Ideas are nothing without the execution

I’ve just watched the second installment of ‘Big Chef Takes on Little Chef‘, the concept of which revolves around trying to reinvigorate the fortunes of the Little Chef roadside restaurant chain.

I’ve probably been to a Little Chef once in the last 20 years (when very hungry and desperate on a road trip you understand). Watching the show it looks like they haven’t changed a bit in at least 20 years – or even decorated in some cases.

To help with this turnaround they drafted in the culinary genius Heston Blumenthal.

Now, I like Heston. I admire his direct manner and his ‘fuck ’em’ attitude. I like the idea of what he does with food; challenging perceptions, creating new tastes and experiences. I thought that it might have been a bit of a mismatch putting someone like Heston in the hot seat to refresh a 50 year old, staid, outdated institution like Little Chef. But as the chief executive, Ian Pegler, said, he brought Heston in for his ‘blue sky thinking’ to ‘think out of the box’ and for ‘that Heston wow factor’. Suffice to say I wanted to throw the controller at the TV every time he uttered these phrases. He chose Heston above ‘other celebrity chefs’ because he was so radical and he felt that’s what Little Chef needed. But what he failed to understand is that Heston’s food is £250 a head at his flagship Fat Duck restaurant. And it’s completely inappropriate and at odds with Little Chef’s staple quick-turnaround roadside fodder.

So the process started with an, at best, vague brief and a client whose expectation and hope were matched in equal measures by his misguided enthusiasm. Disaster and broken relations were bound to follow.

What Heston focused on in the beginning, quite rightly in my opinion, was the quality of the ingredients and the attention to cooking techniques to produce food that was better prepared and therefore better tasting. This was, seemingly, totally lost on the chief exec. He was expecting more ‘blue sky’ and less ‘box’. The problem was that he didn’t have the first clue how to articulate what he meant by this to Heston.

On top of this, there’s no point having loads of great ideas if they cannot be carried through. Little Chef kitchens consist of a deep fat fryer and a hot plate. The ‘chefs’ work from a manual like they’re assembling an Ikea flat-pack. Radical changes to the menu would necessitate root and branch revisions to their entire cooking processes. This is before you consider retraining staff and refurb’ing the kitchens to house more traditional food preparation implements. Like saucepans for example. What’s the point of a great new menu if there are not the means or skills to produce it? It doesn’t look like this had crossed the mind of Mr Blue Sky.

The other flaw in the process was the way in which Heston’s new menu was tested. They did this by dividing one of the more popular restaurants in two. Depending on what the diner wanted depended on where they sat. Obviously, ‘Heston’s’ side of the restaurant was empty. It’s not surprising! With no marketing, explanation or build up to what they were trying to achieve it probably scared the hell out of the diners. They were arriving expecting an olympic breakfast and were greeted by oak-smoked Salmon with scrambled eggs and offal and oyster hotpot!

There is still one installment of the series to go, so we’ll see how this all pans out.

What I want to look at is the way the ‘client’, the chief exec. in his case, treated his ‘agency’ – Heston.

I can see a lot of similarities here with clients I’ve worked with historically on web design projects. In fact, I’ve blogged about the designer/client relationship before. Far too many clients focus on the wrong things. They want a ‘blue sky’ website design but they cannot explain what they mean by this. Then, when they see radical they get scared and want it watered-down or merged with the ‘safe’ option. Alternatively, they don’t like your site design concepts at all but they can’t tell you what exactly they don’t like. They expect a ‘wave of the Photoshop brush’ and all to be well. (I’ve actually had that last sentence uttered to me in a meeting).

Then, when they eventually launch the site there’s no marketing support or fanfare. No long-term content strategy, no planning for post-launch maintenance, no warning of what’s coming for the faithful users. It’s just thrust onto the world. And then they wonder why it falls flat and people complain. And then it’s the agency’s fault!

What has become apparent in the latest episode of Heston and Little Chef’s adventure is that the process may end up being the marketing campaign itself and Heston’s hard work ends up on the back burner at best. And that won’t be Heston’s fault it’ll be down to the way the project was conceived and run in the first place.

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3 Responses to Ideas are nothing without the execution

  1. Matt J says:

    I did enjoy this series, even though it had a predictable reality TV narrative. Little Chef has been synonymous with bad culinary experiences for me, so it might be nice to eat something good in there. Assuming they do roll out this menu across the chain (and I wouldn’t trust that suit as far as I could throw him).

  2. MattConn says:

    I caught the last two episodes of this. I can’t help but think this whole concept was built around someone thinking up the title first. It’s a ridiculous idea.

    My opinion, and I kind of feel this was the outcome of the show, is that Little Chef just need to use slightly better ingredients, get some employees who know even a tiny bit about cooking and get someone in to spruce up the tired interior. I could’ve told them that.

    What they don’t need is bloody oyster hot pot and ox cheeks.

    The bit that really made me laugh was when the narrator said something along the lines of “Heston’s biggest fear of the evening was getting the opinion of the Evening Standard Food Critic. Her reviews can make or break a restaurant”. Now how many people that go to a Little Chef will ever read a review by a poncy Evening Standard Food Critic, let alone actually give a sh*t anyway? I thought Kevin McCloud was very diplomatic as well.

    Anyway, overall I thought it was pretty poor tv, even though I do think that Heston is very entertaining.

    And as for the clients/design point you made, I think I might just refuse any client requests for a couple of months as an experiment. I imagine it would be an experience akin to standing up to the school bully.

    P.S – You will probably notice from the time I posted this that I am obviously still jet lagged.

  3. As you say @Matt it was pretty poor TV. In fact, they just took the Jamie’s School Dinners concept and rolled it out again. Even getting some poor old dear to be Heston’s apprentice!

    And as for saying that Heston had to do the interior – that’s rubbish. A quick look over at the CR blog will show that it was done by Ab Rogers Design. http://www.creativereview.co.uk/crblog/little-chefs-big-makeover/

    I wish they would worry less about the drama in these programmes and start to educate the British public about proper design and business regeneration processes. That will help us professionals and not make us out to be over-fussy, emotional stress-heads. Oh, on the other hand… 🙂

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