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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 23rd Mar 2018 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Filling falling out the pie market, puritanism is a virus – and it’s spreading, and did KFC save its own skin?
Authors: Glynn Davis, Paul Chase and Caroline Jameson

Filling falling out the pie market by Glynn Davis

I’d not really thought about pies as pieces of artwork until a visit to Holborn Dining Room in London for my birthday at the back-end of last year prompted a rethink. The creations coming out of the kitchen required me to thoroughly reassess this quintessentially British dish.

We have certainly had an erratic history when it comes to our national cuisine but one of the constant high points has been the pie. When all else has looked dire in the dining room the humble pie has kept up some semblance of standards and has arguably been the jewel in the crown of British foodstuffs.

The pie I enjoyed on my birthday evening looked crown-like in appearance with its detailed pastry topping. Its contents were equally regal while also doffing a cap to the roots of what makes up the UK’s modern cuisine. It was the pie of the month – curried mutton. It came with a small pot of extra curry sauce that reminded me of the flavour of the chicken curry and chips from my local Chinese takeaway I used to enjoy as a child.

Such has been the reception for the creations of Calum Franklin, executive head chef and pastry expert (every restaurant should clearly have one) at Holborn Dining Room, they have added a room dedicated to serving the pies to a pre-booked group and named it, rather sensibly, The Pie Room.

These pies follow those from other renowned long-standing specialists in the art of pie-making in London, including The Windmill and The Guinea Grill that churn out the most flavour-packed steak and kidney pies you can imagine.

To my mind Franklin has rekindled our love affair with the pie, which was recently shown in all its glory with the celebration of British Pie Week. But everything is not so rosy in the world of the pie. It was a massive surprise to find pork pies and pasties had been thrown out of the recent Office of National Statistics (ONS) inflation basket, which is the UK’s official measure of consumer prices and is a great indicator of what is finding its way into consumers’ shopping baskets. I guess the fact the pie was replaced in the ONS basket by leggings shows which way the wind is blowing.
Further sorry evidence of the pasty and pie waning in popularity could be seen in the annual results from Greggs – the true barometer of the appetite for all things pastry covered – that showed its “Balanced Choice” range now accounts for more than £100m of sales. Admittedly this is small fry when compared with total sales pushing £1bn for the year to end-December (of which pies, pasties and sausage rolls will be a “healthy” proportion) but it is reflective of the tough headwinds pies are facing.

Maybe the recent failure of Square Pie that resulted in the closure of its five restaurants should have been no surprise. It was a fairly simple concept of a variety of pie fillings, mashed potatoes and gravy/sauce options, which found a receptive market for a period of time before facing difficulty.

Another business to hit the rocks has been Pie & Ale (owned by RWB Leisure) that had a site in Manchester with the (again) simple concept that did what it said on the tin – offering a range of pies served alongside craft beer and cask ale.

One of the major issues with these specialist pie restaurants is they can often seem to be pretty expensive for what we still define as a modestly priced cuisine. The pie is a very meritocratic dish. As much as we love them the reality is that we will only pay so much for them – even for the finest examples. In order for the specialist pie restaurants to stack up they need competitive price points and to generate tremendous volumes of covers.

They are also operating against a backdrop of people switching to healthier options and the vegan movement, which is a bit of a killer for the pie because they do tend to be at their best with meaty fillings.

A couple of years ago West Cornwall Pasty Company also had major problems and fell into administration. With more than 40 outlets across the UK it remains a major presence and under its current private equity ownership it is on the road to recovery – with narrowing losses on the back of a focus on catering in sports stadiums and most importantly a growing coffee range. Coffee to the rescue again!

It seems operating a pure pie-focused business is a tough one. It’s why a restaurant such as Holborn Dining Room is unlikely to switch all its attention to its glorious pies even though they are the venue’s big attraction. Success is dependent on it having a broader offer. The proof was in the pudding on my visit to Holborn as both my children (foolishly in my opinion) shunned the pies and instead plumped for that other crown jewel of British fare – fish and chips.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Puritanism is a virus – and it’s spreading by Paul Chase 

With minimum unit pricing (MUP) set to be introduced in Scotland in May, the puritans of the health lobby have been emboldened to push this policy out to the rest of the UK. The Welsh Assembly has been debating this issue in recent months and commissioned the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group (SARG) to produce a Welsh version of its model that depicts the effects of MUP at different price levels on consumption, harms and how many lives can be “saved” if MUP is introduced.

The SARG research predicts 66 lives will be saved a year in Wales if a 50p minimum price is introduced. This assumes people will respond to the imposition of higher prices in ways that seem implausible to many. One of the persistent criticisms of the SARG model are the assumptions it makes about “price elasticities of demand” – assumptions about how much people will reduce their consumption in response to an increase in price. There are about 1,500 alcohol-related deaths a year in Wales so it seems unlikely it will be possible to measure whether this claim of 66 lives saved annually is fulfilled or not.

The media has feigned shock at the claim 75% of alcohol consumed in Wales is drunk by 22% of the population, who are defined as hazardous or harmful drinkers. And within that number are 3% who are the very heavy drinkers – accounting for 27% of alcohol consumed. Why this should surprise anyone is beyond me – “Shock, horror – most alcohol is drunk by people who drink the most” is a “dog bites postman moment” and a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Let’s put these figures into perspective. About 20% of Welsh adults don’t drink at all. About 58% drink at or below the government’s low-risk guideline of 14 units a week (fewer than a pint of beer a day). So, that’s 78% at no risk or virtually no risk. Only 22% consume more than 14 units a week including 3% “harmful drinkers” – defined as drinking 50-plus units a week for men, and 35-plus units a week for women. Only in the oddball world of the activist academics of SARG is a person drinking a couple of pints a day classified as a “hazardous drinker”.

The focus of harm-prevention really ought to be on the 3% of harmful drinkers, yet the Welsh government has accepted minimum pricing won’t help these drinkers, who most likely have an alcohol dependency. MUP is a policy that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said will raise the price of 70% of off-trade sales. So MUP isn’t targeted at people at greatest risk, but at those who, by the standards recognised by most people, are light to moderate drinkers.

MUP isn’t about targeting those most at risk, it’s about denormalising the use of alcohol and pricing it out of reach. The minimum price will only ever go up. Those reading this who are thinking: “Good, about time we bashed Tesco” need to realise three things. Firstly, denormalising the use of alcohol will affect all sections of the trade. Secondly, making alcohol more expensive in the off-trade may reduce consumption a bit, but it will also reduce consumers’ discretionary spend overall and that is likely to mean less money to spend on going out. The notion MUP will tip people out of the living room and into the taproom is a health lobby lie. Thirdly, now the genie of minimum pricing is out of the bottle, how long will it be before government regulators – national or local – apply a higher MUP to the on-trade?

Talking of which, the government on the Isle of Man is now considering introducing MUP. Chief constable Gary Roberts appeared at the opening of the triennial licensing courts, which sees licensees applying to renew their alcohol permits. Addressing the court, Roberts said a new substance misuse strategy from the government looks likely to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol. He told the licensing bench such a move would “save lives and help the on-licence trade regain its vibrancy”.

The same lies are being perpetrated by health lobby puritans wherever this “silver bullet” policy is proposed. It is always presented as a pub-friendly proposition, when in reality it is the thin end of the wedge. If even a rinky-dink assembly such as the Tynwald can introduce this for the off-trade, what odds would you take for it being introduced by the UK parliament for England – and then spreading to the on-trade, because a city council such as Newcastle decides it’s needed to curtail binge drinking in the night-time economy?

For those who think I’m scaremongering, I have three words – the smoking ban.
Paul Chase is a director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on alcohol and health policy

Did KFC save its own skin? by Caroline Jameson 

The not-so-secret ingredient in KFC’s successful recipe is, you guessed it, chicken. So, when a DHL delivery “hiccup” caused a chicken meat scarcity and forced 650 of 900 KFC stores across the UK and Ireland to close, the Colonel was left with a fowl-up on his hands.

The shortage caused customers to go into meltdown, resulting in a chain reaction of rather tongue-in-cheek outrage across social media. The police even felt the need to tweet, requesting “people to stop contacting them regarding the #KFCCrisis”. Eventually, stores were reopened, and KFC got back to business as usual. Soon after, the brands’ marketing team decided to jump on the bandwagon and hatched a humorous and nearly "fowl-mouthed" apology as a full-page advert in national newspapers.

It is clear KFC has hedged its bets on light-hearted self-mockery being the most effective way to boost its image after a marketing crisis. Think Greggs offering meals for two on Valentine’s Day after dressing up baby Jesus as a sausage roll. But has it worked? And after the media storm, could the crisis have boosted the brand’s reputation, rather than harmed it?

Morar HPI’s BrandVue Eating Outing tracker, a daily survey of the top 150 UK eating out brands featuring 8,000 interviews a month, was the perfect source to understand this, and the crisis has certainly ruffled some feathers. Notably, KFC’s negative buzz increased to a whopping 56% at its peak – nearly two out of three people had heard something negative about the brand, compared with one in six prior to the chicken shortage. Positive buzz plummeted by more than half – from 30% to 14%. Nonetheless, the metric has started to creep back up in the past two weeks, rising to 20% presently. This is in tandem with the gradual decline in negative buzz over the same period.

The indications are all news is good news. A total of 72% of people said the chicken shortage had not changed their perception of the brand, with a further 4% perceiving KFC in a more positive light. That’s more than three-quarters of people who think nothing less of KFC – yet might now have them at the forefront of their mind next time they go to order their fry-day treat. To back this up, seven in ten people said if they hadn’t been to a KFC before, they would now. What crisis, I hear you say? 

Some are calling this a “masterclass in PR crisis management”. The crisis was only issues with the supply chain, not food quality or the poor treatment of staff, which would have been more damaging long-term. But crucially, they didn’t roll-out a tasteless, out-of-touch advert – they took a risk and it seems to have paid off.

Tongue-in-cheek marketing is becoming increasingly popular and KFC’s reaction to its recent crisis added to the growing portfolio of self-mocking advertisements. The crisis itself was easy to resolve but KFC’s media message is what turned a damaging negative into a positive. It didn’t harm or offend anyone bar the company itself. KFC held its hands up. The evidence shows this was a smart move – short-term crises can be resolved with humour, humility and self-depreciation. Nice save, Colonel.
Caroline Jameson is a director of Morar HPI

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