Saturday 5 September 2009

I'm Dave, I'm a snob

I've always been a bit of a food snob. It's probably taken me quite a while to work this out, but there, I'm admitting it. From a very early age, influenced by many different friends and family, I had a desire to create food that had a level of honesty about it. It might just be fish pie, or roast dinner or even bangers and mash, but reaching for the Bisto or Oxo cubes or Chicken Tonight never featured in my culinary repertoire. Ever since I had free reign of my very own kitchen in my own house the use of such evil additions was strictly forbidden. Oven chips? Get out of here.

When it came time to look at transferring my culinary expertise, to enable me to craft food for paying customers, I desired the same approach for everything I did. Of course, for that sort of thing I really should have considered running a restaurant, not a pub. But to run a restaurant you need to be a real chef, whatever one of those is. Hence, one reason for buying a pub, as opposed to a restaurant; the food doesn't need to be as fancy.

I set about producing pub grub with the level of honesty that I believe in. It didn't matter if it was chips or custard or gravy it would be made from scratch, and really I do mean from scratch. But just how far do you take that?

I used to make a great lasagne. I even started to use fresh tomatoes so determined was I to get it right. One day a member of staff asked why, if I was so keen to make everything from scratch, I still bought in dried pasta. "Go on, answer that one" I thought. The answer had to be to make my own pasta, didn't it?

We made our chips from scratch. I've written about that before. When done right, and I don't care what anybody says about Burger King1 skinny chips, proper double fried chips are the best. But can you have chips without ketchup? Many people can't and so my answer had to be to make my own. Oh, and of course brown sauce had to be an option too, it is after all, just a variation of the same thing.

After a while delivering bog standard pub grub, in the sort of volumes required and with the liberal giving away of home made tomato sauce tag-lag2 was wearing me down. I decided I was going to raise my game and make restaurant style food anyway. It would seem the level of provenance I was looking for didn't match the desires of the pub grub customer. Around the same time we had a big disagreement with Coca-Cola3 over fridges and post mix machines4 and decided to radically review our position.

What we decided was that we were never again going to buy any product from any company that we didn't feel had a level of honesty behind it. That ruled out Coca-Cola, Heinz and nearly every other big name in the beverage and food business. That effectively rules out ketchup and HP sauce. WE DON'T BUY THESE THINGS.

"But you are a pub, you have to" I can hear you thinking "Why?" is my reply. Why do I have to conform to some sort of unwritten rules about the condiments I put on the tables or the type of soft drinks I have on stock, or for that matter any other products I buy for consumption in my place? You can be guaranteed that whatever you get to eat and drink in my place has a level of provenance behind it. Some of my customers don't like that and don't come back; others are coming back time and again. Word is spreading and there is a tangible increase of sympathetic custom.

My last post talked about cordial in beer. We don't have cordial. It's crap and only tastes moderately good when it is put in beer and then only because beer is good. Same applies to the chemical lemonade that comes out of post mix machines. We now stock the Fentimans5 range of fizzy drinks, including their Victorian Lemonade in lieu of any other lemonade, it's great.

That leaves us with the quandary of shandy. Fentimans' lemonade when mixed with beer does make for an interesting drink. It's not wrong if that is what you are expecting. On a hot summer's day, on the odd occasion it happens, there is an influx of people wanting shandy. It doesn't really happen any other time. Taking time to carefully explain that the shandy they would get by mixing a half pint of beer with the lemonade we have might not produce the desired effect, but the customer can try if they wish, doing this time and time again, does wear a little thin. We tend to steer them to the Fentimans bottled shandy and decline any other type of beer mixed with soft drink. Sometimes a customer assures us that they know what they are doing and that is fine.

The reader by now will have realised my snobbery has infiltrated my whole operation here. Why does that matter? I don't think it does matter if that is what I believe in. I'm not making any more money than when we started here, but what is important is that we are not making any less either. What we are doing is running our business in a way that makes us happy, and in a year where businesses are going under tag-lag, and where the summer has yet again dealt us a blow, to be doing alright must mean we're doing something right.

More importantly we are running a business in a way that makes me proud. We use products that we trust and believe in. We trade with people who are honest and who in turn buy products from companies that operate with a level of respect. At a time when business infrastructure is backed up by governments scared to stand up to the multinationals, when large companies can be bailed out because they are so "necessary" to the very fabric of our society, I'm proud to be delivering a service that has little truck with all of that.

That my friend, is what I'm about, take it or leave it. Compromise? Nah. I'd like to think that someday more pubs will be like this.

Now, how do I make that obvious before customers cross the threshold?


1Nearly left the "r" out of "burger" there...

2Tag-lag is a rarely used Cumbrian term to mean; in abundance, all the time or willy nilly perhaps. It's also a beer we sometimes have on the bar.

3Coca-Cola are one of those things that seems to have created a "must be there" culture within pubs. They are a great big multinational conglomerate that has no place in my pub, sorry. Don't even start me on Pepsi.

4A post mix machine is what delivers draft fizzy drinks.

5I thought Fentimans was made in Newcastle. Of course as Ann is from the N.E. I knew that there are some good things that come out of that part of the world. It turns out that at least some of the range is brewed at the Robinsons' brewery in Stockport. It's difficult to think what to write here without it sounding like a back handed compliment to Robinsons. It doesn't matter, the product is good and if it keeps a brewery going then good for them too.


Anonymous said...

I wish and hope more pubs follow your line.

Velky Al said...

I think the fact that you are open and honest with your choices for suppliers is a breath of fresh air. And as I have said many, many times, it is your place and you have the right to run it as you see fit.

If someone ups and leaves because of the absence of tomato ketchup then are they really the kind of people who are likely to be repeat business anyway? I do like a drop of brown sauce with food at times, but not to the point that its non-presence would be a factor.

I do think however that some businesses are too confrontational about their "values", without having previously stated in their advertising materials (whether that is an online presence or otherwise) that they don't do certain things. In not making that effort to explain the vision of the business then misunderstandings are unavoidable.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

We've started stocking the Fentimans products at the pub, and they are doing well. Interestingly enough, here they are brewed in Canada under license.

Gazza Prescott said...

How about a big sign outside saying something like "if you're a consumerist clone who eats McScum and drinks lager then f**k off".

Maybe phrase it more politely, but that's the general message.

And I love your stand on these things, if only more pubs had the integrity and cajonas to tell multinationals where to go.

Unknown said...

Ben, so do I

Velky Al, I need to work out how to better portray what we do. I agree very much with what you say.

BUL180, you've previously mentioned that you sell Fentimans. I wondered where it was made. I could get to think that you are just copying me - ah, but imagine taking ketchup away from your customers.......

Gazza, I'd so much like to put a sign up that says exactly what you've suggested. I'd probably like to do so without the censoring as well. The trouble is it would put off the nice people I'm actually trying to attract.

Jeff Pickthall said...

Next you'll be telling Nissan where to go r.e. your monster truck and building your own!

Unknown said...

Jeff, that hurt, I love my big thirsty monster vehicle.

Mind you, building my own, there's an idea...just Googling "kit trucks"....

Reuben Gray - TaleOfAle said...

You could start with a link on your website to this blog post, or maybe edit a version for the website to explain your values.

They are good values and I enjoyed being "subjected to them" for two nights.

Keep it up.

Bailey said...

I think Al has hit the nail on the head: no-one goes into a fish and chip shop and demands, say, truffle oil, because that's not what a chip shop's about. You've got 'brand values' which you shouldn't feel ashamed to state in writing on the menu. Not everyone will like it, and you might lose some custom (dilemma: can you afford to?) but there will be others who are drawn in precisely because they buy into your values.

Stroppy signs are not the best way, though. A nice positive, statement of intention on the back of the menu should do the job. And, yeah, this blog post sets it out quite clearly and would make an excellent first draft.

Unknown said...

Bailey, absolutely agree with you there. Negativity in advertising is... well, negative.

The lager thing is a case in point. There are some people who appreciate good lager, I'd like to think we have reasonable lager that has a level of provenance about it.

I'm having a problem with kit trucks - I'll have to settle for an airfix kit for Christmas I think. So much for Mr Pickthall's ideas

Curmudgeon said...

I have to say my approach to food very much mirrors that of Cooking Lager's to beer. I can appreciate the good stuff, but feel it's surrounded by a ludicrous amount of snobbery and pretentiousness, and I'm not afraid to say I enjoy a Burger King or a packet of Seabrook's from time to time.

Cooking Lager said...

So no HP sauce, but there is brown sauce for the sausages, just home made brown sauce? Ummm might be able to live with that, if its as good as HP that is.

Unknown said...

Curmudgeon, there is a burger van about halfway between here and the M6. It's good because it is open when The Price of Wales, just around the corner, is closed.

Claire, who runs the van, does a great cheese burger. Good price and a good breakfast stop if we've have an early getaway from here. I always reach for the BBQ sauce. It's horses for courses. I think everybody is entitled to their own choices. It's down to me to choose what I want to sell and up to people to decide if they want to buy it.

I use Burger Krap or MacRubbish or Pizza Shed if it suits. I'll even suffer skinny chips if the mood takes me, unashamedly as well.

Pretentiousness will always surround the top quality products be they a Nissan 4x4, fine dinning, fine wine, quality beer, holiday destinations or over snobby pubs. You might not enjoy my food, although it would be fun to find out, but that would be your opinion, and I respect that.

I'm just trying to work out how to set out my stall, now I'm confident about the products within it.

Dominic said...

I really want to visit now...

There's plenty of pubs that serve microwaved, pre-prepared food (did you see the morning advertiser feature on Bisto-bouillon this week? bleuurgh). If you want cheap and crap, get the 2 for 1 deal at your local Enterprise inn. Unfortunately, you're not a snob, you just apply your love of food to what you serve.
There's something very reassuring about the smell of a stock pot wafting into a pub, rather the smell of vinegar (see all wetherspoons).

Good on you Mr.

Liz said...

I think the essence of what you're trying (? - succeeding?) to achieve is admirable - but I'd be interested to know level of covers you do....?

Is your menu on-line - cos now I want to have a proper nose at what you do.... lol :)


Kristy said...

Bailey's got it spot on, a clear statement of intent feels like a good idea and this blog post is a good start. But as Velky points out, businesses can be too confrontational with their values.

It's great that you won't compromise on your product choices but as a customer I would want to put my own mark on what I'm paying for too and would be disappointed if I couldn't get the occasional lemonade top on my pint. If I was asking you to pop out the back and top it up with R Whites I could understand but if what I want is to mix and match the products you've so carefully selected for me is that such a bad thing???

Rob Sterowski said...

I haven't got yet whether you're opposed to ketchup and brown sauce per se or the companies that produce them. If it's the latter, there are upmarket versions available.

Sat In A Pub said...

I too am slightly confused over the tomato ketchup situation. I won't walk out over it but I think it's overkill. As has been said, there are other options and I myself have been known to splash out for the organic option.

They say I'm Bitter and Cynical, I prefer well Hopped said...

Spot on Dave! Your experience with brown sauce and ketchup mirrors our own here at BUL180 with Ranch Dressing. "Ranch" as it is referred to is so ubiquitous that our decision not to serve it takes many customers aback. "How can you not have Ranch?" is the common question. It is its absence that sets BUL180 apart from say The Corner Bar. What is so maddening is not the complaints, but the assumption that we will have it.

We make all of our dressings from scratch and on the whole they are well received. It is the fact that people will base their judgment on something as trivial as a partially hydrogenated oil and chemical "flavoring" substance that is so maddening. Going out is a chance to experience something out of the ordinary. Why now try something different?!

Unknown said...

Tyson, I'm not against ketchup per se. I did used to make my own, as I said, but got fed up of doing so when there was a clear correlation between the demand for it and the people just wanting a bowl of chips. I felt my ketchup was worth more than the chips, but seemed to be treated as a freebie by the punter and then wanting a free bun as well to put the chips in. My bread is home made as well and worth paying for.

So, I stopped making chips and tomato sauce. Perhaps I was wrong and should have charged extra for the tomato sauce. Perhaps I might even do that in the future. Probably not though.

Saga Of Nails said...

Dave, I'm not a food person as such, but I share your snobbery and I maintain that this kind of snobbery is a good thing. I used to run an alehouse in Bristol which did lunchtime food, and we has the same kind of attitude. Why buy plastic chips, when a 25k bag of spuds only costs eight quid. I'm not really an adequate chef but I employed people to make as much as possible ourselves. It is very much the way forward. I like the key word being honesty. I don't eat buy pub chips nowadays unless they are handmade. Why should I ? I'm not paying nearly three quid for some reconstituted potato and flour mix that a minimum wage employee has chucked into a fryer.

I'm taking this attitude into my new venture, and if more of us did the same, our food and drinks culture would be much, much better.

Will S said...

Dave, I'm also a beer snob (and proud of it!), i'm wondering what your opinions on the post brewing process are?
I feel that when a pint is poured, almost as importantly as the taste is the texture, the temperature (this sort of thing:

I am interested in how the right sort of atmosphere around the pint is created e.g. how a pint of beer complements the food etc and vice versa.