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Fri 28th Sep 2018 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Michelin-starred street food, potatoes never let you down, leadership mentoring, the migration conundrum and cask by numbers
Authors: James Hacon, Glynn Davis, Ann Elliott, Brigid Simmonds and Paul Nunny

Michelin-starred street food by James Hacon

Michelin-star Monday is nearly upon us – the day we find out who has made the little red book that can make or break a restaurant. But can it?

I’ve worked with a number of restaurants that boast the award in its collection, often sitting beside AA Rosettes, a listing in the Good Food Guide and perhaps a National Restaurant Award if they are well known within that clique. 

The Michelin star is clearly the most coveted. It means a lot. It puts the winning restaurant firmly on a prestigious map, lifting its awareness, but it doesn’t necessarily make a restaurant successful, that’s for sure, even after the customary pricing increase that comes after the star is awarded.

Speaking to the leader of a group that operates multiple Michelin-starred venues, their view was it certainly helped when they gained the star and it would definitely hurt if they lost it, but in London in particular it merely puts them in a relatively big pond of winners all fighting for trade at shoulder times, constrained by maintaining a standard that can only be justified by full-price trading at evenings and weekends. On top of that, they’ve also got a big-priced chef or two in the kitchen with egos to match, making commercialisation more difficult again.

Yesterday afternoon, Michelin tweeted an affirmation that stars are only awarded for the food, with cooking style, service and setting playing no part.

Just read that back. The only thing that matters is what’s on the plate, they say!

Speak to anyone in the industry who is trying to grow a restaurant business and the hot word at the moment is “experience”. Bizarrely, less than a year ago we were led to believe this was Michelin’s new direction too while being briefed by one of its senior directors at an industry event. Michelin “was changing” and putting the all-important experience factor right up there alongside food, he said.

Not one response to the tweet was positive. Several front-of-house leaders questioned the point of all they do, this being the case. Another suggested it is impossible to unpack the experience into constituent parts.

One person tweeted asking if that meant street food vendors could be given stars, which of course they can. Two Singaporean street food stands first took that title in 2016, while more were awarded in Bangkok last year. There have long been tiny back-street restaurants awarded stars in Hong Kong – many of which I was able to experience last year, after hours of queuing for each I might add.

What struck me when visiting those venues is that while they aren’t fine-dining operations with multimillion-pound fit-outs and enormous wine lists, the experience they provided was contextualised, in keeping with what you would expect.

I think it’s highly unlikely Michelin would carry on awarding three stars to a venue that served stunning dishes, beautifully plated, but consistently offered bad service with a deteriorating experience. Michelin has a reputation to maintain.

Dissect what Michelin is saying – “food style plays no part”. Sure we can live with that but it’s the other two that don’t ring true. The reality may be closer to the “service style plays no part” and the setting must be in keeping with the food and expectation.

In an obscure kind of way I think this may be Michelin trying to be more relevant, something it has clearly lost. Was this tweet a hint that, come Monday, we will see British street food vendors awarded Michelin stars?

I would certainly welcome Michelin recognising a broader range of venues to better represent the way we consume and engage with food. I just hope it is a true commitment from the company, not just a PR stunt as it seemed to be in south east Asia.
James Hacon is managing director of Think Hospitality, which advises multi-site brands on growth, brand and development strategy, as well as investing in early-stage concepts with a bright future

Potatoes never let you down by Glynn Davis

Deciding what to choose from the menu at dinner with my son recently at The Saddle Room restaurant in The Shelbourne hotel in Dublin was a tough task. He eventually plumped for chicken strips with mashed potato and fries on the side! I went for the short rib of beef with a side order of truffle fries.

I was unaware my dish included new potatoes so what turned up at the table was mashed potato, two lots of fries, and some new potatoes. This didn’t particularly worry me because, being Ireland, I assured my son they know how to treat potatoes in a variety of incarnations.

This brought to mind an article I read many years ago when acclaimed Irish chef Richard Corrigan opened his first restaurant, Lindsay House, in Soho in 1997. Asked why he had risked branching out on his own he gave two reasons – freedom and mashed potatoes.

I didn’t fully understand the latter point until I dined at the restaurant. I asked the waiter which of the main courses came with mashed potato – something I knew was a Corrigan speciality. He looked at me slightly puzzled and said: “Every main course comes with a side order of mashed potato sir.”

What fine spuds they were too – ridiculously creamy, probably more butter than potato, housed in a small, gleaming copper pan. I can’t remember what main course I chose but maintain great clarity on the quality of the potatoes. This showed me the humble spud can be taken to a higher plane when treated with great respect – which Irish chefs undeniably understand as a result of the country’s history.

Of course the potato enjoys its greatest acclaim in the form of chips, fries, pommes frites or whatever else you want to call this fried variant. But while virtually everybody loves fried spuds, its ubiquity may have removed some of the respect we have for the potato and its great flexibility.

It will be interesting to see how the potato fares amid the incredible rise of veganism. It should be able to play a central role in this rapidly developing cuisine but to date my experience of vegan food in restaurants has shown them to be more interested in playing around with beans, rice, seeds and pulses.

Perhaps it is because at this stage in the category’s growth there is more of a focus on what are deemed more interesting ingredients as well as those perceived as being a tad healthier. The potato is tarnished somewhat by its carbohydrate structure and heavy/fried reputation, which often sees it discarded from diets.

I’m hoping that as vegan cuisine finds its feet the potato will enjoy a renaissance that will take it beyond its three typical menu formats of fries, mashed and new. It would be terrific to find it integral to dishes in ways that have been typically missing from menus to date. It needs chefs to think creatively about how they can use the potato in new variations.

I hope this transpires. Such is my love of potatoes they were an integral part of the first meal I cooked for my future wife. I had a soft spot for the dauphinoise variant but I’d never cooked them before, which was a risk. Despite the pressure of the occasion and my own modest cooking skills they came out of the oven looking perfectly browned and with just the right texture and creaminess. This added to my view that potatoes never let you down.

Further proof emerged next morning at The Shelbourne, where my son and I had a plethora of options to choose from on the hotel’s mighty fine buffet. After a brief dalliance with some finely cut fruit and a crossing of spoons with some granola we both committed to an Irish breakfast and, despite our potato frenzy the night before, we threw some hash browns on our plates. It was a good decision.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Leadership mentoring by Ann Elliott

On 10 October at BT Tower, organised in partnership with UKHospitality, BT Sport and Odgers Berndston, Elliotts will hold a VIP event to launch a new industry initiative, The Leadership Mentoring Programme, to a group of brilliant senior people (men and women) who have said they would like to mentor women working in the leisure and hospitality sector to help them move into senior leadership positions.

We have all heard a tremendous amount lately about boards wanting to interview 50:50 shortlists, indeed PwC recently announced it had banned male only shortlists and was working towards 50/50 shortlists for all recruitment campaigns for executive positions. This is perhaps because PwC appreciates companies in the top quartile for executive level gender diversity perform significantly better than those in the bottom quartile for profitability and long-term value creation.

However, many would argue this ambition is much easier said than done. Following the announcement, one commentator said: “In some cases a company’s talent pool for a given position will be very small and will require incredibly rare skill and experience that may only be possessed by a finite amount of people. If all the candidates in question are male… and the shortlist is then rejected or the process is prolonged as a result, I would argue PwC is running the risk of missing out on the most (objectively quantifiable) talented person for the position in question.”

So is this a bit of a Catch 22 situation? Many companies want to achieve the government’s target of having 30% of seats on the board taken by women, but is female talent available to fill this need? Is it possible to achieve a 50:50 interview list with men and women of equal skill and talent or will the female side be filled just for the sake of achieving quotas? Is the interview team also balanced 50:50 and able to overcome unconscious bias?

An article published in HBR in August 2014 stated: “You’ve probably heard the following statistic: men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.” The finding comes from a Hewlett Packard internal report and has been quoted in Lean In, The Confidence Code and dozens of articles. It is usually invoked as evidence that women need more confidence. As one Forbes article put it: “Men are confident about their ability at 60% but women don’t feel confident until they’ve checked off each item on the list.”

Indeed, I am constantly amazed by highly talented women who tell me they couldn’t possibly be considered for a role when it’s perfectly clear they would be brilliant. Confidence appears to be crucial.

Our intention in setting up this initiative is to provide women who want to be considered for senior management roles with outstanding mentoring, advice and motivation from objective and supportive mentors to help them get there. We want them to believe they can be included in 50:50 shortlists because, if they believe theirs is a valid application, they are halfway there.

It is only halfway there, though. As one person said in response to our initial email: “Happy to meet and discuss but the more ‘women-only’ things you do the more I think it alienates them (men) and creates resentment. I think you would be better focused on teaching chairmen of the benefits of women on boards, because there are indeed many.”

I think he is right. First, though, we want to help women build their skills, confidence and abilities so they warrant inclusion on these lists.

In April, The Times announced its Top 50 Employers For Women 2018 list. Assessment focused on transparency, the root causes behind gaps, what companies were doing to identify and address these structural issues and the impact of these actions. Sodexo was the only company in our sector in the Top 50 because, as it stated: “Our research, carried out among our 50,000 employees, shows that where our management teams are gender balanced our business is safer, more profitable and colleagues are more engaged.”

There are some amazing women leading businesses in our sector – and we could probably name them all. I would like to get to a stage when we can’t name them all because there are too many.

Email ann@elliottsagency.com if you would like to become a mentor and attend the event on 10 October.

Your commitment in 2019 would be to attend one three-hour event only – we will talk about the programme’s structure at the launch. We want to make mentoring as easy as possible for both sides while making a significant difference to the career prospects of those being mentored.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of Elliotts, the leading integrated marketing agency in the hospitality and leisure sector – www.elliottsagency.com

The migration conundrum by Brigid Simmonds

Since the interim report from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) was so poor for the hospitality sector, the final report was certainly an improvement. The suggestion the hospitality sector takes on higher-skilled overseas workers and pays them less was unfair and unjustified so some of the recommendations in the final report are actually helpful, although the overall approach to what it calls “low-skilled” is not. 

For the 24% of colleagues who work in brewing and pubs (rising to 80% in metropolitan areas), the acknowledgement of the value of overseas workers to the British economy is welcome. The MAC was clear immigration on the whole has a positive impact on productivity and there is no evidence it has a negative impact on the training of UK-born workers or their salaries.

The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) has long asked the Home Office to review the tier system that controls migration.  Tier 2 is for semi-skilled workers but the salary cap of £30,000, the sponsorship requirement for the business, and the emphasis on qualifications don’t work for our sector and pub chefs in particular. The guidance before you start runs to more than 100 pages and the system is bureaucratic. At the BBPA we have our own experience of this when bringing an overseas national into our team. I guarantee no small pub would have the resources to take this on. 

The MAC has, however, suggested some helpful changes. It has recommended Tier 2 (General) is widened to cover workers in medium-skilled jobs. This reduces the skills threshold from RQF6 to RQF3. This would open up Tier 2 to professions such as chefs and pub managers. The BBPA has always been concerned the qualification requirement wouldn’t work for our sector. The MAC recommends future applicants should be considered on their CVs, not their qualifications. Again this is helpful, particularly in relation to chefs, whose quality is more often based on experience than qualifications. The sting in the tail is the MAC recommends no change to the £30,000 minimum salary. Research by People1st found the average chef earns £22,000 so without doubt this is unhelpful. One potential solution may be that benefits in kind such as accommodation are included in that calculation.

The MAC says there are no compelling reasons to offer a different set of rules to EEA and non-EEA citizens, but it believes the evidence suggests there should be greater access for higher-skilled migrations while restricting access for lower-skilled workers. I wish the MAC and certain politicians would stop talking about low-skilled workers. In pubs and across the hospitality sector soft skills are just as important. This shouldn’t be just about those with academic intelligence but about emotional intelligence too. In our sector we need both – and both should be valued equally. Soft skills are essential to make customers feel welcome. In my view you shouldn’t separate the two. 

So what next? The newspapers suggest the Cabinet has agreed on a new migrational policy once we leave the EU with the emphasis placed back on highly-skilled workers. We need more engagement with our sector. It is a fact that the UK has almost full employment. If a quarter of our workforce can no longer work here, pubs will have to close and the quality of service in a sector where more customers demands more people to serve them will suffer. The MAC’s answer to what it deems “low-skilled” was an extension of the Youth Mobility Scheme (something the BBPA has been calling for). This scheme allows people up to the age of 30 to work in the UK for two years. It is an agreement with certain countries, mainly Commonwealth ones, and should be extended to the EU. We would certainly support this. 

Whatever your view on Brexit and however you voted, there is no doubt migration was the reason some people voted “Leave”. We have to respect that but government needs to do more to help business too. Could the Youth Mobility Scheme be extended to 35? Could it be for four years, not two, and be renewable? Can the application process for Tier 2 be simplified for small businesses? Of course we have to wait to see whether there is an agreement with the EU and, if so, how migration might feature. This is a difficult time for any government but greater engagement with our sector is vital.
Brigid Simmonds is chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association

Cask by numbers by Paul Nunny

This week we launched the 2018/19 Cask Report. To identify how we can make cask more appealing to a wider audience, in-depth research was carried out with consumers as well as focus groups in Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and London – the latter made up of non-cask ale drinkers. We also surveyed licensees to gain their views on cask and the value it adds to their business.

Cask sales, having grown for a number of years, have now hit the buffers. Research shows:

– The new cask ale drinkers that contributed to the early growth in cask are now in their 30s and perhaps have families, mortgages and financial pressures and are less likely to go to the pub

– In general, consumers are visiting pubs less

– We are not attracting the 18 to 25 age group to cask, and they are the most frequent visitors to the pub

– Consumers now enjoy a wider repertoire of drinks and are influenced by the drinking occasion

However, all is not lost:

– People feel warm towards cask and more drinkers include cask in their drinks repertoire

– Cask still represents one in seven pints sold in the pub

– More than two-fifths (42%) of cask ale drinkers go to the pub weekly, compared with 20% of the total survey sample

– Cask drinkers are more affluent

– Almost three-quarters (74%) of the time, the cask ale drinker decides the pubs their friends should visit

In short, all pubs can benefit by attracting more cask drinkers.

So how do we get our act together? Firstly, let’s look at the consumer barriers to non-cask ale drinkers:

– Lager and craft keg have done a great job in premiumising themselves at point of sale. Cask has, relatively speaking, stayed still meaning lager and craft beer have positioned cask as dull, old and boring. We need to educate the consumer about the wonderful variety of cask styles covering colour and flavour, push light and golden ales, and talk about lower ABVs – there is a style for everybody

– There is a risk of drinkers not ordering cask due to lack of knowledge and confidence. Frequently consumers don’t know the difference between the beers on sale. Will they like it or not? Staff often lack the knowledge to help the consumer choose. We need to encourage consumers to learn more about the flavours of cask – get them to download the CaskFinder app that with pump clip recognition gives them the Cyclops descriptor. To make it easier for drinkers to choose a beer, pubs should ideally stock a nationally recognised cask beer

– Quality of cask can be an issue. The stakes are higher for a dodgy pint than they once were – pints are expensive and you know what you are getting with lager. Quality is often discussed in terms of consistency and variability and this all adds to the confusion and uncertainty in the eyes of the drinker. This is where Cask Marque plays an important role.  Each year only 9% of Cask Marque pubs fail their visit but in other non-Cask Marque pubs this figure is 49%. All pubs stocking cask need to take ownership of the quality, particularly temperature

– People want to look confident when ordering at the bar, particularly in a busy pub. This can lead to drinkers playing safe in their choices rather than experimenting. Having trained bar and cellar staff who can recommend beers, stimulate beer conversations and encourage customers to try before they buy will help to convert, educate and attract new drinkers

– Words such as unpasteurised, unfiltered and slow second fermentation are a turn-off to the average drinker. They are not interested in the process but more about taste, colour and ABV. We need a marketing campaign that talks about its provenance, ingredients and huge spread of tastes, colours, strengths and flavours. Talk benefits rather than features. Cask is traditional, natural, fresh and cool – let’s shout about that

– The Cask Report suggests cask should be served cooler. In fact, 64% of people questioned said it should be served below 10C. In the same month the survey took place, only 26% of pints tested (5,540 in July) were cellar cool at 11-13C. Admittedly this was a warm month but our performance was not good enough. The industry needs to ensure it can deliver cellar-cool cask, particularly as younger people are drinking and demanding colder products

In the coming months, Cask Marque will focus on two key areas to help this. Firstly, on top of the 22,000 pub visits a year it currently undertakes, Cask Marque will commission a further 10,000 mystery drinker visits and challenge licensees who fail to deliver a refreshing pint of cask.

Secondly, we are currently trialling a one-to-one training course for bar staff to educate them about cask and the beers they have on sale at their pub. This training includes a tutored tasting and is marginally costed as it is delivered on the back of the Cask Marque visit. Once refined, we will make this training available to all pubs.

There is widespread affection for cask. It is an important part of the pub landscape and for many it has its place in their drinks repertoire. Cask is traditional and that’s how it should be – a link to continuity. Imagine an Indian restaurant without a vindaloo on the menu. You may not want to eat or suffer the consequences but you expect to be offered it, just like cask in a pub. However, affection doesn’t translate into sales – that is down to us to make it relevant to today’s generations.
Paul Nunny is director of Cask Marque, the industry watchdog for quality beer

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