Gerhard’s Blog: Thunderclouds of Tears in Torquay

Gerhard Jenne is gripped by an episode of The Fixer, where he played a cameo role, and finds it a perfect example of TV drama.

“Family businesses should be great places to work,” said Alex Polizzi in the ‘Singing Kettle’ episode of The Fixer, screened on BBC Two on 27 January. The programme also contained a segment featuring Konditor & Cook and my very own self giving some baking advice to the owners of the troubled tea room in Torquay. Or should that have read “the troubled owners”?

It has been a long wait since the filming took place last March, but I always knew they had TV potential. What do TV producers want to see? Emotions and plenty of tears, of course, and the Messer family’s husband, wife and daughter team produced them by the bucket-load!

Their homemade cakes were inconsistent, and displaying them under milky-looking plastic cloches wasn’t going to tempt many. Their scones looked powdery and fragile, and so were the personalities involved. Some seriously dodgy-looking signage and a mock-Tudor Artex interior-from-hell gave Alex plenty to get her teeth into, but her biggest challenge was the Messers’ working relationship. In particular, father Ray only paid lip service to change, and did everything to undermine the process. As a first strategy Alex invited them to Konditor & Cook’s bakery in The Gherkin for a bit of my industry wisdom. I also showed them how to bake scones and ended up teasing out a real clanger — they admitted to using ready-mix for their scones.

Under certain conditions a ready-mix might suffice, but in this instance, in a Devonshire tea room, you would have hoped that the core product was something more unique and, indeed, homemade, as they declared on the garish-looking signs outside. I accept their kitchen offered very little space and they were under pressure to deliver an extensive menu, but then it’s better to cut back on the lesser-selling lines rather then neglect a core product.

The refurbishment and the rebranding that Alex Polizzi and her expert designer suggested were sensible: a brighter room with a nice wooden floor, checked table cloths, a very British red-and-white façade with a clear, legible font, and brighter uniforms. The cake display had definitely taken a leap forward since their visit to London. All in all, it was a very democratic and inviting-looking tearoom – and some of the locals were delighted.

Less so was father Ray, who put on some really good TV moments, spluttering and thundering around the place, rubbishing the re-design, and, indeed, six months later, taking the new signs back down and replacing them with some a pretty horrid cheap-looking blue ones. Ray struck me as a Chelsea supporter; perhaps he just couldn’t stomach the red and white of Arsenal. Cultural fit is important in all aspects of a business.

Interestingly on their website – www.thesingingkettletorquay.com – the Singing Kettle has another visual identity, a good compromise between the quirky before and the ‘red rag to a bull’ one after. For coherence, I hope they will extend the look to the outside of their premises too. I also found them on TripAdvisor – http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g186259-d2332951-Reviews-The_Singing_Kettle-Torquay_English_Riviera_Devon_England.html – and I’m glad to see their baking and service has earned them great reviews. You can order their cream teas online, featuring some great-looking scones (I gave them my recipe). And it appears their website was under serious strain following their TV exposure.

I hope they will feature in a follow-up episode of The Fixer and, meanwhile, I wish them all the best.

www.konditorandcook.com

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