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Fri 7th Jun 2019 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Off my trolley, making sustainability stick, and kick out the jam
Authors: Glynn Davis, Stephen Oswald and Ann Elliott

Off my trolley by Glynn Davis

Within minutes of being seated for dinner in the clubby Kronenhalle restaurant in the centre of Zurich recently, it was clear the place has theatre at the heart of its proposition, which has no doubt helped it retain its destination status since 1924.

Many of the final stages of cooking and preparation were pulled out of the kitchen and on to the restaurant floor. Numerous little tables were dotted around the two dining areas on which waitresses mixed sauces on gas-flamed stoves, cut rosti, carved steak for sharing, and scooped out mousse and fresh cream from large bowls pulled from chiller cabinets to plate-up desserts. It all added to the buzz and ambience.

Such theatrical elements, however simple, are often referenced as a necessity in foodservice today but are infrequently implemented. Perhaps it’s seen as too much hassle but this is a big mistake – some of my most memorable meals in the past couple of years have involved a little bit of theatre. It’s an added reason to dine out rather than order a takeaway.

A business lunch at The East India Club in London’s St James’s Square was taken beyond a traditional British meal in a historic dining room when a waiter carved the smoked salmon for my starter on a grand trolley that traversed the room drawing admiring glances as it went. The trained carvers did full justice to the fish supplied by H Forman & Son – the last remaining producer of London-cured smoked salmon – which was recently given PGI status for its unique product. A similar scenario was played out during a meal at The Game Bird restaurant in the Stafford Hotel, where another fish trolley dispensed H Forman products with equal theatre. As soon as I spotted the trolley, I knew my choice of starter.

I have a similar compulsion whenever I see a cheese trolley gliding around a restaurant. This was the case at The Great House in Lavenham, Suffolk, where the pungent aroma of cheese is the first thing to hit you as you enter the building – just before you spot the enormous trolley. Such is the size and substance of cargo the trolley is immobile and diners have to make their way to it to select their cheese. It’s an obvious way for restaurants to display their produce – a classy and more effective version of displaying photos in windows or on menus – and gives customers great confidence when they order.  

Cheese is the most obvious in-restaurant trolley, with plenty of them doing the rounds, but the same can’t be said of the dessert trolley. Once a staple of any half-decent restaurant, they have become a rarity despite being an object of adoration. Reviewers of old-school Oslo Court restaurant in north London always revel in the joy of its dessert trolley. I suspect few diners make it out of the place without committing to a trifle or some other glorious confection to the extent Oslo Court must seriously over-index in pudding sales. 

Such additions clearly drive incremental revenue for restaurants. This was certainly the case during a family celebratory lunch at The Connaught in central London last year. I spotted a trolley on which a barrel containing a sherry linked to head chef Hélène Darroze sat. Sherry was poured into glasses using a traditional venencia dispensing tool and I immediately knew I had to have a glass – I wanted to be told the story, watch the pour close up, and then savour the liquid.

The Connaught clearly knows the value of theatre because I recall a memorable lunch with my mother in that very dining room 30 years ago that involved many trolleys and dishes completed at table as well as a unique element – after each course the tablecloth was removed to reveal another fresh bit of fine linen beneath. 

I’m not advocating the return of such wasteful actions because, in times of greater environmental concerns, that sort of activity simply won’t wash. However, as far as the trolley is concerned let’s get the bandwagon rolling for the return of this money-making warhorse.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends 

Making sustainability stick by Stephen Oswald

Brexit aside, 2019 seems to have been the “year of green” in the UK with consumers taking unprecedented action to highlight the impact of environmental issues. From Extinction Rebellion to the Environment Agency saying £1bn a year needs to be spent on flood management, there has been so much activity recently to raise the profile of sustainability issues, and this is only going to increase.

Transformative change required
Environment secretary Michael Gove recently announced a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds from April 2020. Hospitality operators should feel proud of the part they played in helping put the issue on the government agenda, with many companies leading the way in removing these items in the past couple of years.

However, suppliers and operators need to maintain the momentum on tackling sustainability and ethical trading in our businesses and work to embed a positive culture around these issues within our teams. Brexit has put the brakes on for many businesses as they wait to see its impact, but hospitality leaders need to keep moving forward and put sustainability high on their agenda.

This isn’t just a worthy stance, it’s business critical. By having robust sustainability and ethical trading policies your business is protected. Initially you’ll be judged on superficial things customers see in your venues but, increasingly, consumers are digging deeper into your restaurant’s sustainability credentials and issues such as modern slavery policies and the suppliers you use. Operators need to select the right suppliers to do the hard work in sourcing and supplying the products and packaging that tick these increasingly important boxes for consumers.

This might include suppliers that deliver in reusable plastic trays and offer compostable packaging, or companies that offer sustainable seafood or products with an explicit sustainability message.

Sustainability doesn’t cost more
At a time when operators are increasingly searching for better margins to offset ever-rising business costs, adopting a sustainable stance on sourcing will lead to a more consistent and reliable product and reduced costs. 

I think there’s a big misconception that sustainable products are more expensive. Our Direct Seafoods business sells plenty of good-value fish that has been caught sustainably, such as Best Aquaculture Practices four star-certificated prawns from Vietnam. 

To embed a culture of sustainability in your business it’s important to give it a dedicated focus initially. We have a sustainability manager working across the Bidfresh business who also focuses on ethical trading, as well as sustainability specialists in our produce and seafood businesses. As a business leader it gives me great peace of mind knowing we have a specific focus on these key areas. This focus also helped us make significant progress, such as becoming the first foodservice member of the Ethical Trading Initiative.

We have created a sustainability culture through constant reinforcement and clarity and through education and support for customers on issues such as at-risk fish species. We encourage them to change and give them options to help push them across the line. A great business book, entitled Nudge, offers some great tips on this.

Empower your team
You need to empower people in your business to create ideas around sustainability. It makes them feel good and can add real value to your business. We are trying to embrace circular economy principles within the business and one of our Oliver Kay managers suggested introducing an automatic screw process that removes water from fruit and vegetables to convert all waste produce from our warehouses into compost for farmers. It has had big benefits – for us and the farmers.

I don’t think I would have seen the value of such ideas before I undertook my two-year Master of Studies (MSt) at Cambridge. I’m far more willing to approve projects and ideas from people within the business now, as I understand the issues.

Sustainability leadership 
I think every hospitality business would benefit from the MSt in sustainability leadership I studied, and I thoroughly recommend it to leaders. If you understand sustainability issues, they won’t cost you as much to implement. The number-one issue for operators at present is costs, and you have to work sustainability into your business without increasing your cost base. I’m still using what I learned from this course as principles to guide the business forward.

The most valuable thing I learned is you can’t force people to embed sustainable practice, you have to encourage them and work with them to convince them they want to go in that direction. If you don’t get people behind you, they will rebel – and sustainability won’t stick. 
Stephen Oswald is chief executive of fresh food specialist Bidfresh and holds a Master of Studies (MSt) in sustainability leadership

Kick out the jam by Ann Elliott

I have had two briefs (one from a small multi-site operator and one from a larger one) and many conversations this week on the issue of operational consistency. It is the holy grail of multi-site operations. The offer might be perfect – great design, superb atmosphere, wonderful food and an appealing drinks range – but if it isn’t delivered consistently day after day the site, and ultimately the brand, will fail. 

It’s not new news but we all know the key question is, of course, how do you get the team to care? That means the whole team – from everyone in “head office” to the pot washer. How do you ensure they always want to give the customer their best and inspire others to do the same? It’s the GAS factor, as someone once described it to me.

This really hit home when I revisited The Harcourt yesterday. I used to go there a few years ago when it had a great reputation for food and service. The barman was reasonably friendly, bringing water and drinks to our table promptly, and was nice enough when I asked for menus and then ordered at the bar. 

However, as we began our meeting it became obvious something was jarring – the background music began skipping tracks and the volume kept going up and down, sometimes stopping before starting again 20 seconds later. It felt like Sam Smith was being constantly interrupted while trying to get his words out. Once we became aware of it, the problem became utterly distracting. The more it changed, the more we listened, and the more infuriating it became to the point I asked the barman if he could sort it out as he seemed to be the one messing about with the system. 

Nothing changed. We considered moving pubs but had already ordered our food. That’s when, of course, the issues started because by now we had become really hacked off and not in the mood to put up with any problems on the food front. We picked fault with it – no spoon with the ricotta dumplings in a broth, a tasteless chicken liver pate, no butter brought with the steak as promised on the menu, no check-back, no questioning when we left half our meals on our plates when the chef (yes the chef) came to collect them. On and on, all the time eating while listening to Sam splutter, stutter, stop and start – the poor man must have been exhausted.  

I contrast this with a multi-site managing director I met the other week, who told me her waitresses run their own sections like mini profit centres and decide if, and how much, to tip their runners and back-of-house teams. They are empowered not to take out any dish they don’t want to put in front of guests. The whole team works together to ensure customers are delighted and genuinely want to tip – consistent operational excellence is a must. If the music at one of that MD’s sites was irritating guests, I’m sure she would have had something to say about it pretty quickly. 

Or contrast it with Stefano’s in Silsden, West Yorkshire, which I went to last Saturday. I can honestly say I have never seen a bigger menu and certainly not one for a 30-cover restaurant with a kitchen the size of my bathroom. It was humming – every waitress delightful, every dish a joy, everything just right. I can’t even remember the music! 

Why do some companies deliver operational excellence day in, day out and some struggle with the simple things such as getting the music right? Those who do it well know how. They know it starts at the top with the leadership culture and an obsession with caring – and employing people who care.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of Elliotts, the leading integrated marketing agency in the hospitality and leisure sector – www.elliottsagency.com

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