Sunday, 11 January 2009

The taste of food, or appealing to the masses?

Had a really interesting conversation with a good friend the other day. She LOVES eating, and eats out (as in: at restaurants, cafes, and people’s places) at least 4 times a week. She’s a great eater too, which is good when you cook for her, because she loves everything you put down in front of her, and praises you to high heaven. She also hates cooking for herself.

She ate recently at Piccalilly, an experience she found reasonably lacking.

Our conversation covered the food she ate, the ethos behind the Piccalilly food, and chefs in general, plus what we all want when we go out for a meal, and lead to a long discussion about tastes and flavours, and food and money, as well as expectations generally.

The reason I found it interesting was that once again it illustrated to me the differences in all of us, and the difficulty chefs have traditionally always had in their efforts to please many of their customers.

Even at home, one of the main daily issues to be addressed when I was a young wife and mother, was the fact that it was really difficult to encompass everyone’s likes and dislikes for the evening meal. There seemed to be something wrong with everything I made, according to at least one of my “customers”. Either I’d served the food with Brussels sprouts, which a few of my offspring claimed tasted like farts, or spinach (which they always said was gritty, and they hated the taste of it anyway), or they didn’t like the meat touching the veges, or something! The nightly meal always seemed to be a source of much dispute, either before, during or after it.

I suppose that’s how I approached my career in hospitality. If I could tolerate and approach my customers in a restaurant scenario with the same amount of tolerance and patience as I had with my own children, then rest assured I would naturally be a huge success! No one can be as clear as one of your children telling you precisely what they think of your food at home – whether it’s fabulous or disgusting!

One of those moments came one winters morning after my son Jamie insisted he could breakfast on nothing but porridge that particular day when I’d already prepared scrambled eggs for everyone. After some nagging from him, I made the porridge and put it down in front of him. He refused to eat it with the reason that he now wasn’t feeling like eating it! At that pronouncement, Rita calmly picked up the bowl of porridge and neatly upended it on the top of his head! As porridge dripped down his hair and face, it then fell to Rita to have to deal with the upshot of that foolhardy action, and take him back into the bathroom to have a second shower, and get into another set of clean clothes.

But – I had previously thought that through, and decided that the satisfaction of actually demonstrating what I, as another human also entitled to possess an opinion, thought of his decision to not eat the porridge, was justified.

I think that’s why I am convinced that the most universal favourite, food-wise, is the humble roast. It is the one meal that I can guarantee everyone will enjoy, no matter who they are, or where they come from. Even my vegetarian daughter, whose predilections mean she can’t even front up to a fish product, loves a tray of baked veges and gravy.

So – when all’s said and done, I think my message is simple: you really can’t please all the people all the time, so don’t think for one moment you can. At the end of the day, you can really only take a good hard look in the mirror and if you can justify everything you’ve done that day, you’ve done alright.
Posted on by Rita


Anonymous said...

Quite agree, Rita. We are all so different.
The faddiness of your own kids is a wonderful 'training module'. I bet the upturned porridge was worth all the effort. What a vision!

Anonymous said...

Its been said before, "You can't please all of the people all of the time...." etc, Kzee sums it up, we are all different.
I find as a host you can take a couple of options:
You can hit the middle road and design a menu that uses popular ingredients in a format that people will understand and try to be a little immaginative, and deliver it well.You risk boring some people this way.

The other is to make a statement, be bold and a bit more innovative than the pack, have less fear and just go for it. I like Piccalily in this sense, it appeals to me. But it may be a bit too modern for some, or not, not my call.

Either way your menu has to be achievable. No point if the kitchen just can't deliver it well enough, consistently.

Weather, climate and mood also play a part in our tastes. Show me a restaurant owner who does not read the long range weather forcasts and adapts accordingly. Theres more, but I guess you all know what can affect our moods.

Roast dinners are my all time favourite. We run them on weekends throughout Autumn and winter but they come off in the warmer months, very popular.

Finally, tonight I did battle with the 6 year old and the Broccoli, both of us ended up with the 1000 yard stare. Ah, the joys of fatherhood.


Rita said...

Thanks for your comments Kzee and Cartouche.
Cartouche - I have sent you an email. Hope you have it.

love the south said...

Food for the masses has never been more accentuated than as at the folk festIval in Cygnet. Up until three years ago I had lived there for over twenty-five years and have come back there for the festival and to catch up with friends this year and two years ago. What a change! Two years ago The Lotus Eaters was buzzing and creative, and the Red Velvet was stagnant. This year it was completely in reverse. The Red Velvet catered for the masses with groove and the Lotus Eaters felt as if the zing was gone and the whole vibe was geared towards raping the influx of money. Difference in expectations? Maybe.

Rita said...

Hi Love the south - thanks for your constructive comments there about the Cygnet Folk Festival. I too feel that way about Red Velvet, but am aware that my opinion is perceived as bias in favour of my friend. It isn't. If Steve's food was shit, I'd be the first to whinge to him about it. It's not. I believe his food to be worth travelling to Cygnet weekly for, and try to do this.

Susannah said...

Hi Rita

Certainly not possible to please everyone - and the restaurant (or kitchen) that tries to, generally ends up pleasing no one very much. Roast dinners are probably an exception.

My daughter, nearly 20, mentioned the other day that her favourite meal when she was little was "choosing night". This was the name I gave to the meal where I would assemble whatever leftovers I had, supplemented by some good bread and cheese, perhaps hommus and carrot sticks, and whatever other little gems i had in the pantry, and everyone just helped themselves (the one meal where mother didn't nag the kids - everything was healthy, so I didn't really care which food groups got eaten).

sir grumpy said...

It's true Rita you can't please all but KFC and Maccas certainly grab a huge swathe!
Tha's why I usually feel sad when a little place goes belly up and you know they were good.
Either the message doesn't get out or bad feng shooey or something.
We always tell our friends etc about places offering something worthwhile.
I do feel very sad when I see someone doing their dosh refurbishing a place, hiring staff and sourcing good ingredients only to find Jo Public doesn't beat a path to their door.
That's why Blogs such as yours are great things Rita. get the message out and back the industry.

Rita said...

Susannah - I believe they used your idea for a cooking show a few years back - Surprise Chef? You should have received royalties!
Sir G - I have a question about your KFC & Maccas - do people actually genuinely love the food there? Or is it just that their desire for instant gratification has been fulfilled, and that makes it enjoyable?
I agree with you about feeling sad when I see someone doing their dough at a new restaurant which doesn't get enough customers to pay the bills. But - it truly behoves people to do their homework, and research it before they spend up big, rather than acting on emotion or impulse. A business plan is the first thing to be done when you think of something like that. Look up NEIS in the phone book, and attend a NEIS course - is my advice.

sir grumpy said...

There's more to it than a mere business plan. I'm not talking about a silly idea to open a steakhouse at a vegetarian resort, bad postioning etc.
But that intangible why. Sometimes two equal places in merit are side by side yet one is preferred by the multitude.
You see it all the time and all the wise-ass business planning crapola cannot explain it.

Rita said...

Sir G, respectfully I suggest you might not have had to write a Business Plan? If you had, you would know that by the time you've had to justify the how/why/where/when's of your prospective new business, there shouldn't really be anything else left to chance, such as the place next door appealing to everyone, and not yours. Finishing up the Business Plan with a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis tends to have forced you to go through every scenario that could possibly occur, if you've done it properly.

sir grumpy said...

I think you are a bit biased here, Rita. How did people manage in the days before business plans?Were there no successes then? Of course there were.
And why, if these are so thorough, do many business still go belly up? You know I hate red tape, it's like red tape to a bull. I detest all this corporate stuff and corporate speak.

Rita said...

No, not biased Sir G, but can certainly see the benefits of doing a proper Business Plan. If you look on it as a river to be crossed on the way to charming squillions of dollars out of your bank manager, then you'll find any number of reasons as to why you should and CAN start up that wonderful business. But if you do the Business Plan as a realistic check-list for your own benefit (which ideally is exactly what it should be) you will see where you might not have done your homework as well as you should have.
In the old days, people just went belly up, or did well, the same as they do today. The main difference is that today there are way more businesses such as were never seen in the olden days, so way more businesses have the chance to go bust. Yes new-style businesses have replaced older-style businesses, but still there are heaps more than previously. If you look at the original Hobart Town, we would have had a few inns, a few grocery-type shops, a few stables, and maybe a few specialty shops like blacksmith etc. The law of supply and demand ruled then.
I'd say things have altered a tad since then.

I think of the many businesses that go belly-up today, under-estimating what it'll cost to run, going in with too much debt level, undercapitalised, not good cash flow, doing too much on borrowed money all add up to the one thing - a lack of preparedness, financially. That is the outstanding reason why so many small & medium sized businesses fail today. If they'd done an honest and realistic Business Plan upfront they might save themselves a lot of angst, and debt.

sir grumpy said...

The main thread was about food for the masses versus taste, Rita.
I raised the question of the intangibles, the secret ingredients that mark out success for one at the expense of another.
As for us having more shops now...well I don't know about that.
Napoleon described Britain as a nation of shopkeepers.
I think all this business plan stuff might sheet home the scale of an undertaking for the naive...but its the talent of the proprietors against the fickleness of the public I see as the equation.
If you have the talent and some experience, you have a hope.
If you are a complete amateur and depeding on the bank for the stake money, then it is an invention of the bank to put the hurdle of a ``business plan'' in front of you to safeguard its investors' dosh.
As I say, how did the mighty chefs and restaurants and cafes of the past manage to ever get by without one of those failsafe business plans?
Sorry, Rita, they are mostly tosh.

Rita said...

Well, Sir G - as I started out saying, you just can't please all the people all the time, n'est pas?

Anonymous said...

I can see where both Rita & SGBF are coming from on this one.
It is certainly prudent to do your research, and a SWOT analysis is although basic a good starting point. You need to look at your demographic, trends etc. I remember a former post discussing the lack of restaurant dining options in Kingston. Looking at a growing population, you would think they would be lining up. But Sir Grumpy I believe hit the nail on the head when he explained that a burgeoning mortgage belt heavily in debt, commuting to work, with young families, would not necessarily support a restaurant. The builders working in their hordes however would hammer the takeaways and pie shops etc. Maybe this is why its worth doing a bit of research.
But it is a shame to see people take a risk and in some cases lose, perhaps not because they are bad at what they do, but because they misjudged the market, and that market is sometimes as fickle as the weather.
Rita is a good barometer of the public, as a sailor, I'm always watching the barometer, and trimming the sails accordingly.


steve said...

Wise words Rita.
I think thatyou & Sir G are actually on the same wavelength, for instance you close with,

"At the end of the day, you can really only take a good hard look in the mirror and if you can justify everything you’ve done that day, you’ve done alright"

And he says,

"but its the talent of the proprietors against the fickleness of the public I see as the equation.
If you have the talent and some experience, you have a hope".

What I take of this is that if you have self belief underpinned by experience & skills, you are in a better position than someone who relies soley on the business plan as its only guide to succeed.
I agree though with Rita who says that a business plan is a great tool to map out what may seem obvious to a more instinctive person in these matters fiscal.
Conversley Sir G has a great point in the Business plan being some sort of financial saviour for those who get involved in a business they know little about or are cynically trying to cash in on without actually being well versed in its particular intricacies. I abhor that whole corperate, weasel word speak too Sir G & I reckon 'The Business Plan' has fallen prey to it unfairly.

As to the topic of feeding the masses etc, listening to a repeat of the Boyer Lectures, 2009 speaker, Rupert Murdoch, I was stunned by his apparent contradictory argument. On one hand he lamented that the journos & editors of yesteryear delivered a product that was dependable in its research & its reliability in providing unbiased facts.
On the other, he chastised the self interest of these same professions that was at the heart of why Newspapers are not as rellevent as they once were. It seemed like the old high/low culture argument to me.
Relating this to food, it reminds me of a saying I once heard & always remember.
'If you cook for the poor, you'll eat with the rich', & vice versa.

I dont want to get into Alan Jones & his cronies territory by criticising our so called cultural elites but it seems to me that there is a shared difficulty in marrying critical success with finacial gain, not only in food, but in many other walks of life here. How so can one explain the phenomenal success of one fast food chain over, say, one of our most distinguished eateries? Are those that patronise the fast food joint uncultured bogans who dont know any better? Or are those in the vast minority who dine at the posh place high culture elitists?

I have come to the conclusion after being swayed professionally by the lure of critical acclaim for many years, that ultimately its the customer who has the last word on the subject. Sure your product/service may be great, perhaps even ahead of its time, but the right time for this will refect in the days takings. Of course not every idea is latched upon by the spending public instantly, often it takes years & years. The trouble is no matter how good the idea, the self beleif & the skills & experience to pull it all off are, sometimes the element of chaos just kicks in. The randomness of a trend reaching its zenith, a sudden collective awareness, word of mouth that has been spreading for years or even just a simple, unexplained twist of fate that no business plan could ever account for & some succeed & some fail for no logical reason at all.

Rita said...

This has been a most enlightening and interesting discussion, and I thank Sir G and others for their input.
It's what the blog ideally is about - sane and rational online discussion on a subject which we are all, in our own ways, passionate about (or why else would we all keep returning to a site such as this?)
I agree with all in many of the points raised. The customer is the ultimate arbiter, and they are the most unpredictable of species, I can say with confidence.

I don't know exactly what makes or breaks a business, but 40 years of observations of local businesses, and knowledge of the circumstances, has provided me with many clues. Each failed business has it's own history, and specific reasons as to the background of its failure. For many, I can say with certainty, when looking at it from the outside, you can accurately predict that this one will definitely fail, or this one will definitely succeed. Ask anyone working at Hospitality Plus, or Medhursts, or Hotel & Club. They're the ones who receive the requests to kit out a new cafe or restaurant. You can tell a lot at that first contact with the new restaurant owner: what they're ordering (price, design, style), how they verbally request it (yes - the way they deal with their tradespeople is a big forecaster of their attitude to customer service, believe it or not!), the expansiveness (or not) of their plans (yep, it may surprise you to know there are many wankers in the restaurant world!) etc.

But - I stick to my argument that a business plan done for yourself and not just for form's sake, can be a fabulous tool. I agree about the weasel words thing. I too hate that, and can't for the life of me understand why people must resort to such jargon, but am surrounded by people doing it, so in order to be understood, and taken semi-seriously, I too must at times adhere to the status quo. But I am a fully paid up member of the Anti Weasel Words league, and spend much time at meetings and watching politicians on TV mentally rewriting speeches in plain English. For instance why, in TV news snatches, do policemen insist on talking as if they're in a court when standing right next to a fatal car accident site. It's NOT an "alleged" accident! I can see you standing right next to a smashed car on the road! I can see ambulance people, and debris on the road, and all the trappings which signify an accident. I know you must be circumspect when making public statements, but geez....

Anyway - back to the topic in hand, I know we'll see quite a few businesses fall over this year, due to the economy, and feel so sorry for everyone affected. Let's hope the fickle public will try and support their favourites.

Susannah said...

I agree wholeheartedly with you about business plans, Rita. I can, however, see where Sir Grumpy is coming from. (is it just me, or have his posts on this topic been uncharacteristically serious?).

I did a project management course some years ago, and found a lot of it to be a framework of terminology (ok, I actually said "jargon" to the presenter), and his response was that for some people project management was pretty much intuitive, especially so for smaller or less complex projects. I actually find Gantt charts to be a helpful visual aid when planning, but I try to keep them as simple as possible.

It is much the same with business plans. Writing down what the pros and cons, risks and opportunities etc are, can be a useful discipline, particularly for people who have a less intuitive feel for the business, or who are less experienced. Some of the tools and terminology can help. Sir Grumpy may be a bit jaundiced (and I can understand this too) by experiences of people who use business plans/project management as a substitute for, rather than an aid, to common sense.

As to the "surprise chef", when I said I assembled left overs, I actually meant nothing more sophisticated than putting them all out on plates. I didn't actually DO anything to them (other than perhaps nuking some in the microwave to warm them up)!

Anon2 said...

A fascinating discussion with both Sir G and Rita making valid points. I suspect that the "intangibles" in any human activity usually win out. I would probably go with the so-called "intuition" of the experienced operator over the "hard slog business plan" of the novice in placing my bets over success or failure. The elitism issue always is always a factor. The passion of the true believer in his/her area of interest - be it food, music, art, sport - means that he/she is always aiming for higher standards than your average punter, who may well be content with the quick fix, usually as an afterthought.

sir grumpy said...

Susannah, I may well have been a bit more serious on this matter than usual. Forgive me! I can be at times but I fight it all the way.
I wanted to give Rita et al their due, something I feel is warranted.
I also get VERY sad when I see a food business of merit floundering. (Use flake!)
To the point where me and the missus patronise that place to buggery to almost the point of boring ourselves to death of their product.
But I can't carry them on my meagre financial back forever and when it gets to the stage where they are winding down before bailout, I've even seen myself take route B than pass the poor sods and be witness to their straitened circumstances.
You know from my posts I am anti-red tape and corporate speak.
But I am not so bull-headed that I would not entertain the words of wisdom of those such as the experienced and sage in this field before launching forth into a venture.
I suppose it is all balance.
If Rita will forgive, I will just say I have never seen a business plan that could cook a steak.
But I suppose I've seen a lack of a business plan that has cooked many a goose.

Blue Mtns Chef said...

interesting discussion indeed. we opened six weeks ago on a site that's been a fooderie since the 50's, but was closed for two years. I've drafted several business plans and did a twelve-pager for this place. but when it comes to the projections, it's all so utterly subjective and intangible.

from my experience most places that go under often do so for three common reasons: a) young chef/hospitality pros, sick of working for someone else and open their own joint, lots of passion and ideas but lack the business acumen; 2) retirees/career changers, usually older who see the restaurant biz as more 'glamorous' and less hard work than reality; c) going in with their own 'vision' into the wrong market, steakhouse in a veggie region (as sir g said), upmarket thai in a blue-collar area etc. the last two operators at our locale tried to do upmarket fine-dining and failed to connect with the all-important locals.

where we hope we've gotten off on the right foot is, we spent a couple of months prior to opening asking everyone we met what they liked, when they used dine, what they were happy paying etc - and structured our menu accordingly. hopefully, we'll win enough local trade to keep our doors open through the slower months.

but as others have posted here, there's no pleasing everyone. but we try our best to please most of them.

Susannah said...

Well, Blue Mtns Chef, I would regard the couple of months of researching the local demographics, what people were prepared to pay, their dining patterns and taste preferences, as a pretty comprehensive business plan, whether you called it by this name or not. A lot of the frustration with 'management speak' that many people, including Sir Grumpy (and me!) is that the jargon is used as a substitute for sensible thinking, using common sense, and actually working out what you need to do.

It sounds as if you have entered this current venture with a realistic assessment of the risks involved, and have given some very good thought to how to manage your business, including riding out the low points in the season.

Good luck!

sir grumpy said...

Hear, hear, Susannah. I think that's the way to go, Blue Mtns, and a bloody good example for everyone to follow.
Live long and prosper, as a dalek said once.

sir grumpy said...

PS, you okay Rita? It's gone strangely quiet and I'm worried we've pissed you off something terrible.
I know we can be like an unruly kindergarten class and you the minder but I'd rather have a well-earned rebuke that nowt at all, lass!

Rita said...

Sir G - thanks so much for your thoughts. That's really sweet of you. No, everything's fine. I have just been doing other things than blogging for the past few days (like going to the dentist, getting new glasses, moving furniture round my house etc). I'm still on holiday and am taking the opportunity to do these things.
Also, remember we have the new blog/website coming. I hope that will be next week. It's looking great, thanks to man behind this radical move!
Can't wait for your opinion.
BTW - the final comment on the post where I announced the upcoming changes (a few posts back) would be good to get a bit of feedback on - would you mind, please?

rockoyster said...

The comment/post Rita is referring to is here.

ps Rita - I comment, therefore I am (back home).

Rita said...

Hi RO - glad to see you're back home, and have obviously turned on your laptop. But far be it from me to distract you! Keep working (please)!

Blue Mtns Chef said...

another common oddity that I've never understood is why there are so many people in hospitality that are.. well.. inhospitable.

you know the type - sullen, moody, grumpy and just downright unfriendly. the kind that one usually finds behind the counter at the rta or the tax office.

perhaps that's one of the reasons why more people don't get out in the street and talk to their potential customers. they're just not the type of people disposed to such social contact. then they hide in their kitchens and behind their counters, turning on anything negative like seinfeld's 'soup nazi' (based on a real guy, I'm told).

usually, such types don't last long. but sometimes they do, and I'm always amazed.

Rita said...

I totally agree with you, Chef. That has always been a question which has puzzled me. I've come across THE most grumpy and inhospitable people running restaurants ever!
I feel like smacking them and asking the perennial question, "What part of HOSPITALITY don't you understand?" or "Don't you know what 'hospitable' means?"

sir grumpy said...

Glad your keeping okay, Rita...crikey I nearly emailed you and in so doing either confirming or denying who you think I am!
I was going to say Sir Grumpy asked me on his behalf to email....
Imagine wasing your holiday on dentist, glasses and furniture moving.
Why can't women just leave furniture alone...I am fed up with moving couches etc on behalf of my better half.
I am looking forward to you getting it all together (website wise) Rita.
Andy Hayler's UK site has a nice feel to it. I tend to just fire up your blog site rather than the second site (now second sight is something people in the
hospital-italy business need to cope with the customers.)
So we can see your blog, recipes, tips, recommendations, fave other sites etc, all in one hit.
And I agree with you and Blue Mtns about the misery guts' that exist in the food business. They should leave that to the customers. What are we for?

Rita said...

Bugger! I wish I'd waited before replying to you, Sir G!!!
Lucky for any males in my life I didn't ask them to move my furniture, but did it myself!
Actually, I confess, I DID ask Jamie, but he was on a promise, so said he'd do it later - and we all know when 'later' is, don't we?
Andy Hayler's site is good. I can't promise that mine will be as comprehensive as that, but it's good to aim high.
And finally, yes, we can leave it with the customers (such as yourself?) to be the ultimate in misery guts'.