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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 29th Jul 2022 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: The MUP medicine didn’t work so up the dose, prix fixe menus are efficient and make economic sense, small is better when it comes to pubs with rooms
Authors: Paul Chase, Glynn Davis, Mark Marshall

The MUP medicine didn’t work so up the dose by Paul Chase

Over the years, I have written more articles on minimum unit pricing (MUP) than any other subject. It’s the bad idea that refuses to die. In response to rising alcohol-related societal problems, the Scottish government implemented a minimum price for a unit of alcohol on 1 May 2018. This followed a lengthy battle through both domestic courts and the European Court of Justice. Eventually, the UK’s Supreme Court decided MUP was not unlawful, and so it was introduced with the minimum price set at 50 pence per unit. 
 
The purpose of MUP was always somewhat confused. Some argued it was a measure designed to reduce alcohol consumption across the whole population, supposedly a good thing in itself, but particularly good if it included reduced consumption among heavy, problem drinkers. Others argued MUP was a targeted measure designed to raise the price of the ultra-cheap supermarket booze supposedly consumed by problem drinkers. So, whether MUP was a scatter gun or a sniper’s rifle approach to tackling alcohol-related problems was never fully resolved.
 
Apart from those neo-temperance activists who promoted MUP, most people with an interest in this split into two camps: those, like me, who opposed government interference in alcohol pricing on principle, and those who took a more pragmatic approach that if it works and does actually reduce problem drinking, then they would support it, but not if it doesn’t. So, the jury was out.
 
But not anymore. There have been a number of studies that have demonstrated that MUP has not worked – even in its own terms. Last month, a report conducted on behalf of Public Health Scotland found the following. “The introduction of a £0.50 MUP in Scotland led to a marked increase in the prices paid for alcohol by people with alcohol dependence. There is no clear evidence that this led to reduced alcohol consumption or changes in the severity of alcohol dependence among people drinking at harmful levels.”
 
Data is still emerging, and some of the planned analysis of health impacts has been hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the minimal impact on consumption amongst harmful drinkers is in sharp contrast to many optimistic forecasts of MUP’s effect. Moreover, a study published in the British Medical Journal ‘Open’ has found that MUP for alcohol in Scotland has contributed to an “associated increase in consumption” for the 5% of heaviest drinking men since its introduction in 2018 – among whom consumption increased by 10%. 
 
The study examined the immediate impact of MUP on alcohol consumption in Scotland, and whether this differed by sex, level of alcohol consumption, age, social grade and level of residential deprivation of respondents. It is based on data from the Kantar Worldpanel’s ‘Alcovision’ survey, an ongoing commercial dataset which surveys the previous week’s alcohol consumption in Scotland and England. The final analysis also included drink diaries completed by 53,347 women and 53,143 men between 2015 and 2018. It found that MUP was “not associated with a reduction in consumption among younger men and men living in more deprived areas” – those whom the policy was primarily designed to target. 

In May 2020, the Institute for Alcohol Studies published an article produced by Alcohol Focus Scotland that sought to bust the myth that “dependent drinkers can’t cut down so they, and their children, will go without food”. This referenced research stating that “heavy drinkers would reduce their drinking by 7% per year on average as a result of MUP, bringing significant health benefits”.

Meanwhile, the University of Sheffield’s Alcohol Research Group, whose forecasts were the supposed evidential basis for the introduction of MUP, claimed that “for the heaviest drinkers in the most deprived groups, we estimate that their spending on alcohol would decrease as a result of the reduction in the amount of alcohol they buy”.

Again, these claims have not been substantiated. The same harmful drinking review published last month, found that “people drinking at harmful levels who struggled to afford the higher prices arising from MUP coped by using, and often intensifying, strategies they were familiar with from previous periods when alcohol was unaffordable for them. These strategies typically included obtaining extra money, while reducing alcohol consumption was a last resort. MUP led to increased financial strain for a substantial minority of those with alcohol dependence as they obtained extra money via methods including reduced spending on food and utility bills, increased borrowing from family, friends or pawnbrokers, running down savings or other capital, and using foodbanks or other forms of charity”.
 
Was it not obvious that the response of dependent drinkers to MUP would be much more price inelastic than the response of moderate drinkers? It seems not. What these studies show is that we need to be wary of representing modelling as evidence for anything when it is, in fact, nothing more than a set of predictions that are only as realistic as the assumptions the model is based on. Rubbish in, rubbish out.

Will the Scottish government repeal MUP legislation in the light of these findings? Or will it conclude, as neo-temperance activists claim, that the medicine didn’t work because the dose wasn’t high enough – a higher minimum price would have produced the desired health benefits? A higher price would not only impact on problem drinkers, but on the moderate drinking majority, including older drinkers and middle-class wine drinkers – the sort of folk that are highly likely to vote in elections. Try selling that one on the doorstep in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health
 

Prix fixe menus are efficient and make economic sense by Glynn Davis

When sitting at the counter in Junsai restaurant in London’s Marylebone district, diners have to take the omakese menu option, which loosely translates from Japanese as leaving it up to the chef to deliver a tailor-made meal for you. This was fine by me on my recent visit, because the beauty of such a seat is that it places you right up against the grill on which this particular establishment’s omakese menu is largely focused.
 
Not only is it a joy watching the chef delicately work the grill and deliver an array of unannounced dishes, but by choosing such a menu, it is also helping the efficiency and economics of the restaurant. Junsai’s chef and owner, Aman Lakhiani, told me he selects the dishes each day depending on the best ingredients he has been able to source while also ensuring he uses all parts of the animal, thereby maximising profitability and leaving no waste.
 
I’m certainly not suggesting diners should choose their options in restaurants based on what makes the most financial sense for the business. It’s really up to the operator to put forward a proposition that ensures the profitability of their establishment. Certainly, during these tough times for the foodservice industry, restaurants are being forced to adapt their businesses according to enforced circumstances.
 
While they might not all be introducing an omakese menu, they have something very similar up their sleeves, the tasting menu. Effectively, the only difference between the two is that the western option tells you ahead of time what you will be receiving. Pre-covid-19, I’d have said the tasting menu was on its last legs as a result of constant negativity from food critics and the feeling from some customers (including my wife) that they really did not want 20 courses that had been chosen by someone else.
 
Despite this backdrop, the tasting menu is having something of a renaissance post-pandemic, with a variety of restaurants ditching their a la carte and going tasting menu-only. They are finding it makes sense on multiple fronts – including better inventory management, reduced waste and being easier to manage with reduced staffing levels. 
 
When The Ledbury re-opened, it switched to only serving tasting menus, which better suited its reduced number of services per week as a result of a shortage of employees, plus the focus of owner Brett Graham on sustainability through better utilisation of ingredients. At highly acclaimed Indian restaurant BiBi, it is again the shortage of personnel and focus on reducing wastage that is behind the forthcoming move to switch to tasting menus for evening service from September.
 
BiBi chef Chet Sharma has admitted to it being time-consuming for front-of-house staff to create a menu for diners from the a la carte options. Removing this element was also behind the move at A Wong to oust the a la carte menu. There is, no doubt, many other restaurants making similar moves for financial reasons. While this is all well and good for the high-end establishments, what about those in the mid-tier? 
 
While omakese and tasting menus might not exactly sit well with more casual dining venues, there is something in their armoury that could be just as effective in helping with the economics of their restaurants – the prix fixe menu. Offering two or three courses with two or three options for a fixed cost is surely one of the most overlooked devices. Maybe it is simply because it sounds too French that many restaurants don’t even consider its deployment. It seems to have plenty of traction when it is called a pre-theatre menu, but that’s about it. This is surely a mistake.  
 
Whenever I’m presented with such a menu, I’m invariably tempted to take up the option. Maybe this is because such a menu showcases the restaurant’s most popular dishes. These dishes should also not require an excessive amount of cooking time and be among the most profitable options on the menu. As well as bringing in the required gross profit, the prix fixe menu also provides the opportunity for the restaurant to streamline order production and improve the speed of service, which can help maximise covers. In addition, they deliver better control of food costs and a reduction in waste.
 
What’s not to like? I’m certainly struggling to find a downside. Omakese and tasting menus definitely have their place, but they will absolutely not always be my first choice for reasons of time and cost. This is not the case with prix fixe menus, because I find they pretty much hit the spot for all occasions. Here’s hoping that in these constrained times they become an option, in some form or other, within all types of restaurants.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends
 

Small is better when it comes to pubs with rooms by Mark Marshall

While most areas of hospitality are currently contracting when compared to pre-covid data from 2019, UKHospitality have noted that those offering accommodation are bucking this trend to the tune of +10% growth – as reported in Propel this week.
 
Clearly, this has been massaged by the staycation psyche created out of necessity by covid, but also, currently, those who simply don’t fancy the almost inevitable scenario of sitting on an airport floor for ten hours caused by insufficient staff or their flight being delayed or cancelled.
 
Which is why those pubs and inns that offer accommodation, be it five rooms or 50, have a golden opportunity to ride this positive wave. Setting aside the thorny question of the hardships of recruiting people to deliver this experience for a moment, it’s important to understand the key drivers at play here.
 
Qualitative and quantitative research conducted by Service Monitor (with accommodation guests of clients such as Fuller’s and Hall & Woodhouse) in recent times has shown the strengths pub and inn accommodation can offer. Things guests really like.
 
Small is good
Small is cosy and intimate. The fact that you ‘only’ offer a few rooms is a massive positive, not something to be embarrassed about. While this is a more prevalent view with leisure guests, many business guests feel the same. 

Small means more intimate and personal
A cheery check in and a face or two behind the bar and in the restaurant is so important to guests staying in such accommodation. It’s a huge advantage to offer this personal touch. I recently had to check into a 200-room hotel in London, and from start to finish, was not given the opportunity to engage with a single member of the hotel team. Call me old fashioned (which many do), but this is not for me, thanks ever so much. Likewise with the vast majority of guests we surveyed.  
 
Individuality
Guests like that each bedroom is a bit different, be it size, decor etc. And, equally important, that there is a bit of ‘quirk’ going on. This could be a decorative quirk or things like a book to read, a hot water bottle – anything. It gives the house the opportunity to be a little bit different, to set it apart from the norm and make guests smile. And equally important, make them remember this difference. 
 
Food & Drink
Guests staying in pub-based accommodation really appreciate the chance to enjoy something different when it comes to food and drink – as opposed to the standard menus most travellers kind of expect. Signature ales, locally sourced (if possible) food and specials – it all goes towards that feeling of individuality and not something stamped out of a mould. Smaller properties are nimble enough to offer this.     
 
There is much more
Welcome dogs with a water bowl outside. Welcome cyclists with a cycle rack. Welcome walkers with boot scrapers. Welcome kids with sweets – something they will never forget. Welcome aliens from the planet Tharg with whatever rocks their boat – or space ship!  
 
And let guests pay for it
They won’t bat an eye if they experience these kinds of things, and this is their sentiment, not mine! Above all, make the most of being small, individual, nimble, unfettered by scale and wonderfully special. 
Mark Marshall is managing director of Service Monitor

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