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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 23rd Aug 2019 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Happy family meals, proposed health taxes aren’t so sweet, and end the gravy train
Authors: Glynn Davis, Steve Perez and Paul Chase 

Happy family meals by Glynn Davis

Taking our biennial short family stay at The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne this summer involved our usual dinner in the hotel’s Mirabelle Restaurant on the first night, switching to The Garden Restaurant on the second. 

Our previous visits to the Mirabelle had been for my sole indulgence rather than my children’s, who would have been more than happy to spend both nights in the more relaxed, family friendly Garden restaurant. The former is significantly smaller, has a more hushed atmosphere with a special-occasion vibe to it, a higher level of service, a smaller menu with more complex dishes, and it costs a modest amount more. 

None of these things would make it particularly attractive to young children but, as is my wont, I’ve been taking my pair (now ten and 12) there since they were very young. They have always behaved impeccably because, I believe, they have become accustomed to all eating out environments from such a young age. You reap what you sow, has always been my hope.

However, rather frustratingly it has also been a bit of a “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” scenario. I admit it has been hard work sometimes trying to expand their eating horizons beyond the more obvious dishes but this year something interesting happened. My daughter told me she preferred the dining room and meal in the Mirabelle. She told me she enjoyed the menu and the smarter room. 

This remark came as a surprise and left me rather pleased as it suggested all the money I’d spent on their dining out “education” was starting to have an effect. What it revealed, most importantly, was they felt comfortable in a place where many adults seem to feel uncomfortable. 

To me, finer dining is all about comfort (surroundings and food) but it makes some people uncomfortable as they don’t enjoy what they regard as a “stuffier environment”. I’ve always felt this perception is all in the customer’s mind and they should be clear – and it’s rather obvious – that the customer is the boss in this relationship. It’s a transaction – and they are the ones paying the bill.

This doesn’t mean we haven’t experienced challenges in certain restaurants but, once it has been made clear my children aren’t going to be a disruptive force, we’ve been welcomed even more than if it had just been my wife and I dining. One difficult occasion springs to mind at a restaurant in Deal, Kent, a few years ago when the owner was taken aback to find two of his diners were under ten. He told us families on holiday were not his usual clientele and his regular guests were typically older and free of youngsters. He added there was no chance the food on the menu would be amended in any way to accommodate young children. Fine, I said to myself, we don’t need chicken nuggets and chips.

Within 15 minutes of our arrival he had changed this inflexible view and apologetically offered to knock up a side order of chips (no nuggets) if we desired and threw in a complementary dessert. I’m not saying this was the best way to handle the situation but I was happy with the conclusion. It ultimately highlighted that this is the hospitality industry, after all, and restaurants are there to provide a service to such a level guests want to return. 

Now my pair have started to show an enhanced appreciation of food and dining surroundings I have no doubt they will return to various establishments they will have no recognition of visiting before. I’m looking forward to many more happy family meals out in the future, with the only downside the fact their taste in food has started to move up a notch and the horse more than happy to drink plenty of water. The sooner they are able to pay for the old man’s dinner, the better.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Proposed health taxes aren’t so sweet by Steve Perez

Since the soft drinks levy came into force in April last year our industry has seen soft drinks hit by taxes ranging from 18p to 24p per 100ml, depending on sugar content. For Global Brands, this has meant part of our range of premium soft drinks, mixers and tonics – Franklin & Sons – has been liable to the levy, which has cost our business more than £425,000 so far.

The reason we’re having to stomach this not-so palatable extra cost is because we simply won’t compromise. As a business we made a bold choice not to let the levy have an impact on the quality of our drinks and to respect our customers’ ability to make informed purchasing decisions. If reducing natural sugar content affected the taste of our drinks, we didn’t do it. Similarly, we gave no thought to replacing sugar with synthetic substitutes because Franklin & Sons is made using only natural ingredients. 

We made these decisions based on our own research, which showed many people prefer drinks made using naturally occurring sugars rather than various concoctions of artificial sweeteners and e-numbers, many of them with their own health implications. 

The sugar tax is forcing the hand of soft drinks manufacturers and coercing them into replacing natural ingredients with lab-engineered alternatives. Concerns remain about how safe artificial sweeteners such as aspartame are. A recent University of Sussex report stated approval for aspartame’s use in products such as soft drinks was flawed. Worryingly, rather than acknowledge this the government continues to favour more taxes that encourage the use of synthetic sweeteners. There’s now an open consultation on a “milkshake tax” and health campaigners are lobbying government for a “calorie tax” targeted at companies that produce food with high levels of sugar.

From what I’ve read recently, groups claim these taxes would tackle childhood obesity, diabetes and cancer by encouraging manufacturers to create more nutritional snacks – but how can they be so sure? In my opinion, it would have the contrary effect.

Such levies create a ripple effect across the industry – manufacturers are forced to raise prices to distributors who, in turn, ramp up costs to their customers, including operators and stockists, which ultimately has an impact on the consumer. The basic thinking is slapping a higher price on a product that has a higher natural sugar content will deter people from buying it. This is nonsense. If you try pricing someone out of something, it’s more likely to increase its appeal. Likewise, restricting choice for consumers and forcing them to make a decision won’t encourage positive behaviour either.  

Our research found between 40% and 50% of people are willing to pay more for premium quality and natural flavour. These insights show why the sugar tax is failing. Consumers have more confidence in natural flavours and ingredients – they don’t want fake-flavoured drinks with even faker ingredients. 

So what’s the solution? Personally, I believe there’s a more effective alternative to taxation. The government should focus its efforts on developing clear guidelines to give consumers the necessary information to determine how many soft drinks they should drink each week.  

Take the five-a-day fruit and vegetables guideline, for example. It works because it’s easy to understand and simple to follow. This premise could be adapted to create weekly allowance guidelines for soft drinks. Shift the emphasis of the consumption message from “should” to “could” and create guidance about how many millilitres of soft drinks people could allow themselves weekly.

This would prove more helpful than the current, frankly mind-boggling government guidelines for how much sugar we should consume. It recommends “free sugars should not make up more than 5% of the energy you get from food and drink each day”. 

This guidance isn’t practical or helpful for consumers, nor does it help businesses inform customers better on product labelling or point-of-sale materials. People need guidelines based on information readily available in everyday life. 

Millilitres are displayed on soft drinks packaging. Creating guidelines using this measure would allow manufacturers to help consumers make more informed decisions. It would be much more straightforward for people to track their personal consumption against the recommended guidelines and would also respect customers’ freedom of choice.

The bottom line is people want to make their own decisions and trying to control their choices by hiking prices simply hasn’t resonated when you look at the performance of the soft drinks levy to date.   

As manufacturers it’s our responsibility to develop products with consumers’ best interests in mind and this won’t be achieved by constantly rolling out taxes and forcing up prices. All it will do is put companies under pressure and encourage the use of unproven synthetic sweeteners.   
Steve Perez is founder and chairman of Global Brands 

End the gravy train by Paul Chase

The origins of the modern Nanny State go back to the Nordic countries in the mid-1970s and a group of social engineers surrounding historian turned social scientist Kettil Bruun. However, in the UK the real starting point was the publication of a white paper under John Major’s government in July 1992 entitled The Health Of The Nation and subsequent policies initiated by Tony Blair’s New Labour government.

Henceforth, “public health” was to be redefined as moving beyond protecting society from mass population diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella and into the realm of reducing risks arising out of lifestyle factors for a range of chronic diseases that were mostly associated with old age. To put it plainly – to nag us into eating the “right foods” and drinking less alcohol (if any at all).

However, a paradigm shift occurred in April 2013 with the creation of quango Public Health England (PHE). Its remit, as stated on the website, is: “We exist to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being and reduce health inequalities.”

Once the concept of public health moved beyond the promotion of health, as in the absence of disease, and into the realm of promoting “well-being” – a far more nebulous concept – moving into the politically contentious notion of reducing “health inequalities”, the scene was set for the Health Nannies to scold us into conformity with their view of what well-being meant – with all the lifestyle regulation we’ve witnessed since.

We now have a new government with a cabinet that contains an unprecedented number of politicians who claim sympathy with libertarianism and therefore, one would assume, lack of sympathy with Nanny State regulation. Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and health secretary Matt Hancock are particularly close to the Institute of Economic Affairs, which is a high-profile critic of lifestyle regulation. So what might we expect a libertarian Tory cabinet to do if it wants to roll back the frontiers of the Nanny State?

Firstly, the government should be clear about why it wants to do this and that means understanding the deeply ideological nature of the modern public health movement. This is a movement whose leaders believe we can only have a healthy nation if we abolish consumer capitalism. They see our industry as a vector of industrial disease and anyone involved in producing or selling alcohol is regarded as a “stakeholder in an unhealthy commodity industry” (PHE). They see the private sector as a conspiracy against the public interest, regard the market as having failed, and the responsibility of government to regulate it on the basis of public health advice.

In short, the modern public health movement is a socialist project and a government that believes in free market capitalism should deal with it accordingly. To roll back the frontiers of the Nanny State requires government to dismantle the machinery of the Nanny State. This has both a national and local dimension. Nationally, PHE is the mother ship of public health lifestyle regulation having published no fewer than 299 “nutritional directives” in the past five years. 

What crystallised the problem for me was the recent announcement that the UK has lost its status as a measles-free nation. This year we’ve seen an outbreak of measles with dozens of cases turning to hundreds and now thousands are threatened. In the same week, PHE announced a nutritional directive that confectionery shouldn’t contain more than 50% sugar. Effectively this means banning boiled sweets, which are almost 100% sugar. So in the very week we saw the return of a mass-society epidemic we thought we’d banished, PHE was obsessing over boiled sweets! The focus is wrong. Put simply, government should abolish PHE and replace it with a smaller organisation that returns to protecting people from contagious diseases. PHE’s budget in 2013 was £150m, this year it’s £3.3bn. The bulk of this money should be redirected into front-line NHS services.

Government took responsibility for public health at local level from the NHS and gave it to local authorities. They should give it back. There are 117 directors of public health employed in local councils – some are a shared resource with more than one council. What do these people do apart from scold us into drinking and eating less and moving more? They are very well paid to do it too – the average salary for a director of public health is between £108,000 and £114,000. 

However, there are some outliers – the female director in Gateshead must get by on a mere pittance of £95,000, whereas her male counterpart in Oxfordshire is paid £207,000. A prime example of the gender pay gap! If he had any decency, he’d throw half his salary under the bus as a gesture of solidarity. Better still, just fire the lot of them and end the gravy train.
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health

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