When an inspector calls - new food scheme which reflects what it needs to

The food and drink landscape is changing again and there’s more to consider than ever when it comes to running a successful F&B offering. Deborah Heather, Director of Quality in Tourism reflects on her travels to create a new food operator grading scheme and considers whether the current grading landscape does what it needs to.

Every year when the list of Michelin Stars is published, the scheme comes under criticism for various perceived misdemeanours, from being too exclusive, to favouring French cuisine and classic training, and even to creating standards that are so difficult to retain they actually stifle innovation and creativity. I’ll leave others to debate the various merits or not of gaining Michelin Stars, but it does get me thinking about whether the heyday of Michelin is over and whether they truly represent the modern and progressive landscape, or the needs of the diners who visit them?

Michelin has never purported to grade or assess anything other than the food on offer (although we all know places with poor service tend not to get stars), utilising an anonymous first-hand diner experience to determine the quality and authenticity of the food and whether it is worth a road trip or not. Yet with great brand awareness comes great responsibility, and despite only actually assessing the calibre of the food, the very presence of a Michelin Star seemingly creates assumptions from potential diners. Michelin is synonymous with quality, but the term ‘quality’ engenders trust in all sorts of ways that go beyond food, from food hygiene and cleanliness, to food safety, ingredient provenance, décor, and much more besides. There is no suggestion from Michelin that their assessment of quality engenders any of these attributes, yet it doesn’t stop potential diners making assumptions that they do.

Some would argue that it doesn’t matter about these other quality markers; that food offerings are held to account through other market regulators like online reviews, Environmental Health Inspections, business licensing, ingredient cost etc. Yet with budget cuts impacting environmental health teams, review sites being accused of falsified reviews and anti-competitive behaviours, and even the necessary introduction of ‘Natasha’s Law’ in summer 2021, it seems that perhaps the current ‘regulatory’ landscape does not in any way reflect what is needed from the industry and its diners.

At the end of 2018, we decided that the time was right to design and launch a quality grading scheme for food operators which complements what already exists in industry, but provides more transparency around the things that matter to diners now. We take new scheme design very seriously, and base everything that we do on empirical and experiential evidence of what is needed in the market. For my team and I, that meant visits to food operators up and down the country this summer, to determine the scope and scale of the market and its issues – lucky us!

The experiences varied wildly, but what was perhaps most concerning was the variance between reportedly ‘consistent’ operators. We compared operators with the same online reviews, the same third-party gradings, the same cuisine descriptors; any comparison that could be made between operators, we made it. The results varied wildly and we came across so many inconsistencies besides.

Take our visit to a Michelin Star Restaurant in the Midlands for example; should Michelin really be awarding stars to a restaurant that gets 3 out of 5 stars on their ‘Scores on the Doors’ for food hygiene? True, their food quality was fantastic, but I personally have concerns that quality of taste and eating does not necessitate quality of operations and food safety! Next was our visit to a gastropub in the South West; visiting with a friend who is severely allergic to all dairy products but is still a foodie through and through, she doesn’t expect or want to feel like an afterthought when it comes to selecting off the menu. Initially offered vegan only dishes because meat is a dairy product right(?), the experience went from bad to worse as she was handed a menu which listed all the allergens, but staff could not advise what could be substituted and she was left with one dish available to order that wasn’t also vegan of which there were only three anyway. Compare that with a hotel restaurant on the south coast which grows 40% of its own food and sources the rest of its ingredients seasonally within a 30 mile radius and you’ve got an operator that is really the pinnacle of sustainability, yet scores the same as its neighbour which does none of these things. Varying degrees of cleanliness, staff training, décor, ambience, allergen management, the list went on and the variance between allegedly same quality restaurants was astounding.

As the independent, quality self-regulator for the industry, we take quality and standards very seriously, developing schemes which are fit for purpose and helpful for both the operator and the end user. Food is no different and we’re shortly to launch our new F.A.R.E scheme for food providers, but it isn’t something we’ve taken lightly and it has been built specifically on first-hand experiences of our team and focus groups of consumers, looking at what the industry needs and why. The experiences were incredibly varied and everywhere we looked there were examples of where the expectation and reality simply don’t align. It’s given us a chance to develop a set of criteria that engenders transparency while retaining the overview of eating quality.

Here’s an overview of our six most important diner expectations:

Cuisine quality & authenticity

We can’t escape it. If the food doesn’t taste good and isn’t authentic, then that’s a problem. Many however argue that the landscape is regulated by standard market economics and supply and demand, with poor quality operators going quickly out of business. What’s more, review sites (assuming quality, authentic, real reviews) help to hold the operators to account and the upper echelons are differentiated by the likes of Michelin Stars.

Food safety

The introduction of allergen laws has done much to ensure foods are not unnecessarily cross-contaminated, but as the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse and the impending introduction of ‘Natasha’s law’ shows us, these processes are not fool proof. There is much demand for improved measures of food standards and safety and protecting anyone who makes food choices through allergy or preference.

Allergen Experience

Closely linked to food safety, but more around the experience of those with allergies, is a desire to feel like an integral part of the dining experience and not an afterthought. Limited menus, lack of knowledge and even in some cases a request that they sign a waiver makes those with allergies feel like a modern day pariah when it’s actually not that hard to accommodate.

Sustainability

No longer the bastion of animal rights and climate activists, food provenance has become one of the most pressing hot topics surrounding food at the moment. There are many ways to tackle the issue of sustainability, but a focus on provenance, food waste, long-term sustainability, food miles, packaging and seasonality are all part of the current buzz. Operators who genuinely make positive changes can capitalise on the growing movement, but only if they deliver change with authenticity.

Ambience & Service

Naturally, the ambience of the premises and the quality of front of house service remain a core part of diner expectations. Existing quality gradings do not focus on front of house, and in doing so miss an opportunity to showcase the truly exceptional training schemes and quality providers out there.

Cleanliness

Not just of what you can see, but also what you can’t, cleanliness is an expectation of all providers. Food hygiene focusses on production areas, but approaches to the premises, interiors, toilets, kitchens and other outdoor areas all feature highly on diner expectations.

Quality in Tourism assess hundreds of accommodation providers globally with a focus on the all-round experience. They are launching their F.A.R.E food grading scheme to not only recognise delicious eating, but also the operators that go above and beyond to be exceptional.  To find out more about their assessments, gradings and mystery shopping services, and to register for updates on the F.A.R.E food scheme recognising Food that’s Authentic, Responsible and Ethical, please visit www.qualityintourism.com

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