Thursday 30 June 2022

Solitary confinement

I live on my own, and from time to time find myself eating alone in restaurants. Over the years, I’ve experienced quite a number of examples of absolutely diabolical service, glacially slow, forgetful and unobservant, some of which I’ve described on this blog. There seems be something about solo diners that restaurants struggle with. I’ve received a few discounts and refunds and, if I had infinite reserves of time and patience I’m sure I could have obtained plenty more. Closing time comes, and they ask what I’m still doing there. “Oh, I’m just waiting for my main course to arrive.”

I accept that most of this isn’t deliberate. By definition, a single diner will probably want to get through his meal more quickly than a group engaged in conversation, and also may be more easily overlooked. But I can’t help feeling that there is a touch of resentment that they don’t fit the desired customer profile, and a middle-aged bloke isn’t going to look so good to potential customers as a foxy single business lady.

The process of going through the steps of ordering and being served with food in a restaurant should be straightforward and predictable. A server should be aware of the tables they’re allocated to, and regularly check how the occupants are getting on. When they’ve obviously finished one stage, they should be fairly promptly invited to move on to the next. The aim of service should be to speak to the customer before they’ve even started to think about where the waiter has got to.

If you’re on the ball, you should be able to get a single diner eating a two-course meal through the entire process in an hour, provided that the main course can be cooked in 15-20 minutes. An hour and a quarter isn’t too bad, but anything more suggests you’re not really paying attention. Yet recently, in a place that wasn’t anywhere near packed, it took me an hour and fifty minutes. Fortunately I had brought some reading matter along with me. It certainly isn’t a phenomenon confined to busy restaurants. While some customers may be happy with spending most of the afternoon or evening in a restaurant, others will have trains to catch, or meetings or shows to attend.

Obviously the primary responsibility has to lie with management, for failing to recruit and train staff properly and make sure they are keeping their eyes open. However, it can’t be denied that some staff come across as lackadaisical, disengaged and unobservant, and almost seem to resent actually being asked to do anything. If I was doing a job, however mundane, I’d make an effort to do it as well as I could, but evidently this isn’t a universal sentiment. In fact, it could be argued that it’s easier to do a job properly than to deliberately slack.

Even after you’ve actually eaten your food, there are still the multiple hurdles of getting and paying the bill to negotiate. This requires three separate interactions with the staff – asking for it, receiving it (after which they invariably walk away) and then actually proferring your preferred means of payment and having it processed. If you need change, there’s a fourth step to add on. At least now they will bring a card terminal to the table rather than vanishing into the back with it. On several occasions, I’ve felt that I’ve got through a meal in decent time only to have to wait a further half an hour before I’ve actually paid for it.

All these things also apply to parties of diners, but they do seem to be notably worse for solo customers. It’s all very well to say that you should attract the attention of a passing waiter, but having to do that always seems a touch ill-mannered and a last resort, and you need to have one to hail in the first place.

This problem is avoided in most pubs by operating a system of ordering at the bar and paying at the same time. This means you can leave more quickly once you have finished your meal, although it may make it more difficult to have problems rectified. Some casual dining restaurants such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Nando’s operate a similar system with the exception of bar service for drinks. It also doesn’t occur in buffet restaurants where you pay a single price upfront. If you want a reasonably quick meal it may make sense to choose one of these places.

And, while it may seem a bit ill-mannered and brutal, surely there’s a case for restaurants having service bells in the same way as pubs operating waiter service used to.

Tuesday 14 June 2022

Day of reckoning

The first five months of this year have seen a spate of closures of small independent breweries, many long-established and well-respected. They include, amongst others, Woods, Exe Valley, Beatnikz Republic, Kelham Island and Cheshire Brewhouse.

The immediate trigger for this has been the wave of cost increases resulting from money printing to fund world-wide Covid bailouts, exacerbated more recently by the conflict in Ukraine. However, it was evident well before Covid that all was not well in the microbrewery sector, and that there was a significant problem of oversupply. It seems that many breweries hunkered down during the prolonged lockdowns when nobody could make any money, but now that the pub trade has returned to something like normal are now finding themselves in a precarious position. It was often said that at some point there would inevitably have to be a shakeout, and that is now happening.

Brewing differs from most other businesses in that many people go into it as something of a labour of love rather than seeing it as a strictly commercial venture. There are many in the industry who have an additional source of income, being retired, having a working partner or a rich parent, and thus are not looking to make a full-time living out of it. This makes life more difficult for those for whom it is their livelihood, and there were numerous reports of cut-throat price competition.

Brewers of cask ale are handicapped by the widespread culture of rotating guest beers, which leads to a perception of it being a homogenous, interchangeable product, and makes it difficult to command any kind of price premium. Small Brewers’ Relief, while well-intentioned, has in practice often been used simply to fund lower prices rather than reinforcing brewers’ financial position.

Obviously the people who have taken the difficult decision to close their breweries are deserving of sympathy. There often seems to be little correlation with how nice they are as individuals or how good their beer was. But the basic facts of the marketplace cannot be denied – there are simply too many breweries chasing too little volume.

The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) have proudly proclaimed the fact that there are now over 2,500* breweries in the UK as a significant achievement. However, if most of them are chasing a limited pool of free trade rather than being brewpubs it does rather suggest a dysfunctional market.

Sadly, there are likely to be further casualties in the microbrewery sector in the coming months. And anyone tempted to enter the market needs to be well aware of the harsh financial realities. And, if you enjoy tinkering about with metal pipes and vessels, you might be better advised to take up a career in plumbing.

Tandleman has also recently written about the problems of the small brewery sector here.

* 2,500 is the figure quoted by SIBA themselves. Other sources give a total of as many as 3,000 - see the discussion in the comments below.

Sunday 12 June 2022

Sights to make the heart sink

As a counterpoint to yesterday’s post, here are a few things in pubs that for me are an instant turn-off.

  • The name of the pub displayed on the outside wall in a script font
  • It is described as “Something” & Kitchen
  • Part of the building painted in dark grey, blue, red or green
  • You are asked at the door or at the bar whether you are eating with them
  • A menu lacking pounds signs and trailing zeroes
  • Charges a substantial premium for half pints
  • Modern polished wood floors
  • An abundance of posing tables
  • Long wooden forms with no backs
  • Place settings on all or most of the tables
  • Many tables too big for a party of four
  • Motivational quotes on the walls
  • Uniformed bar staff
  • An elaborate display of wine and spirit bottles on the bar back with no clutter from notices or bags of snacks
  • An interior colour scheme of cold pastels
  • Deliberately curated “mellow” music
Although they are something of a bête noire of mine, I haven’t included scatter cushions as they’ve become pretty ubiquitous and you can easily move them out of the way.

Saturday 11 June 2022

A sight to gladden the heart

Recently there was some discussion on Twitter about the signifiers of both rough pubs and snobby pubs. So I thought I would ask a related question of what things you come across when entering a pub that give you a positive feeling. These are a few of my personal suggestions – not the big items of beer and food offer or pricing, but the little touches. I’ve deliberately not included any that are the absence of something.
  • Frosted or etched glass windows
  • Bench seating
  • A stone-flagged or quarry-tiled floor
  • Or, failing that, a carpet
  • A jukebox
  • A glass case on the bar containing cobs/rolls
  • Small round copper-topped tables
  • Beermats
  • A pub cat or dog
  • A Sooty or similar charity box
  • A font for an obscure blast-from-the-past keg mild or bitter
  • Cards of nuts and snacks pinned up behind the bar, especially the famous “Ploughman’s Lunch”
  • Pictures or memorabilia reflecting a personal interest of the licensee
  • Lamely humorous notices such as “Free beer tomorrow!”
  • Coat hooks on the front of the bar
  • A collection of miscellaneous well-thumbed books and magazines for customers to read
  • A traditional pub game such as bar billiards, bagatelle or devil among the tailors. Even table football
I’m sure you can add one or two of your own...

Thursday 9 June 2022

Arrested development

Given all the problems currently besetting the country, you might have thought that the government had enough on their plate at present. But apparently not, as they have now come up with a proposal to increase the legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21.

This would be a grossly illiberal and abhorrent measure. Smoking, while widely deprecated, remains a legal activity, and 18 is generally recognised as the age of majority. What kind of message does it send to young people that you can’t trust them with what they put in their bodies? It is also completely inconsistent with allowing them to exercise informed consent over being vaccinated, not to mention the widespread pressure to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16. So you can decide who should govern the country, but not whether you can enjoy a legal product?

Some may see this as yet another stick to beat the present government, but I really can’t see the opposition parties raising much objection to it. They will do their usual nodding dog act as they did over lockdowns.

It’s not as if it would be particularly effective anyway. It would presumably only be a ban on purchase, not on possession and consumption, so there would be nothing to stop young people actually smoking. With the ban on smoking in indoor public places, the range of situations in which young smokers will stand out and be subject to social stigma has already greatly reduced. And, from the aroma hanging around many bus stations and public parks, the consumption of cannabis seems to be generally tolerated even though possession is illegal at any age. It’s more a case of sending a signal that smoking is being further denormalised.

It’s estimated that 25% or more of all tobacco products consumed in the UK are already bought on the black market, so young people are unlikely to encounter much problem in getting hold of smokes. It will also place more pressure on retailers who have to enforce the restriction and lead to potential confrontations.

And don’t imagine that it wouldn’t set a precedent that would in the fullness of time be extended to alcohol. Indeed, it’s already been proposed in Scotland, which in recent years has been the standard-bearer of authoritarian public health policies.