… or how a friend’s 21st birthday party was ruined by Brewer’s Fayre and Whitbread plc at the Nevill Crest and Gun in Eridge, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

For those living outside Britain, and perhaps for some of those who live here, let me just give you a little introduction to the state of food service in the UK. Most of the food served up in restaurants and pubs in  this country has been assembled on a production line, packed in some way, be it tinned, frozen, ambient or dried, and then heated up, chucked on a plate and put in front of the unsuspecting diner. Most of it isn’t very good, much of it is appalling, but apparently the expectations of the average UK diner aren’t very high. The emphasis is on cheapness, low costs and high profits. In certain circumstances I can just about tolerate this sort of semi-food, such as when my kids want to go to Frankie & Benny’s or Burger King, or when I’m attending someone’s gathering, function or party.

Brewers Fayre menuI wasn’t expecting great things from the Nevill Crest & Gun in Eridge near Tunbridge Wells. As a Brewer’s Fayre pub the food was going to be heated up and thrown on a plate, and I knew this. But the occasion was a friend’s 21st birthday party so I decided I’d grin and bear it. With such low expectations, how could I possibly be disappointed? Sadly, you’d be surprised.

Brewer’s Fayre is part of the Whitbread group, whose brand portfolio also includes Beefeater, Table Table, Taybarns and Costa Coffee. A once-proud brewing firm established in 1742, Whitbread is now just one of many giant PLC shareholder-pleasers. Proof of this comes from their group web site whose “About Us” section says the following:

“Whitbread PLC is the UK’s largest hotel and restaurant company operating market-leading businesses in the budget hotels and restaurant sectors. Its brands include Premier Inn, Beefeater, Table Table, Brewers Fayre, Taybarns and Costa Coffee. Whitbread PLC employs over 33,000 people and serves 8.5 million customers every month in its 1500 outlets across the UK. In the financial year ending 28th February 2008, Whitbread PLC reported an 11.3% increase in Group Revenue to £1.18 billion and 26.3% increase in Pre-tax Profit to £210.3 million. Whitbread PLC is a FTSE 100 company, listed on the London Stock Exchange. It is also a member of the FTSE4Good Index.  In August 2008, Whitbread’s market capitalization was circa £2.0 billion.”

There. That says it all. Nothing about passion for good food & drink. Not a word on quality, or ethics, or even corporate vision. Customers only get a mention as a quantity, a figure of throughput. Now you can probably see why I wasn’t expecting to be impressed.

So back to the latest group of twelve customer-units. First off, the chicken liver paté starters were delivered. The menu has no mention of corporate balance sheet figures; in fact you’d think they were talking about gourmet food. It waxes lyrical about the paté and several other dishes, thus:

“Our chicken liver pate is award winning and has a subtle hint of Scottish heather honey for extra flavour. The sausage and mash has award winning premium sausages and our Thai Red King Prawn curry adds a bit of spice! Sounds mouth watering!”

The Brewer's Fayre Cornish PastieSounds can be deceptive, however, as we soon discovered. One of the chicken liver patés was delivered to the birthday girl with the butter topping melted and runny, and the paté itself distinctly warm. Several tasted and smelled off. These certainly wouldn’t win any award dished out by anyone discerning. Moving on to the main courses, the award winning premium sausages were bouncy and rubbery and clearly full of gelatine to bind together the lack of quality ingredients. The Thai Red King Prawn curry wasn’t going to impress either, as we could only find a few small shrimps in it, nothing that would qualify as a king prawn. The roast potatoes were incinerated and shouldn’t even have been presented to a customer. The chicken was dry and overdone. Guy’s Cornish pastie was soft and pasty and greatly inferior to a Ginsters offering, let alone anything proffered by a vendor of the authentic product. One of the hot main course dishes had been served atop the side salad, rendering the paucity of salad leaves limp and wilted. None of the main courses were actually considered satisfactory by their recipients, and without insulting my dining companions, we’re not exactly talking about a bunch of people who frequent gourmet restaurants and dine out on champagne and caviar. Nor indeed do they ever usually complain in restaurants.

Overcooked Scampi, Scant Chips and Few PeasThe piece de resistance however was my main course. I had decided, slightly cynically, to steer on the safe side and go for something that they couldn’t possibly cock up: that good old pub favourite stand-by, scampi with chips and peas. What was delivered to me beggared belief. A handful of overcooked, tough, impenetrable lumps of something dark brown, tasting burned and bitter; served with a child’s portion of wrinkled insipid looking peas and a small portion of chips. This is no exaggeration, as you can probably see from my mobile phone photo. Inedible.

Of course I complained. I asked the waitress if I could see the manager. She replied that he was in the kitchen cooking, but asked if she could help. I asked her to take the price of my uneaten meal and a couple of others off the bill, and added that I would be taking the matter further. Within a few minutes, that last comment brought the manager storming out of the kitchen aggressively and belligerently accusing me of threatening his staff. Once I had calmed him down a little by remaining seated, gentlemanly and clearly unthreatening to anyone, I asked about the food; the quality, the portioning and so on. He claimed it was the fault of the head office and that they could only adhere to guidelines set out by management and use the products provided. And the overcooked, indigestible items? No real answer for that one, other than the manager doing the cooking.

So that was that then; except for the birthday girl complaining about feeling queasy and throwing up soon after she got home, which must be the ultimate award for Brewer’s Fayre’s Chicken Liver Paté to win. A 21st birthday meal, which happens but once in a lifetime, ruined. Thanks Brewer’s Fayre. Thanks Whitbread. But at least your shareholders are happy, eh?

More information at:

Whitbread Group plc, corporate balance sheet specialists

Brewer’s Fayre, purveyors of “award winning” “food” and wreckers of 21st birthday parties