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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 27th Oct 2023 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: The death of dance, tackling obesity, reframing the sandwich
Authors: Luke Johnson, Ann Elliott, Glynn Davis

The death of dance by Luke Johnson

It is more than 40 years since I was a teenager, and like almost everyone of my sort of age, I worry about young people. I’m sure this concern has been displayed by every generation since time began, but in a bizarre way, one of my anxieties is the opposite of the fears expressed by people like my grandparents in the 1950s and early 1960s. 
Back then, adult society suffered a moral panic over the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll, and the rhythmic, primitive “jive dancing” that accompanied it. Before then, people had danced but mostly in a rather more restrained fashion, perhaps doing the foxtrot, waltz or other forms of ballroom dancing. My chief apprehension is the reverse: that teenagers and twenty-somethings in 2023 aren’t dancing enough.
This was stimulated by the recent report from CGA that suggested the number of nightclubs has halved in the last ten years, from around 1,700 to 873. As far as I’m concerned, music and dancing are at the beating heart of every nightclub (or discotheque, or dance hall, as they were known in previous eras). As these establishments shut, so the number of places to dance the night away diminishes. 
The so-called night-time industry has been severely impacted by lockdowns, inflation and changing consumer behaviour. Having been involved in the ownership and operation of venues offering music and dancing since 1980, I can confirm the trade has gone from one of growth and optimism to one facing a constant struggle to survive.
Of course, there are more choices of places to go out now, including competitive socialising offers like ten-pin bowling, table tennis, digital darts, mini-golf, shuffleboard, axe throwing and all the rest. There is a broader range of restaurants in every city and town. Many pubs and bars supply a far better food and drink offer than in the past and quite a few pubs have late licences, although not many offer dance floors and DJs. 
Meanwhile, the incredible range of home entertainment means lots of those in the 16 to 30 age range – the key years for dancing – are playing computer games, streaming movies at home or on social media on their smartphone. Or possibly working out in the gym. And undeniably, music is not as important a form of recreation as it was when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, there is everything from influencers to podcasts to TikTok to distract people who might once have been crazy about pop music (and dancing).
But the issue is not just one of more intense direct and indirect competition for time, attention and money. For countless thousands of years, dancing was a rite developed by every society to foster relationships between the sexes. It was part of the mating ritual, enabling boys and girls to signal interest in each other and initiate limited, but still intimate, physical contact. 
In bygone days, girls were obsessed with the latest dance routine, and for boys, going out on a Friday night was about trying to score a slow dance with a girl you fancied. For hundreds of years, asking someone to dance was a way to communicate to them that you desired them. In my lifetime, dance crazes have regularly swept the nation – and indeed, any country that listens to pop music – like wildfire. From the twist to the locomotion, and from the hustle to break dancing, such routines became ubiquitous almost overnight. Even Gangnam Style had its moment – but that was 13 years ago. 
The present ubiquity of online dating means Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and the like are the means by which many males and females connect – especially among the younger age cohorts. Who needs to go to a disco and strut your stuff to meet someone when you can use your iPhone instead? The serendipity of a chance meeting in a nightspot is being lost in favour of the ruthless efficiency of an app.
One of the reasons millennials and Generation Z say they are falling out of love with clubbing is that they find it too expensive. Another is that many feel “unsafe” in a club environment – they are worried about their drink being spiked, getting chatted up by strangers, and getting drunk and being recorded. A far higher proportion of 18 to 30-year-olds are teetotal than in previous cohorts, and for some, the charm of a dark, noisy club is lost without alcohol. 
Interestingly, the culture of music festivals appears stronger than ever. I went to Glastonbury this year (major mistake) and it was the biggest in its history. Watching (and dancing to) live performances by popular acts remains an important activity for those between 18 and 35. The influence of star DJs is waning, but I think that was inevitable.
Does it matter that dancing is going out of fashion? I rather feel it does, but perhaps I am just suffering a bout of nostalgia. Many other social habits have disappeared, from dressing for dinner to saying grace before meals. Few really mourn their passing. Yet dancing is not just an incredibly widespread and enduring part of human culture, but also an art form of sorts, and one in which many millions of younger people participated in almost religiously every weekend until pretty recently. There is something elegant and sensual about a great dancer that transcends almost any other form of human movement.
There are endless new pastimes for people to indulge in – from padel to immersive theatre and from virtual reality experiences to drinking no alcohol cocktails. Interestingly, retro TV shows like Strictly Come Dancing are pretty popular, but they probably appeal to an older demographic – and watching something isn’t the same as doing it yourself.
Dancing is a communal activity and can be great exercise. I hope future generations do not give up on it. Meanwhile, the leisure industry is forever reinventing itself, evolving as the public’s tastes change, devising new methods of making a commercial success out of the latest trends in socialising. Who knows: one of these days, some brilliant entrepreneur may devise an ingenious way of getting all those young people to put on their dancing shoes and boogie.
Luke Johnson is a sector investor. This article first appeared in Propel Premium, which is sent to Premium subscribers every Friday. Companies can now have an unlimited number of people receive access to Propel Premium for a year for £995 plus VAT – whether they are an operator or a supplier. The single subscription rate is £495 plus VAT for operators and £595 plus VAT for suppliers. Email to upgrade your subscription.

Tackling obesity by Ann Elliott

I have just started reading Ravenous by Henry Dimbleby. It is riveting from its first paragraph, generating a range of emotions from anger through to irritation and frustration. Reading five pages in the evening is quite enough – any more than that and I am awake all night thinking about the issues he raises and how to solve them

I don't remember any of these issues being talked about when I was on the board at Pizza Hut in the late 1980s. Our customers liked pizza, it had fantastic margins, it was great value for money for guests and its nutritional content – in the context of a health – didn't have to be defended. Pizza, like fried chicken, burgers or doughnuts, was not going to be eaten every day by our customers, was meant to be treated as an occasional treat and could easily be incorporated into a balanced diet. Its contribution to obesity was not a topic for board debate.

This debate though has shifted considerably over the intervening years and an article in last Saturday's The Times was eye-catching on the subject of government control of a nation's diet and, therefore, obesity. “Are you overweight?”, it cried in its headline. “In Japan, your employer will decide...and companies have healthy weight targets. Is this why Japan has the lowest levels of obesity in the developed world? And could this approach work in Britain, where 40% of us will be obese by 2040?”

In Japan, seemingly, companies are legally required to measure their employees' waists every year. If they don't meet standard guidelines for waist size, they are expected to attend counselling for weight loss or receive motivational support. Businesses can be fined if they don't achieve sufficiently high participation rates among their workers. “Employers see it as their responsibility to promote healthy behaviour among their staff and most employees feel as if they are being looked after rather than snooped on,” the article said.

It goes on to say that Japan is not the only country to take back control of their nation's diet. Amsterdam achieved a 12% decline in childhood obesity over three years after launching the Healthy Weight Approach initiative in 2012. Chile has declared that sugary cereals must be sold in plain packages. Finland has transformed its health outcomes over the past 50 years.

In the last 30 years, there have been 14 obesity strategies and 689 separate schemes in the UK. Obesity currently costs the NHS more than £6bn a year and UK society as a whole about £58bn. If the UK continues on this path then 40% of the population will be obese by 2040. Andrew Lansley, the former health secretary, told the Health Commission: “Obesity will kill more people even than the pandemic did, and look what behaviour change was required for that.”

Successive prime ministers from Tony Blair to Boris Johnson have promised to make it a priority but all have given up. The article said: “Now ministers hail the new anti-obesity drugs as if they are the only way to solve the problem, but the NHS will never be able to afford to keep the growing number of obese patients on these expensive weight-loss medicines for the rest of their lives. There has to be a wider change in the culture to tackle the root cause of the problem rather than just treating the symptoms.”

The article quotes Henry Dimbleby as saying: “Good food cultures don't just happen – they are made by us. We are fat and ill because we live in a world full of food that makes us fat and ill. The mantra of ‘choice’ beloved of free marketeers is simply deluded.” Willpower is not enough when the environment is conspiring against individuals.

The current government is unlikely to do anything soon to reduce the sale, in or out of home, of products that make people fat and ill but Wes Streeting, shadow secretary of state for health, is likely to make this a priority when Labour wins the election (of course it may not). He probably won't introduce a policy quite as drastic as the one in Japan but he will need to drive significant change to affect the current trajectory on obesity.

In the meantime, I will continue to see read Ravenous, page by page, to see what Henry recommends.
Ann Elliott (she/her) is a portfolio non-executive director and board advisor

Reframing the sandwich by Glynn Davis

A friend recently regaled me with a harsh story from some years ago involving a regular at the pub he used to frequent. The landlord had increased the price of a pint over the £3 mark and the incandescent customer had loudly proclaimed that he would never drink in that pub again. Some years later following the death of the landlord he finally made a return to the pub in order to tell even more vocally everyone present that it was good riddance to the deceased.

I’ve no idea what this insensitive individual would make of the fact we seem to be moving inexorably closer to the average price of a pint hitting the incredible £10 level but what is clear is that everyone has their own thresholds for what they are willing to pay for certain food and drink items. Along with the pint of beer, I reckon sandwiches are another interesting benchmark that we all have a view on what’s an acceptable price.

Certainly my wife has strong views when it comes to the price of a Pret A Manger tuna and cucumber baguette (that my son is rather partial to) because she has a threshold of £4, and over this she tends to depart the premises. It seems she is not alone in using Pret as some sort of barometer on hospitality prices because the company has been a target of myriad negative media articles about increases in its costs in recent years.

The latest from the Daily Mail involved a quoted £7.15 for its Posh Cheddar and Pickle Baguette – that was the eat-in price (with £1.20 of VAT added) and for non-Pret Club members (without the 20% discount). Note to Pret management – this pricing is all getting rather complicated. The real focus of the piece was a £28 Wagyu and truffle sandwich in Harrods, which despite being the most expensive sandwich in the UK interestingly received no opprobrium at all from those fair-minded types at the Mail.

My own threshold for sandwiches is much higher than my wife’s because I believe this stalwart of British cuisine gets a pretty rough deal when compared with other foodstuffs. I recently enjoyed a ham, egg ‘n’ chips sandwich at the renowned Max’s Sandwich Shop in north London for the princely sum of £12.95, which I have no problem with at all because it was a hot dish and I tucked into it for my dinner. Other hot bread-encased delights were being served to other diners on this October evening alongside Max’s selection of wine and beer.

No doubt many people would baulk at such prices but they are no doubt more than willing to pay similar amounts of money for a pizza, a decent kebab, and a better burger that are arguably all variations on a sandwich where a version of bread plays a primary role in supporting a combination of hot ingredients.

I reckon it’s about time that we had a reframing of the traditional British sandwich as a dish that can be served across all dayparts – notably including dinner – with hot versions playing a greater role. The appetite to consume such items, and for consumers to be willing to pay the right price for them, appears to be growing judging by the recent news that a Bristol sandwich shop has just be named as Uber Eats “Restaurant of the Year” and scooped the £100,000 prize money.

Sandwich Sandwich (so good they named it twice) beat all-comers to claim the crown from a shortlist that was decided by a public vote and the final winner determined by a judging panel including Michelin-starred chef Monica Galetti. Among its more “regular” offerings, the menu includes an array of mightily impressive (Instagram-friendly for sure) hot sandwiches such as The Whole Hog, Cod and “chips”, and its forthcoming showstopper The Hot Christmas Stack. These are all priced around the £8 mark, which seem like a bit of a bargain to me – maybe too cheap in fact as there is a when-they-are-gone-they-are-gone policy and they often sell out.

I’m hoping any such reframing of the sandwich at these higher price points will not deter people from the category but that they instead embrace the flexibility of this mainstay of the UK’s culinary heritage that can compete with other bread-based dishes and be served at any time of day or night.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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