Our shelves are brimming with Easter chocolates and, just as I write this, the sun has decided to come out and cause havoc by sending its strong and awkwardly angled spring beams through our windows, turning delicate Easter confections into something that looks as if Salvador Dali was hired to be our chief chocolate-maker.
Rather abruptly our team had to get used to lowering blinds again and air-conditioning units had to awake from a winter’s slumber - will they or won’t they work following several months of hibernation, is the question?
Maintenance generally seems to go into hyper-boil at this time of the year: fridges break down at the merest hint of 20°C; compressors suddenly yawn for more gas. Last week, even the hot water system threw a wobbly and stopped working, causing one tap to develop a noisy stutter that nearly caused ructions with our otherwise delightful neighbours.
As I go round the shops, the quality control and store environment get the main focus of my attention. I think it is really important to enter and look at the store from the customer’s perspective. I always use the front door and monitor my immediate impression - for example, how the retail team interacts with arriving customers or if their personal appearance is as set out in our handbook. I check the shop environment for cleanliness. This already starts with the outside of the shop, then, once inside, the merchandising and behind-the-counter organisation. If something is not up to spec, I will invite the team leader to come round and look at it from the customer’s perspective. Caught up in our daily routines it is easy to lose sight of certain things and ignore others, so I usually find having a different angle on it helpful.
Luckily I adore cake, making quality control an easy task. Sometimes a visual inspection is all it needs, but sampling and eating the products gives you again what the customer ultimately experiences. I encourage the bakers and chefs to do the same. While it is easy to try some tiny morsels, it’s another to eat your way through a serving in its entirety. But only by eating it can you really find out what sensations a customer experiences.
Maybe the very al dente risotto is fine when briefly tasted, but munching your way through a ‘tub of grit’ is not going to make someone’s lunch hour. Yes, the sweetness of an almond frangipane tart is marvellous, but what happened to the juicy contrasting rhubarb that was meant to be there in abundance? What happened for it to become a rubbery sideshow?
Especially for smaller producers, where food isn’t automated, it is important to achieve standards of production. Recipes should not only be a list of ingredients and methods, but also describe the visual appearance, texture and olfactory qualities of a product. In addition, it is very important for the bakers and chefs to try food on a regular basis.
A restaurant critic summed it up in a review I read last weekend. Referring to the food, he said: “It looked amazing when it first arrived, but as a lunch it was hopeless!” He felt let down by a beautiful stack of food that collapsed into a motley collection of tricky and hard-to-eat ingredients, clearly never tried by its creator.