Free from everything but taste

Many years ago I went on holiday to a remote alpine resort and one member of our group (yes, just one) was vegetarian. The hotel didn’t really know how to accommodate his dietary request and were panicked into serving egg and chips on the first night. On the second night, their research into vegetarian cuisine hadn’t advanced and he was presented with a plate of chips and a lump of cheese. But that turned out to be the height of his experience for, on day three, he was back to egg and chips and thereafter our evenings were spent trying to find a restaurant locally that knew what they were doing.

Thank goodness things have changed and there are so many more options for the ever-growing numbers of people who look for alternative options that match their diet, some of whose lives are dependent on eating the right food. Their choices may be driven by health factors or religious beliefs but may also be because of concerns about animal welfare or their conviction to protect the environment through management of natural resources. Whatever the reason and whatever the diet, the days of ‘free from’ have moved on from presenting chips and cheese as a premium menu item.

Thankfully, producers and suppliers now understand the importance of catering for different customers and are prepared to adapt for a consumer market with specific dietary needs. By raising the bar they ensure that this audience has more choice than ever, whether visiting a pub or restaurant, or catering in their own home. Encouraging them to continue investment in further product development and variety is essential for the future of the category and giving recognition for their innovation through the Free From Food Awards is a critical piece of the jigsaw.

The Free From Food Awards were launched in 2008 and remain the UK’s only awards dedicated to free from food and drink. The number of categories in the programme continues to grow and reflects the advances in product development we’ve seen in the intervening years. There are special categories to accommodate Christmas or Easter products to cover every occasion and the awards champion brands across categories as diverse as breakfast goods, grab and go, savoury snacking, speciality, gifting, prepared meals, cheese alternatives and gluten-free alcohol. To be eligible, products must be free from at least one of the top 14 UK-listed major allergens¹ and winning, or even being shortlisted, can generate increased brand awareness and customer loyalty, with an invested social media audience of over 20,000.

You can tell I’m a convert to the aims of the Free From Food Awards and was excited to be invited to be a judge for the 2024 programme. I’m grateful that I don’t have to think too hard about what I can and can’t eat or drink but hope that I can play a small part in supporting those who do by working with this pioneering awards scheme and some of the best free from brands.

For details on how to enter the Free From Food Awards, please see www.freefromfoodawards.co.uk and check back for details of the brands that have clinched an award later in the year.

1. Full details available at www.freefromfoodawards.co.uk/fffoodawards-entry-guide

Kate Hempsall

Five years and counting

Five years ago I took my first tentative steps into the world of freelancing. Even as I did, I wasn’t sure what to expect and that was probably the right way to approach it, as I’ve rarely had two days the same. As I mark my fifth anniversary, though, it’s time for a few reflections.

The most important aspect of this stage of my career has been the people. It’s so often the case but when you’re working on your own, away from the comfort and security of a corporate environment, the contacts you do have are especially important. I’ve been really fortunate to count some absolute gems amongst my associates – everyone from clients, journalists, writers, suppliers, fellow comms professionals, and others who I’ve met on my travels. Developing lasting working relationships and friendships has been absolutely key to celebrating the good times and getting through a few rough times.

Hospitality is a sociable environment by its very nature and the pandemic has highlighted the importance of having a good circle of people around you. The absence of networking events and just catching up over a meal or a drink has been tough and reminds me how important interaction with others is. Mental note to self – put this right in the New Year.

I surprised myself at how confident I felt branching out on my own, despite feeling very exposed. But I quickly came to learn that the security I’d always relied on was probably the very thing that was holding back my confidence. Suddenly my voice was the only one to be heard and it offered wisdom, experience, creativity, and positivity.

An initial long-term contract helped get me set up and since then I haven’t looked back. I’ve worked with some incredible clients – the majority of whom have approached me following a personal recommendation – and love having the variety, flexibility, and stimulation that collaboration with different businesses brings. I have had to adopt different working models and practices to fit in with their needs but for each one, I focus on getting under the skin of their business to deliver excellent results. Whether it’s an ongoing relationship of more than three years (and still going strong) or a one-off project that lasts a couple of weeks I am confident of always adding value as well as learning from other people.

It may sound a cliché but if anyone asks if I’d ever change anything about going freelance, my answer really would be that I wish I’d done it sooner. Thanks to everyone who’s played a part in my independent career so far – hospitality is a great sector to be involved in and I’m raising a toast to the next five years.

Taking inspiration

Every now and again you meet someone who influences your career and who continues to inspire you.

I’m lucky to have known a few of these inspirational people and none more so than Jane Peyton. It was Jane’s reassurance and encouragement that helped me make the decision to go freelance and I’ve worked on a few projects with her since.

As the founder of the School of Booze, she’s always looking for new ways of doing things, of sharing her love for, and knowledge of drinks with other people. From taking corporate tours of London pubs to hosting the world’s largest beer tasting, founding and championing the annual Beer Day Britain celebrations, I thought she’d done it all. But in the last few months, she’s pulled another couple of proverbial rabbits out of the hat.

Through the School of Booze, Jane has launched a series of online training courses for anyone who wants to learn about beer, wine or cider. She’s designed three levels of expertise catering for everyone – whether they want to challenge themselves, impress friends with their knowledge or learn more to improve their career prospects. The courses are a mix of written and audio tutorials that people can compete at their own pace at a time and place that suits them best. At a time when we’ve all had to change how we normally do things, Jane’s vision and understanding of the need to move training out of the classroom and onto mobile devices are typical of the positive approach that led to her being named Drinks Educator of the Year in 2016.

In the midst of developing the courses, Jane also found time to write two drinks books, published by the British Library. The first was the Philosophy of Gin and the second The Philosophy of Beer. Both chart the history and advancement of the drink styles and are a great introduction for anyone with a thirst for knowledge – quite literally.

I’m not sure how she keeps the innovation going and maintains such a high level of expertise, but she does so with great and infectious enthusiasm.

I’ll continue to learn as much as I can from her and hope you have the good fortune to meet and learn from your own Jane Peyton.

ERDINGER and Klopp

At the beginning of March, ERDINGER Weissbräu announced that its new ambassador was Jürgen Klopp. We prepared to launch a campaign that featured TV advertising, a fan site and a limited edition red can just in case he clinched a first Premier League title as Manager – his Liverpool side was 22 points clear at the time after all.

Then everything went on hold as we focused on things far more important than beer or football.

It felt as if the moment had been lost and that the campaign, like the football season, might be mothballed forever. Both did kick off again, though, in June and ERDINGER showed just how much can be achieved with great planning and teamwork. Much the same as Jürgen’s approach to management, really.

He sealed his place as a legend and, despite his fan base growing all the time, he’s keeping his feet firmly on the ground. And ERDINGER continues to build its own loyal following, with Jürgen front and centre.

The TV ad launched, the red can be followed by a limited-edition glass featuring his image and an interactive fan page continues to get people talking about ERDINGER and its ambassador. It hasn’t quite happened as it was originally planned, but a four-month hiatus didn’t dent the enthusiasm and professionalism of the team behind the campaign. I’m proud to have played just a small role in that and am already looking forward to the next chapters in the story.

If you’re intrigued, visit the FANtastic page on the ERDINGER website, wait for the last line of the TV ad to see just why he is so popular and catch a glimpse of all the fantastic work that ERDINGER has pulled together. Bravo Jürgen and bravo ERDINGER.

They’ll be back

At the beginning of March, I was thrilled to be invited to The Publican Awards, organised by trade magazine The Morning Advertiser, celebrating the very best of Britain’s pubs and clubs. Held in the magnificent Evolution in Battersea Park, the awards combined great food and drink, theatrical presentation, fantastic entertainment from Rob Beckett and wonderful company alongside friends and colleagues in the hospitality industry.

But what made it so special was the operators who run the finest venues in the country – not just the award winners, but the finalists as well. It’s a sector that’s often taken for granted, part of the fabric of our society and there whenever we want to nip out to meet friends for a quick drink and a catch up, a pub lunch for family celebrations or a big night out with our pals. And yet right now, when everything is closed except for takeaway or delivery, people are suddenly realising just what they are missing. A warm welcome, great atmosphere, top class food and drink, an escape into the world of clubbing, maybe, but most of all, somewhere that you feel comfortable and gives you the chance to relax away from your own home.

As a judge of the Publican Awards for the last three years, I have seen first-hand just how much love, care and attention is invested in these businesses. This year, I was on the judging panel for the Late Night Operator category and we reviewed the finalists in depth, with focus on the operational, finance and marketing aspects of their businesses. There was evidence of solid trading and getting the essentials right, yes, but every one demonstrated great innovation and progress in improving staff development and customer experience. Even within this one category, the finalists all had something different to offer and had created a commendable out of home experience.

And it is people that are core to all their achievements. Hospitality employees are a creative and resilient bunch, who always work their socks off to put their customers first. If you read some of the stories of what has been happening during lockdown, you will see that there is an inspirational group of leaders in the sector and their vision and enthusiasm really motivates and galvanises their teams and others in the industry. From lobbying government for support, feeding the homeless, supplying food for NHS staff and care workers, being a hub for community care and adapting their trading model to provide takeaway and delivery options, our pubs and clubs are still there for us.

That spirit is why I have absolute confidence that hospitality will bounce back. Pubs, clubs, restaurants, hotels, leisure facilities – they are all preparing for life after lockdown and, whatever challenges they face, they will be there to welcome us back. It may not be exactly as it was before, but they will evolve to adapt to the circumstances and will be just as good as we remember them. In fact, they will be even better.

A round-up of the 2020 event can be found here.

Never underestimate the benefit of an external audit for licensee recruitment

I recently completed an audit on their licensee recruitment process for a client.

They were concerned that the pipeline of applicants was blocked as they weren’t getting the quantity – or quality – of applicants that they expected, especially for some particularly attractive pub business opportunities.

For a few years, the licensee recruitment process I managed had been subject to a similar audit as part of an initiative to improve standards across regional brewers. It was great to go back to basics, learn best practice from each other and recognise some of the small things that can make a pub group stand out, particularly important when competition to recruit the best licensees is crucial to long-term sustainability.

Fast forward to carrying out an anonymous enquiry of my own and it reminded me just how important it is to get an impartial assessment of different business areas from an external adviser. As a mystery caller looking for details of an appealing licensee vacancy, I found many gaps in the process that explained that the pipeline of applicants wasn’t, in fact, blocked but was leaking. The shortcomings and poor management were significant contributory factors to the delays in placing licensees in appropriate pubs.

I provided a comprehensive report for my client with some clear recommendations for improvement – from how vacancies are advertised and presented to how calls are handled and followed up – with proposals ranging from urgent action to advisory modifications.

You would have been surprised at some of the basic mistakes that I identified, so maybe this is a good time to check that similar oversights haven’t crept into your processes without you realising.

Happy to share the benefit of my experience if you feel that an external perspective would be as helpful as it was for this client.