February 2011 Archives

Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area

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Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area

by Paul Singer - MD, London Fine Dining Group

There was a time when a man in uniform, with a smart hat, opened doors for you and helped you to your car with your shopping. But those days have long since evaporated, unless you do your weekly shop at Harrods in which case you probably already have your own man in uniform, or two.

Now, the emphasis is on self-help. You can even attempt to diagnose your own medical symptoms on NHS Direct but before you go to Boots claiming to have Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and asking for a plaster, be prepared for their computer to ask another computer for a second opinion.

You are even supposed to supply your own carrier bag, in the interests of saving the planet. It's called a Bag for Life (and if I hear any more jokes about ex-wives, the Ex-Wives Club will be alerted and take immediate action with a frying pan). The idea is that you purchase a plastic carrier bag which is supposed to last you for life. Really? In most cases, it barely lasts until you reach the car park before the handles ping off and the contents are deposited on the tarmac. How green is that? Very, if the contents include Fairy Liquid or Lime Juice.

So having purchased and remembered to bring your own carrier bag with you, you are presented with a checkout choice. Go for the human option and have your shopping catapulted down a fast moving conveyor belt faster than you can see or catch it, or, go solo and try to do a bit of DIY with the scanner.

Looks easy enough. But don't be fooled. Those checkout ladies who didn't make it as far as X-Factor, have had years of practice. As has that posh lady who says "Checkout Number 4 please". She is everywhere. The post office, the airport, the supermarket...  or it could be that she has several sisters: Number 1, Number 2 and Number 3?

It's all about bar codes. No code - no can do. You might recognise the item as a cucumber and so might the friendly human supervisor who has to guard the self-checkout area. It might even say the word Cucumber on it and even have the price printed on it, but all that makes no difference. Without a bar code it might as well be a spaceship (Special Offer: 2 for £99 million at Asda, right now until Sunday).

What they don't tell you is that the so-called fast lane is really the slow lane because DIY takes far longer (as any woman will tell you - I will finish putting up those shelves... next week - promise).

When that man designed the supermarket with 39 checkouts, he was only joking. You're never going to see more than a handful of staff operating them because it's easier and cheaper to let the punters do their own checking out with their own bags. Soon we will be baking our own bread too. And slicing our own bacon.

And these self-checkouts are clever. I took a free Evening Standard into Boots and when I put it into my bag (without scanning it) the machine refused to play ball, announcing in a loud and very public voice "Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area". Even after I took my free newspaper back out of the bag, it steadfastly refused to carry on until a supervisor with a password longer than the ones used to launch a nuclear missile was entered to authorise me to continue. So there's no chance of bypassing the system, or is there?

The man next to me in Sainsburys, who looked like a student (long beard, no sleep, holding a placard about student loans), seemed to have a system. He weighed a mango but when it asked what the item was, he put potato. Clever. Provided he had done his sums correctly and a mango cost more than a potato, pound for pound (remember pounds?).

A London restaurant even now has the menu projected onto the table so customers can do their own ordering. No need for a pesky waiter to take your order or get it wrong.

So where will it all end? We already have self check-in at the airport, self check-out at the supermarket, ATMs to get your own cash, NHS direct to diagnose your own ailments. How about self-burial? You place your deceased relative in a metal drawer, insert your credit card, select your preferred music track, and hey presto, in a few minutes ashes to ashes ....



Popcorn and other fine-dining!

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Popcorn and other fine-dining!

by Paul Singer - MD, London Fine Dining Group

Next time you fancy going out for some exotic snack forget Bray and think Odeon! Yes, fine dining has reached the cinema and you can forget all about popcorn. From now on, when you sit down you will be offered such delicacies as foie gras à la nacho, kir royale slushie, pain au Minstrel or even Roast Sea-Bass flavoured ice-cream (complete with phish food).

But don't think you will be eating off bone china with silver cutlery - more like out of a cardboard box with a plastic fork.

But it's not the quality of the food that's the issue, it's the fact that you will be accompanied by the sounds of other diners smacking their lips and eating with their mouths wide open or gurgling through a straw - because nobody can see them in the dark.

And let's not forget the aroma. No fresh flowers but you get to decide between stale-sock (popcorn) or cheesey-stinky-sock (nacho covered in a man-made cheese freshly squirted from a heated nozzle).

Why people imagine that the cinema is the best place for a feast escapes me. It's dark and uncomfortable (unless you opt for the Premium seats which have extra width to accommodate your extra wide bottom - or it will be once you have finished eating all that food during the film).

Even the entertainment is lacking. Adverts aren't what they used to be. I blame Mr Pearl and Mrs Dean (if they are still alive and not divorced). It's about time they polished up their act and got some new material.

And that goes for Orange, too. If their adverts get any more cringeworthy, they will be a fitting punishment for anyone caught attempting to commit piracy by using a video camera in the cinema. The warning should read "Anyone found in possession of a video camera will be forced to watch every Orange advert, sequentially, for 2 hours". That would teach them a lesson - although poking out their viewfinder eye and cutting off one of their hands and replacing it with a hook would be much better and fit in nicely with the general piratey theme.

Once the film starts, you would think things would get better, but you might be mistaken.

Firstly, the incessant munching continues unabated even in the Premier seats, where the cup holders have a wider hole to accept deeper and wider drink containers so slurping can continue throughout the film.

Secondly, films are going downhill, and I don't just mean in the Cool Runnings sense of the word.

It seems that producers will seize upon almost any topic and contemplate making a film about it.

Take the K-K-K-King's S-S-S-Speech, for example.

Let me save you £20, and about 2 hours of t-t-t-t-torture with a b-b-b-brief s-s-s-summary of the p-p-p-plot:

He stuttered - then he stuttered a bit less. The End!

Not much better was a film about the perils of being stuck in crack in a rock for 127 hours - called, you guessed it "127 Hours" - ok, they left out the "Stuck in a Rock" part in a futile effort to add some suspense to an otherwise uneventful 127 hours (which feels not much less than that when you come to view it).

I am thinking of making a film about a Goldfish.  Called Goldfish.  Simple plot.  Goldfish.  Bowl.  Water. 

Should prove relaxing to watch whilst you stuff whatever you can into your mouth in the dark.



A Man Walked into the BHA

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A Man Walked into the BHA

by Paul Singer, MD, London Fine Dining Group


Now before you all go thinking that I have turned into a dyslexic version of Bernard Manning, I should explain that BHA is not a misspelling of the word BAR nor an acronym for the British Horseracing Association although I bet (at odds of 20/1) that some of you might be thinking so!


No, it's an acronym for something completely different - the British Hospitality Association.


And this is the (abbreviated, you will be delighted to hear) tale of my first meeting and what goes on behind those closed doors in Lincoln's Inn Fields.


London Fine Dining Group had always been a privately owned company, the product of a rescue of one of London's most respected restaurant groups (A to Z Restaurants) and the financial backing of commercial property mogul, John De Stefano. Historically, we kept ourselves pretty much to ourselves although as the group began to grow, it employed almost 300 people across 8 sites in Central London.


The time had come for us to have a public voice and so it was with a certain measure of apprehension that I was invited to attend my first BHA meeting.


Luckily, the meeting was set for lunchtime, the idea being that people might be enticed into attending by the offer of Hula Hoops and a sandwich platter from M&S.


I was introduced to a gentleman who introduced himself to me as the Earl of Bradford. He looked more like an accountant than an Earl so, in a moment of misjudged hilarity, I asked him "Are you a real Earl or did you buy it on eBay?". I say misjudged because not only did he turn out to be the real deal but he also had a website devoted entirely to the exact topic of purchasing peerages in an attempt to fraudulently pass yourself off as a member of the aristocracy (in case anyone is offered the Dukedom of 'Ackney for a "monkey" in a pub one night).


And after that wonderful start, we were seated for lunch - next to each other.


Luckily, the food was to prove our salvation. The good Earl was dealt a chicken breast whereas I was dealt a leg. As everyone knows, I prefer breast to leg (stop sniggering at the back!). I surveyed the chicken leg for a moment trying to decide which part to pretend to cut up and leave first. As I glanced to my right, I could see the Earl doing the same with his chicken breast. Our eyes met and he then told me that he preferred the leg. Our chance to bond. We swapped chicken pieces and thereby hangs a story I will be able to recount to my grandchildren (when I have any) for years to come - for how many people can claim to have swapped their chicken leg for a breast with a real Earl?!


Eating that chicken breast which had come from the Earl's plate was the closest I have ever come to royalty, apart from a school trip to the Tower of London as an 11 year old when we saw the Crown Jewels and a wooden block where a few of Henry VIII's wives were beheaded (I forget how many - history was never my strong point).


The BHA, as I was to learn, incorporated not just conventional hospitality (like hotels and  restaurants) but also hospitals and prisons. That was a revelation. I had never thought of Wormwood Scrubs as a venue for hospitality but perhaps if you behead enough of your wives, you might get to try it for free.


The BHA umbrella also covered the London Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association so now, in one fell swoop, I was a member of more committees than I could care to name.


The Chief Exec of the BHA at the time was Bob Cotton (I think he might have an OBE - possibly the outcome of too much chicken-swapping with the Earl). Bob had grown up through the ranks of hospitality including a spell working as a chef at Clarence House where the Queen Mother allegedly insisted on having a thoroughly comprehensive choice of eggs for breakfast including fried, scrambled, poached, hard-boiled, soft-boiled and probably flambéd in Gin, too, for all I know.


He was an avid campaigner for British Hospitality (or as he used to say "What I call British Hospitality" - because it was British Hospitality!). I lost count of the number of times he could get the words "what I call" or "what I term" into a sentence. In fact, the rest of the sentence just didn't seem to matter once those words had been used.


In 2010, Bob moved on and became a consultant for London Linen (with a name like Cotton, it must have been fate) and made way for Ufi Ibrahim - a chief exec with a name so unique that she is probably a one-woman Googlewhack in addition to being an anagram of "Barium Hi-Fi" which could be the latest in nuclear sound technology from Currys. That's what I call impressive. Not in the least camera shy, Ufi's photo appeared more times in the press than Cheryl Cole's during the first week after her appointment - and that's quite a bit.


So what can the BHA do for you, apart from satisfy your cravings for Hula Hoops and Royally connected chicken?


Well, it can allow you to become a part of that huge and otherwise secretive governmental machine which dictates almost everything connected with the hospitality business from the size of a wine glass to the number of hours your staff can legitimately work.


To be even a small cog in this ever-turning wheel is vitally important to your business as you not only have a chance to shape your own future and that of the industry in which you work but also learn which rules and regulations are hurtling down the tunnel towards you, thus giving you the chance to avoid being run over by them before it's too late.


Ufi and her team are relentless in campaigning for the interests of their members, whether it's trying to negotiate better deals with preferred suppliers or fighting with government departments to cut through red tape or prevent unnecessary secondary legislation.


Their upcoming major challenge will be 2012. Whether the Olympics will provide a platform for Britain to showcase the very best its hospitality industry has to offer or whether the UK will just become one huge receptacle for discarded McDonalds packaging has yet to be seen.


One thing is for sure; if Ufi and the BHA have anything to do with it, the Hospitality industry is not going down without a sesame-bun-fight.











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