an unprecedented increase in the regulation of personal lifestyles. Starting with benefit claimants and job seekers who must be screened for addiction and herded into abstinence-based treatment centres, but in the meantime, for good measure, make alcohol more expensive and less available for everyone. Treatment taxes, the alcohol duty escalator or minimum unit pricing are all sin taxes by other names. Despite all evidence to the contrary the anti-alcohol zealots who support these policies continue to believe that if you tax sin you will make people more virtuous. That has always seemed to me to be a fundamentally improbable proposition.
Paul Chase is a director of CPL Training and leading commentator on on-trade health and alcohol policy

How to capture mobile customers by Matthew Kirby

It was my father’s 87th birthday recently, so as a treat I took him out to lunch close to where he worked for 30 years in the City of London. The only thing he had to do was catch the train from suburban Shenfield to Liverpool Street, something he had not done for nearly ten years. When I met him at the station he described the – to him – bizarre experience of boarding the train, then watching all the passengers in his carriage take various devices out of their pockets and handbags, and spend the next 30 minutes typing into them until they reached Liverpool Street station, never once looking out of the window or engaging in our pre-mobile national pastime of trying to avoid eye contact with our fellow passengers.

Sounds familiar? I thought it was a great example of how there is no longer any downtime, as mobile becomes the new normal for so much of our communication. 

The growth of mobile use has a direct impact on our businesses. So how best to tackle the challenge of meeting the customer’s desire to have real-time social engagement? First, a few facts. Social network adoption in the UK looks to be largely over, as new user growth is set to slow to a near standstill by 2018 according to the new eMarketer report “UK Social Networking Trends”. What growth that does remain is coming from users expanding their social network activity to mobile devices. The proportion of UK social network users who will access their accounts via mobile phone will continue to increase substantially throughout the forecast period, rising from 75.3% in 2014 to 90.2% in 2018.

As UK consumers move their social networking behaviours to mobile, operators and marketers need to think about how they can move their efforts along with them. There are still pub, cafe and restaurant operators out there without mobile response-enabled websites, yet over 65% of all web searches in the UK now use mobile devices. Getting your operation geared up for mobile response is a matter of urgency. It does not have to cost a crazy amount of money. A basic mobile-friendly site can be done for £2,000 to 3,000 or less. Remember, over 80% of searches are for location, opening times, and bookings, not for pretty pictures of your wonderful food.

In past articles I have spoken about the danger of throwing too much resource into the social media money pit. But ignoring it is just as dangerous, so I am going to attempt to suggest ways you can try to manage the social engagement without blowing a hole in your marketing budget.

I always like to start by asking what the customer wants. Given that feedback is seen as the key benefit of social media, it is a reflection on the new world of digital that a recent survey by Hubshot said that 72% of customers said they expected to hear back from an operation they had sent a question or complaint to within an hour. Customer expectations have changed and operators need to meet the real-time demand. 

However, the reality is that nobody in our industry has the resources of Nestle, Heinz or other such consumer brands to meet these expectations 24/7. My recommended tactic is to use the 80/20 rule, as most of the complaints or questions from customers come at certain times of the day. Depending on the day part, most social activity comes just before and shortly after the main service periods. Allocate resource to respond during these times and you will probably be able to please most the people most of the time. That will not stop the odd disaffected customer who wants to rant at 7.30am, but most of your enquires/questions will come in the periods 11am to 12pm and 5pm to 7pm, while complaints land during or shortly after service peaks. Thus you should resource the business to meet this demand. One of our clients felt they were getting a lot more varied feedback from social media than their mystery diner programme, so they simply cut the mystery diner programme and allocated its budget to social engagement.

In terms of gathering the feedback data, there are a number of free web-based programs, including Google Analytics, Topsy, and Social Mention, that give you a decent idea of when customers want to interact. However, you need to be able to spot the real-time opportunity, technology and people skills to get the job done. If you have got all that in-house, then great. If not, you need to use a specialist agency. But be careful about the wondrous claims made and always reference-check, as working with Ali Baba and the 40 social media advisers can be a real hit-and-miss process.

Once you have squared away your social media customer feedback strategy, if you have enough strength left, you can then tackle getting your visual and creative content right. Most brands plan for real-time communication. Counterintuitive though it may seem, it is the companies that plan, prepare and train that are able to move fast and tap into real-time opportunity. So, just like companies try to incorporate regular calendar marketing events, such as menu changes, Christmas and so forth, you need to plan your social media content. We encourage our clients to ensure any campaign is spread across the database and social touch points. The key points of any email campaign can be pushed out through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Each channel should have its own traceable codes, so when the redemption numbers are put together you have an idea where your business is coming from.

The rapid uptake of mobile has made real-time social engagement an essential part of managing communications with your customers. If you don’t yet have a plan to deal with this new dimension, you need to make one – or end up having an experience not too dissimilar to my dad’s.
Matthew Kirby is a partner at Fishbowl Marketing UK

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