Saturday, 28 September 2013

The Restaurant VAT Question

On Friday 20 September at 6pm I was at home having a quick coffee while listening to the RTE news before heading back to work in our restaurants. On comes that familiar droll voice of “Mr put everybody in a bad mood”, that’s Minister Noonan of course! And then, as cool as like he says, "I will be increasing the VAT rate in restaurants and hotels back to 13.5% and if you don't like that, you might tell me where I'm going to find the €360,000,000 its costing". First, I shouted at the radio, as if he could hear me and would listen to reason, then I sent a sharp and to the point text to my local TD, as if they could make him see reason, then I had a shower to cool off, as if that was going to help and then I went back to work.

I can speak as a restaurant owner who employs 40 people and tell you that increasing prices in the current economic climate is nothing short of commercial suicide. The restaurant trade in Ireland has suffered enormously during this recession and the last five years have been spent fire-fighting as we try to survive while the recession continued year after year. The reduction in VAT was a lifeline to many restaurants and any increase in taxes at this time will cost my industry dearly.

So what is going on?
Has the vat reduction cost Ireland Inc. €360,000,000 as Minister Noonan claims?  
Now remember, we have a government that spends vast amounts of money on advisors, studies and reports. A recent Deloitte report commissioned by Failte Ireland found that the VAT reduction created 13,499 jobs and when everything was accounted for the Exchequer saw a net benefit of €173,000,000! So it’s Happy Days Then? Well, not so, according to Minster Noonan who is still claiming its costing €360,000,000!

So can we take it that one of two things is going on?
Either the Minister believes Deloitte made a balls of their report and there are wrong in their findings or he is just telling porkies for his own political gain?

I recently asked a TD why their FG Minister for Finance was doing this and I was told “look, we’re politicians and this is what we do. He is just grandstanding and has no intention of increasing the Vat rate” you can make your own mind up on that sort of behaviour by our esteemed political leaders!

So let’s take it that the highly paid professional government advisors are indeed correct and the VAT reduction was a fantastic success, so what do we do now? Well to us mere mortals that would seem like a no-brainer! But for some bizarre reason our Fine Gael/Labour government would seem to have some sort of whacky alternative plan…….?

I despair!!!


(The Report) 

Annualised Assessment of the Impact of the VAT Reduction Measure
from 13.5% to 9%
Impact on Jobs *-1-
Employment in Accommodation & Food Services Sector Q2 2011 (70% of sectors benefiting from VAT intervention)
Employment in Accommodation & Food Services Sector Q2 2012 (following VAT reduction)
Employment Growth within 70% of sectors (benefiting from VAT reduction)
Employment Growth for 100% of sectors
Employment Contraction in similar services sectors over the period
Retention impact of VAT measure on 108,300 jobs over the period in 70% of sectors (benefiting from VAT reduction)
Retention impact of VAT for 100% of sectors
Total Jobs Created and Retained over 12 month Period in 100% of sectors benefiting from VAT intervention
Annualised Impact on Exchequer Finances
Average Annual Earnings in Accommodation & Food Services Sector *-2-
€ 26,500
Tax Payable (PRSI, USC, PAYE)
€ 4,280
Total Tax Payable
€ 57,775,720
Employers PRSI
€ 30,410,000
Total Employment Tax Raised
€ 88,185,720
Social Welfare Saving *-3-
€ 173,500,000
Total Saving
€ 261,685,720
Increased Economic Activity *-4-
Employers investment in new job salaries
€ 234,710,500
Assumed growth in sales based on reduced VAT rate and lower price to consumers – 300% of salary investment
€ 704,131,500
Additional VAT collected at 9% rate on increased consumer spending
€ 63,371,835
€ 325,057,555
This analysis does not take account of the increase in spending derived from €234m in new salaries created in the economy or the reduced spending incurred from €123m in lost salaries suffered without this intervention.
*-1- Department of Finance "Measuring the Impact of the Jobs Initiative - was the VAT reduction passed on and were jobs created"
*-2- CSO Earnings Hours & Employment Costs Survey (EHECS)
*-3- CSO Quarterly National Household Survey
*-4- REI assessment of additional VAT received based on increased economic activity

Friday, 6 September 2013

I Think We’ve Lost Temple Bar to Drunks & The Junkies

So what was I doing in Temple Bar anyway?
Well, last Saturday I finished work in Ouzos Dalkey and stopped to pick up the Sunday morning papers on my way home. There it was, the photo I had being hearing about all week. I never got to see because it had been deleted from Twitter as soon as it had been posted. Two Chefs, a meat cleaver and a food critics head held by the hair (photo shopped of course). I’m still tying to figure out why the critic would first claim to be so hurt by this photo and then have it published on page 1 and then an even larger version on page 5 of her national newspaper?  Don’t make any sense to me? The only comment I have to make on this latest episode is, if you are going to be a food critic and criticize others, you should first learn to take criticism of yourself and do it gracefully.

So it’s Monday, 8pm and myself and my wife are on our way to try this new restaurant in Temple Bar. As we turn at Christ Church down Dame Street there is a Garda standing on the left, radar gun in hand. Luckily we had a line of traffic in front of us. The speed limit is 30kph in the city and it is policed so no messing in the city on the speeding front.

We parked in the multistory car park in Temple Bar and emerged into the middle of this bustling tourist hot-spot. The first 50 steps were fantastic, the music coming from the pubs and lots of happy faces, the place was hopping. A little further down the street, opposite the Elephant & Castle everything changed. Two hard faced individuals standing in the middle of the footpath drinking cans of beer while their mate urinated against the wall in full view for all to see. We walked around them being carful to avoid the urine now making its way across the footpath and on to the road.

As we walked on I advised me wife to put her IPhone in her pocked for fear of being robbed. We walked past the Square and witnessed countless junkies in huddles and more hard faces drinking from cans while sat on the dirty ground. The streets were filthy and we felt seriously uncomfortable. As we continued we saw McDonald’s have opened where Frankie’s used to be. (We laughed later at the thought of Dublin City County Councilors complaining that McDonald’s would bring down the tone of the place.) I can honestly say I have never felt so uncomfortable in my home city and I was truly embarrassed to be Irish. I watched tourists look on in horror at the lawlessness of Ireland & Temple Bar. I can’t help but wonder if any of the tourists visiting Temple Bar will ever visit this country again, I wouldn’t!

Where in the World?
I have traveled to many countries and visited many cities in my 50 years and I can honestly say I have never witnessed such behavior. New York is a city vastly larger than Dublin and yet one can walk the streets of Manhattan and feel safe. The disgusting scenes we witnessed in Temple Bar would not be allowed to happen in New York.   

So Who’s to Blame?
We could blame the Gardai for not cracking down on such behavior.  There was no sign of the Gardai the night we were there. But lets face it, as a nation we do not protect our police force. It is common to have criminals walking the city with 100 previous convictions under their belts. Assaults on Gardai are common in Ireland and as a society we have done nothing to protect our protectors.

I blame the politicians; they control everything to do with policing and enforcement. If the politicians got behind the Gardai, reformed the legal system and built a prison system fit for purpose we would all reap the rewards. But sadly they don’t seem to care.

So my Advice….

Restaurant lovers
Visit Oliver Dunne’s new restaurant in the Clarence. He is a nice guy, one of Ireland’s great chefs, the staff are lovely, the food is fab and it’s a fine new restaurant. But get a Taxi to the restaurant door and straight back home, avoid Temple Bar at all costs.

As for any tourists visiting Temple Bar, this area has been lost to the drunks and the junkies, so be careful you’re on our own….

Take the tie off and take your wife and family down to Temple Bar some night, have a look around and ask yourself; Would I want to bring my family on holidays to this godforsaken place? And then for god’s sake do something about it!

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Restaurant Innovations, Innovation or Cost Cutting?

I would never describe myself as a foodie and to be honest I hate people who do. In my mind there’s only one thing worse than a “Foodie” and that’s a “Real Foodie”! Even worse would be a “Real Foodie” sitting down in the restaurant with the words “I’ll start with a bottle of San Pellegrino please”……(a good slap of a wet 10lb cod on the back of the head should be administered along with the advice “can sir please stop behaving like a moron”)But then we would never do that!

I have a very simple view on food; I have always believed that if you start with the very best Irish produce and cook it perfectly you can’t go too far wrong. That is the philosophy employed at my restaurants and it has served us well.

In previous blogs I have talked (some would say ranted) about  cheap cuts of beef being mechanically tenderised to dupe the public into believing they are eating quality tender beef, the import of inferior foreign shellfish into a country surrounded by water and the general use of cheap ingredients by restaurants to increase margins. It must be said, this practice of using cheap ingredients is often seen as innovative by some Irish food critics.

The Popcorn Conundrum!
I had the pleasure of eating out twice this week in Dublin, I call this Research & Development! I had two very nice meals thank you. But, I was struck by something really odd, both restaurants had popcorn on their menu! Now you know my view on some of Ireland’s restaurant critics and you should know that I would never criticize any restaurant, but it got me thinking why? In one restaurant we ordered our food and the waiter arrived back a bowl of popcorn. I enquired why the popcorn and he replied “that’s what we serve instead of bread” hummmmm….. So my question is, “is the practice of serving popcorn instead of bread innovation or simple cost cutting?”  Many people believe you can get a good feel for the quality of a restaurant by sampling their bread and I would tend to agree. While I, like most of the population love popcorn, I think sitting down to break popcorn over a meal is just a bit silly.  Using popcorn as an ingredient? Well I’ll leave that one up to you!

So is this innovation or simple cost cutting?

To Sous Vied or Not To Sous Vide?
 I often get home late at night after working in one of the restaurants with a treat for the dog. Cola is a Miniature Collie we rescued from a dogs home, the treat would be the remains of a t-bone steak. She gets very excited at the mere sight of tinfoil, takes the bone and heads to the garden to spend an age deciding where she is going to bury it. There must be hundreds of bones buried in our garden and somehow she seems to know where they all are and just how long they need to mature. I refer to the back garden as Cola’s kitchen. If this dog ran a restaurant for dogs, she would be famous for her naturally aged Irish beef bones!

Now, I know that is not Sous Vide but  some Dublin restaurants are using the Sous Vide cooking method to achieve the same tenderizing effect (without the muck and the bacteria of course) to make the not so edible meat much more edible and gain enormous margins for their restaurant in the process.

For those of you who don’t know the process let me explain; Sous Vide is where a cut of (say Shin of Beef, normally only used for mince or a really good stew) is put in a vacuum-packed bag and submerged in water at a temperature of between 55oC to 60oC for up to 72 hours. The result is very tender beef that just falls apart. There is little or no skill involved, it’s simply a calculation of weight, temperature and time that is easy found on the internet. It will be browned on the grill before serving.

So lets do the math’s; A good well aged 8oz Irish Fillet Steak will cost a restaurant about €9.00, a 10oz Sirloin about €6.50 and 10oz cut of Shin €1.42. If you take those figures and compare menu prices of an 8oz Irish Fillet Steak at €28 and a 10oz Sirloin at €26, then a dish containing 10oz’s of Shin of beef should be priced at under €6 on any menu. But that is not my experience! I have seen it on menus at €17 & €18 so you may work those margins out for yourself.

So is this innovation or simple cost cutting?

More Imported Shellfish
It seem wherever I go to a restaurant lately they have Soft-shell Crab on the menu! So where is this wonderful little morsel coming from? Well, I was in another restaurant recently serving soft shell crab, I asked the waiter where this crab came from and wait for it…..Wales was his answer, are you sure I asked? Oh yes he replied. Now, trust me when I tell you, soft shell crab does not come from Wales, it is imported from the likes of Thailand, Vietnam, possibly the USA and maybe even the Med but certainly not Wales.

But none of that matters, what does matter is the fact that Irish restaurants continue to ignore the fact that Irish fishermen land some of the best seafood in the world and risk their lives doing it. Irish restaurants need to stop buying these imports and start supporting their own. The only excuse for serving such pre-prepped and frozen imported product is the fact that it’s easy and cheap. No self-respecting Irish chef would argue the fact that there is no comparison between this cheap import and our Irish Brown Crab, so when you see it on a menu don’t order it and ask the restaurant why their serving it?

This is NOT innovation its lazy!

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Race To The Bottom

I recently had a guest in one of our restaurants complaint complaining the price of our Fish & Chips. When I explained to him that everything else was free including the table, the cutlery, the chair, the water, the bread, the waiter, the chef, the kitchen porter, the rent, the rates, the insurance, the light, the heat, the music, the waste disposal, the wifi etc etc etc….He said “fair point, I never thought of it like that”.

So how have we come to expect so much for so little when it comes to dining out in Ireland?

½ price Dining
The first thing I do every morning when I get into the office is check my email. First the bookings and then any other email that arrived over night. Before I move on I check the Daily Deals to see which restaurants have been signed up. Over the last 18 months the big name restaurants seem to have vanished from these deal sites and now I find myself using these deal sites to see who in the restaurant business is in trouble, because to me, nothing else makes sense. Daily Deal websites that charge up to 50% commission are not suitable for promoting restaurants, they are beyond expensive and that’s it! So other than the restaurant trying to raise a big lump of badly needed cash the Daily Deal for restaurants is daft. Unless of course you’re the guy in the suit with no intention of getting your hands dirty, all you have to do is sell the idea and get away with the cash before the restaurant realizes they have been screwed.

The Studies
To start with, all the major studies have shown that a person who buys a discount voucher for a restaurant from a Daily Deals website is unlikely to ever visit that restaurant again. The return rate is less than 20 % and that is a fact. People who buy these vouchers simply move on to the next deal.

The problem with the current generation of daily deals sites, according to “How Businesses Fare with Daily Deals,” (a study lead by Utpal Dholakia of Rice University’s Jesse H Jones Graduate School of Management in the US), may be that there are too many sites and too little brand loyalty. The study, carried out between August 2009 and March 2011, discovered that, although 80% of deal users were new customers, only 35.9% of customers spent more than the deal’s value, with less than 20% returning to the business at a later date to make a full-priced purchase. In fact, 21.7% of those buying the deals online never actually get around to redeeming the deals at all. For the businesses participating in the deals, only 55.5% made money doing so (17.9% broke even, with 26.6% losing money). The most successful verticals were health, services and special events, with 70% of those being profitable, and only 43.6% of restaurants finding themselves in the black as a result.

Our Calculations
So, if you are in the business of selling bracelets, then the decision to discount is easy. You know the cost of the item and you can decide on the level of profit you are prepared to accept to shift your stock. Restaurants by their nature are much more complex. In normal times, a well run mid-market restaurant will operate a gross margin (excluding Vat) of 70%. After staff costs of 38% to 40% and operational costs the well run restaurant would expect to show a net profit of about 7%

This is an example of how a Daily Deal Website works;

A set menu for 2 at a fixed price, lets say                   €70.00
Discount 50% and sell at                                              €35.00

500 vouchers sold at €35 =                                         €17,500.00

50% commission charged by Daily Deals Site =         8,750.00
20% of Vouchers not redeemed =                               3,500.00 (Some Deal Sites Keep This)
Balance paid to the Restaurant =                               €7,000.00

The restaurant get a great big cheque for €7k and all they have to do is produce food for the 800 people coming to dine!

So lets do the math’s for the Restaurant;

The Restaurant produces 800 meals (Normal Value)     €28,000
Which after Vat should provide a gross profit of 70%   €15,110
With an net profit of 7%                                                     €1,680

The Daily Deals Way, 400 €70 deals
The Restaurant produces 800 meals (Normal Value)     €28,000
Which after Vat should provide a gross profit of 70%   €15,110
With an net profit of 7%                                                     €1,680

Now Apply The Discounts
-50% Discount                                                                     -€14,000
-50% Commission paid to Daily Deals Site                       -€ 8,750
The Restaurant has just lost                                              -€21,070

If the restaurant is lucky enough to deal with one
The few Daily Deal company’s that pay the
Unredeemed vouchers over to the restaurant                 €3500
        Total cost of the promotion to the restaurant  -€17,570

One very large elephant in the room that is never mentioned when the daily deals salesman arrives to sell his services is “VAT” Restaurants doing deals with these websites must remember to calculate the Vat element correctly or they could find themselves in hot water with Revenue at a later date.

A recent deal I spotted offered 2 main courses and 2 glasses of Prosecco for €20 in a Dublin restaurant. With this deal you could choose any main course from the A la Carte menu which were priced up to €18 and Prosecco was priced at €9. The deal was very well subscribed and they sold close to 2000 (and remember these are deals for 2, so that was 4000 customers on the way), a total take of €40,000. If I apply my calculations above to that deal, the cost to the restaurant was close to €75,000 while the Daily Deals Website made a cool €20,000. This is a very good example of just how scary these Deal Websites are!

My Conclusion
When Discount Deal Websites sell a voucher for a restaurant that has been heavily discounted the restaurant lose money and the restaurants nearby and around that restaurant have to try and compete, so everyone loses. Restaurants that lose money close and people lose jobs. The reality is, deals websites are very profitable for their owners but have done nothing but damage to the restaurant trade in Ireland.

So the next time you see one of your favourite restaurants selling a half price meal on one of these Daily Deal websites, do them a flavour and don’t buy it, they will thank you in years to come.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

It’s Not Just “Horse Play” in The Meat Business You Know!

Firstly, being Irish means the first thing to happen when any big news story breaks is the joke texts start to fly. My favourite text arrived the same day that Tesco was reported to have a problem with some of their beef products. And then the text “News Flash…Traces of Zebra found in Tesco barcodes….” And I still giggle at that one.

But seriously, I think it would be fair to say, where you have opportunities for big volume business you are always going to have a few unscrupulous people. Remember the Pollock being sold as Cod in the chip shops story? Who was making money behind that story? The horse meat scandal was the most public example (so far) of what can go on and how some people are prepared to do just about anything to increase profits. In the case of beef, some would argue that the public demand for cheap beef was to blame but the truth is, its all about greed.

When it comes to wine I am certainly not an expert. In fact, I consider myself a non-drinker. I would maybe have a drink three times a year and when I do take a drink it would be things like Baileys or Cointreau, anything that doesn’t taste like alcohol. Last year I went to southern France on a wine buying trip (I had two really good wine guys with me, (Gabriel Cooney of On The Grapevine & Ouzos Head Chef Raouf Djeffal) the first day we visited six wineries and tasted some thirty wines. To say I got pissed would be an understatement, I slept in the car all the way back to the hotel and I’ve been at the butt end of their jokes ever since.

I was recently sitting with a group of wine guys and our Ouzos restaurant managers discussing our wine list. We were talking about importing more wines directly for Ouzos. The discussion turned to Pinot Grigio and what these wine guys told me left my hair standing on end.


According to Tom Doorley
Pinot Grigio is the Italian for Pinot Gris, made famous by Alsace but traditionally grown in NE Italy too. Pinot Grigio was made famous (so I'm told!) by Sex in the City in which it became shorthand for "white wine" - hence vastly increased demand for the stuff from Italy. A bit confusingly Pinot Gris used to be known as Tokay d'Alsace in Alsace. In other words, Pinot Grigio became the new Chardonnay, but Chardonnay has more character.

Pinot Grigio is drunk by people who either (a) can't think of anything better to do or (b) are terrified of finding themselves drinking a wine that actually tastes of anything. In fact, really good Pinot Grigio exists (and tastes faintly of grapefruit zest to my palate) but is very expensive and not really worth it. 

According to Anthony Tindal of Tindal Wine Merchants
Pinot Grigio is bastardised from Pinot Gris originally from Alsace and nothing like the real Alsace deal. Designed for the simple palate without taste buds, to be as innocuous as possible, so as not to disturb rabid conversation, and certainly not to be masculine and aggressive or have character or flavours. There is little control over wine production in Italy. It is commonly known that Italy sells 30% more’ Pinot Grigio than it actually produces.

Here are three facts worth considering;
  1. Import of lesser known white juices from Spain to Italy is very high.
  2. Production of Trebbiano Bianco is as much as 50% higher than actual sales of same. So where does that juice go?
  3. 2012...harvests throughout Europe were disastrous, although Pinot Grigio was only down 5 % on last year’s figures. Spanish whites were down 35%, Trebbiano was down 50 % and the result was an increase in the price of Pinot Grigio with sales also anticipated to be up year on year.

The very big question we are left with is, where is all this ‘Pinot Grigio’ coming from? Drink it if you like Suckers, I’ll be sticking with Pinot Gris from Alsace.

According to Gabriel Cooney of On The Grapevine Dalkey
Here is a good question for your dinner party - what is the most widely planted grape variety in the world? Chardonnay? Merlot? Cabernet Sauvignon? The answer, those wine buffs among you will know, is Airen. Yes, the little known Spanish varietal is grown in vast quantities on the plains of La Mancha in central Spain. So how come we don't see lots of bottles of Airen on our shelves? Well, you can get some in Spain, but in general it is used as a blending wine. So what? Well, that is fine if it is blended in to wine in Spain and is all controlled by the regulatory authorities.

However, when you hear of tankers of Airen making the long journey over to northern Italy for blending in to Pinot Grigio, it makes you stop and think. It's been well known for years that Italy makes more "Pinot Grigio" than it grows, but I always presumed it was being plumped out with the less trendy Pinot Bianco or at worst some sad lonely bunches of Trebbiano, but Airen!?

It does perhaps explain how, with increasing demand and static production, the price is going down instead of up, as would normally be dictated by my rudimentary understanding of economics. So, once again, some unscrupulous producers will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Watch out for the imminent demise of Pinot Grigio as the trendy tipple of the day.

So, if you like Pinot Grigio and want to drink the real thing, shun that cheapo bottle for €5.99/€6.99/€7.99, even if it has been "reduced from twice the price (because it hasn't, it was never that price in the first place - do you think supermarkets don't make a profit on wine?). Seek out the Pinot Grigio made by a reputable family producer and sold by someone who knows what they are talking about.

So, the question remains - if they are putting in Airen, how come its not bubbly? Don't get me started on Prosecco.......

Where do we go from here?
I don’t think this Pinot Grigio story will ever make the headline but it shows you how big business will sometimes do whatever it takes to make money and how nobody is actually watching. If you think the European bureaucrats will protect us with regulation and labeling then just stop and think of Findus Beef Lasagna in 2013.

The good news is, if there is any, this time it’s about cheap wine so relax this wont kill you (in moderation of course) and remember,” To drink is not the answer; however, drinking will make you forget the question.”

Thursday, 7 March 2013

So Why “Ouzos” and What’s with the Boat?

We are often asked why we called our steak and seafood restaurant “Ouzos” and what made you buy a boat?. Well, back in the early 1990’s Ouzos was based in Baggot Street, Dublin. It started life as a pizza/pasta restaurant and had a real Mediterranean feel; the name Ouzos seemed to fit very well. When we opened our second restaurant in Ranelagh, Dublin, we found it very tough to attract new customers, we were in competition with numerous other local restaurants and we were all serving the same thing. I needed something to make Ouzos special and set us apart from the competition. I always wanted a fish restaurant and I felt if we were serving lobster, crab, fresh Irish fish and steak in a relaxed restaurant we would have that something very special. I very quickly realized that buying lobster and crab was way too expensive for the sort of restaurant we wanted to operate. If we were going to make this transformation we were going to have to think outside box.
Now what are the chances of that?
A couple of days later I bumped into an old friend of mine on Baggot Street. I hadn’t seen this guy in 15 years and during the course of our conversation I discovered he had small licensed lobster boat down in Greystones and he was selling it. Now what are the chances of that? Two weeks later Ouzos owned a fishing boat, the MFV Phoenix. It was a 21’ lobster boat. It was tiny, but I felt we could certainly land enough crab and lobster for our needs. Another friend of mine who was living in Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry and was fishing mad,  offered to skipper the boat. We bought 200 lobster pots, transported the boat to Kerry and went fishing. Our first delivery of crab claws and lobster arrived by Fast Track the following week just in time for the re-launch of Ouzos, the steak and seafood restaurant. The reaction from customers was fantastic and Ouzos Steak & Seafood Restaurant was born.
The scariest moment of my life…
Commercial fishing is a complex business and boats are very expensive to run and maintain. We very quickly learned that operating a fishing boat for Ouzos alone was going to be financially challenging. Within a year we decided to invest close to €250k in a 33’ fishing boat and 2000 lobster pots, turned our fishing operation into a stand-alone business. Ouzos took the crab and lobster we needed and the balance was sold to the local markets.
During our years when the boat was based in Cahersiveen I would talk to the skipper every day. On days when the weather was bad and the boat was tied up, I would jokingly say “come on, this weather wouldn’t stop George Clooney” (in reference to the movie Perfect Storm). I went fishing with the lads many times. While I’m little embarrassed to say it, I got sea sick on lots of occasions and had the pants scared off me on few occasions as well. On one occasion the boat was heading back down into Dingle Bay while trawling. It was a warm summer’s day. There was a big 15’ swell coming behind us off the Atlantic. I was standing on the deck with the skipper, cup of tea in hand while the boat was riding with the waves. Suddenly, the boat seemed to gently slow and sat down in the water. With that, a very big wave came over the back of the boat, knocked both of us off our feet and for a few seconds it was like being in a washing machine. My lifejacket burst open around my neck and I grabbed for anything to stop me going over the side. It was without doubt the scariest moment of my life, I really thought I was going to die. As the water washed overboard the skipper screamed “the net is snagged on the bottom” Then a second wave hit even more violently than the first. As I struggled to catch my breath, Henry (the skipper) had already cut us free of the net and the danger was over.
As we sat wrapped in blankets and huddled around the heater in the wheelhouse with our teeth shattering from the intense cold, I gazed at the boxes of lobster scattered around the deck and I couldn’t help but wonder if people really knew the real dangers fishermen face everyday to bringing fish to our tables. Needless to say, I never used the George Clooney line again.     
In 2009 I decided to move our fishing operation to Dun Laoghaire. The following year we sold the boat but kept an interest and to this day all our crab & lobster is landed by our good friend and partner Ivan Toole on board the MFV Golden Venture.
Ten Years on!    
Over the last ten years I have gained an enormous admiration for the fishermen of Ireland, I could not do what they do every day. I have learned a lot about fishing and how the market works. We’ve learned that Irish fishermen get paid buttons for their catch when compared to the prices charged by middlemen; I have seen processors paying fishermen 0.60c per kg for haddock on the same day that supermarkets are charging €12 per kg for the same fish. I’ve seen figures on Ireland’s consumption of fish and how 80% of the fish we consume is imported. It’s a sad day for Ireland when boats are tied up in Cork Harbour and The Marine Times (the fishermens’ newspaper) recently referred to Cork Airport as the busiest fishing port in the country. We should all strive to protect our Irish fishermen (I will write a blog on this issue soon). In the meantime please buy Irish fish only.   
Ten years on, hundreds of thousands spent and our adventure into the fishing business is still a wonderful experience, we have met wonderful people, made a huge amount of contacts in the fishing community and when we’re not catching our own fish we’re sourcing the freshest Irish fish for our restaurants.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Trouble With Internet Reviews

I think the problem with restaurant review websites has been highlighted in the last week when someone decided to attack Pichet’s Nick Munier while hiding behind a silly user name on Tripadvisor. The fact that someone can hide behind a user name and say whatever they like via such websites is reckless and open to all sorts of abuse. Nobody should be subjected to this type of anonymous abuse and anyone who facilitates such abusive behavior via their website should be held responsible.

Another Great Idea!
Someone, somewhere must have decided it would be a great idea to have a website where John-doe/Jane-doe could tell everybody in the whole wide world all about his/her last good or bad restaurant experience. The restaurant review website was born and like all great ideas this one has been copied over and over again. The internet is now full of ways for customers (or so we’re lead to believe) to complement or slag off a restaurant and as My Grandfather Always Said “Paper Never Refused Ink”

So how do I set myself up as a restaurant pundit on the World Wide Web?
Well you don’t need to be a member of the NUJ. Just find a review website and pick a user name, let’s say “jonnyrotten127”. All you need now is a valid email address and let’s face it; a halfwit could setup a new email address in the time it would take to flip a burger. When you signup the website will send you a security email to verify your identity. You simply reply to that security email and Jonnyrotten127 has now been vetted by the security department in the review website who have just proved that jonnyrotten127 of is in fact jonnyrotten127. Now that you have worked your way through this security minefield and you have been given clearance, you can publish whatever you like. Don’t be worried about having to visit a restaurant, if you prefer to go to the pub that’s fine, you don’t have to go to the restaurant; you just have to say you were there and tell your story, warts and all.

Should The Restaurant Engage and Reply to a Web Review?
Most of these review websites give the restaurant the right to reply. One day I found myself writing a reply to a bad review, I started to type “Dear wooleyhead23” and then it struck me, this is just stupid! I’m writing to someone called wooleyhead23, a guy, a girl, a sheep, who knows what, I have no idea who they are or if they actually visited my restaurant at all. So in my opinion, until there is a website where you know who you are replying to, don’t bother.

My Verdict!
If everybody was honest review websites as they are would be fantastic and would do the public and the restaurant business a great service. But alias, we’re not as honest as we should be and a lot of what is said about restaurants on these sites could be true, could be lies, could be exaggerated, could be made up by a disgruntled ex-employee having the final say, could be a competitor trying to make you look bad or could even be the restaurant themselves. Who knows?

TrueReview, a website where the reviewer has a real name?
Now, wouldn’t that be refreshing, a website where you could see who was writing the review and to review a restaurant the user would have to prove to the website who they actually are and their real name was their user name.  There would be a tiny fraction of reviewers compared to the current review format used by all websites but at least they would most likely be true.

This is just another sorry example of people and company’s trying to make easy money out of the hardworking restaurateurs’ without so much as washing a plate.

I have had the pleasure of meeting Nick Munier a couple of times and he is an utter gentleman. I have eaten in his restaurant on many an occasion and I have always enjoyed the wonderful food and good service. I have been so close to lashing out after being at the receiving end of this type of anonymous abuse and I can tell you, it can be difficult to ignore. On this occasion, it’s a big hats-off to Nick, it’s about time someone lost the head with these guys and told them where to go.  

I believe this type of anonymous abuse facilitated by websites and directed at restaurants or individuals via the internet will come to an end when someone sues the pants off someone else.

Monday, 4 February 2013

"Great Deal & Great Restaurant" but are you sure?

“It doesn’t always do exactly what it says on the tin”
The restaurant business is tough, as every restaurateur knows. If a restaurant is well run I think it would be fair to say there are probably a bunch of workaholics involved. At Ouzos we’re blessed to have some of the finest workaholics in the business. From the restaurant floor to our kitchens our staff are truly remarkable people who work incredibly hard to keep Ouzos going and give our customers great food, value for money and great service.
I do get annoyed when some company’s or individuals try to take advantage of restaurants and make money without so much as washing a plate. Below I have given you two good examples of what i mean.     
1.     The Daily Deal Websites!
In 2005 we were approached by a UK marketing company. They did what the likes of Living Social, Groupon, Deal Rush and so on do today. The only difference was this company sold the deals locally and door to door. At the time it seemed like a great idea and a great deal, we signed up and I can tell you I still feel sick when I think of the money we lost on that deal.
If you don’t know how these Daily Deal companies work, I will tell you and I’ll keep it simple. A typical deal would be, meal for 2 + wine, value €100, this is discounted by 50% so you, the customer, can buy this deal for €50. That’s a great deal for you, but what about the restaurant? Well, a Daily Deal website recently quoted my company a commission rate of 50%. So we sell the €100 worth of food and wine for €50, we pay the Daily Deal site €25 and we get €25. As a restaurateur, you don’t have to be mathematicians to figure out you’ve just lost your shirt!  
When Discount Deal Websites sell a vouchers for restaurants that has been heavily discounted, the restaurants lose money and the restaurants nearby and around those restaurants have to try and compete, so everyone loses. Restaurants that lose money close and people lose their jobs. The reality is, deals websites are very profitable for their owners but in my opinion they have done nothing but damage to the restaurant trade in Ireland.
2.     The Plaque Plague!

Outside practically every restaurant in the country you will find these restaurant critic or restaurant guide plaques stuck to the wall in an effort to attract potential new customers. They proclaim things like “Best in Ireland 2013”, “Best Restaurant Award” or “recommended By……” and so on and so on…….So the big question is, do the general public believe that restaurants displaying these plaques are better than the restaurants who have no such plaques displayed?
Before you answer that question consider this, did you know that the plaques are not presented; they are not won in some grand competition. They are simply ordered and purchased by the restaurants? Did you know that the price of these plaques is between €125 and €300 per year? Did you know one company selling its famous plaque will even sell you backdated plaques at a discount?
So here are the problems, when a restaurant purchases a plaque from a restaurant guide or a restaurant critic they effectively become a customer of the guide or the critic? Surly that can’t be right? Surly restaurant critics or restaurant guides must stay impartial in order to have any credibility? I don’t believe they can, as long as they continue to sell their seal of approval. Then there's the really big question, Is it right to allow the public to be duped into believing that these plaques have been awarded to the restaurants when the fact is the plaques have been bought and paid for by the restaurants they are meant to be endorsing?  
At Ouzos we don’t do plaques or Daily Deals, we believe in offering our customers great food, value for money, great service, then we rely on the oldest and the best marketing method of them all “Word-of-Mouth” look after the customers you have and they will spread the word.  

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Three of My Restaurant Pet Hates

Three of My Restaurant Pet Hates
I think its all getting a little silly!

Firstly, I have to admit, when I started in the food business almost 25 years ago it was all new to me and I mean all new. I made the decision to open a coffee shop in Dun Laoghaire. I left my job in the electronic manufacturing business found a little premise and with the help of my dear friend Frank Bergin who sadly passed away, we fitted out the coffee shop and six weeks later it was opening day. Problem was I had no idea what I was doing! My Mother is a great cook and came to the rescue; she volunteered to come in for a few hours every day to make the soup and the pies.  I just had to sort everything else out.

A week earlier I had contacted an old friend of mine, Alan O'Reilly. I think it would be fair to say that Alan is one on the highest regarded chefs in the country and all round nice guy. We had known each other from the time we were kids. We even got to represent Ireland together in junior Ten Pin Bowling. Alan arrived on opening day to show me how to make some very nice salads. Ok then he said while straightened his apron, have you got a chopping board, no problem I said, mixing bowls please, no problem as I put everything in front of him. Get me some Iceberg lettuce he ordered me and with great enthusiasm I ran to the fridge, I returned and handed over the Iceberg. He fell around the place laughing, you moron he said, that’s white cabbage. That was my first lesson, 25 years later and I’m still learning, I’m just not the food cabbage I used to be.
Ireland, like me, has come an awful long way in the last 25 years in terms of food and restaurants. I believe we now have some of the best restaurants, the best food producers and some of the best chefs in the world. I often go into town and try a restaurant on spec and more often that not the food is very good. We are spoilt for choice but in our quest for even more greatness I think we sometimes get a little silly with food ideas and presentation.

Steak on a stone
“For the first time in my life I was actually afraid of my dinner”

The first time I ever came across steak-on-a-stone was on a lad’s holiday in Fuengirola, Spain. It was 1982, I was 20 and this was my first holiday abroad, everything was new and exciting. We sat in this wonderful steak restaurant in our sleeveless t-shirts (I heard one of my own kids refer to this type of t-shirt as "wife beaters" nice, now I can't believe I ever owned one) white as snow with our tans cut off just above the elbow. Steak on a stone was the house specialty and that’s what we ordered, we were all seriously impressed.   

So 28 years later I find myself sitting in a Dublin restaurant ordering the culinary masterpiece that holds so many found memories for me. It arrives and the waiter stretches across the table, I raise my hands to take the board and he retreats saying “no sir, I’ll put it down, its very very hot”. He places it in front of me and again warns me not to touch the stone, he was so serious he made me nervous. For the first time in my life I was actually afraid of my dinner. I certainly didn’t remember being afraid the last time, but then I was younger and a lot more reckless. By the time I was finished eating the steak-on-a-stone my arms were tired from holding my elbows at eye level in fear of needing a skin graft. The steak was awful, the whole experience was awful and my fond memories of Fuengirola 1982 were destroyed forever. The Fuengirolans were way ahead of their time on this trend and some 28 years ahead of the Irish. As for me, “bin there dun dat”

Chips in a Bucket
“I’d love a bucket of chips”

·        Why would anyone serve chips in a bucket?

·        Who decided chips in a bucket is a great idea?

·        Do chips taste better from a bucket?

·        Have you ever heard anyone say “I’d love a bucket of chips?

·        Do tourists return home and tell their friends “you’ve got to get over to Ireland, they serve chips in a bucket"?

Personally I just don’t get it, I think we've all gone mad.  

Dinner in a bowl
“Please, I’m not a Dog!”

There is nothing nicer that a beautiful fresh summer salad in a bowl, a bowl of home-made pasta carbonara, a bowl of hot Irish stew or even a Thai green curry. So there are lots of wonderful foods that need to be and should be served in a bowl. But that is where it should end. I recently ordered a steak sandwich in a pub and oh no, yes, it was served in a bowl. I was in a very nice restaurant in Dublin city recently, there were fourteen people at our table and all starters and all main courses including a baked cod dish were served in bowls.

I have just typed “food in a bowl” into Google Images. If you’re a chef designing a menu please stop what you’re thinking and go type those words into Google Images, you’ll get the idea!

To be continued…………………

(in the meantime, buy the best Irish produce, cook it well and let the food do the talking!)