The Staff Canteen talks to Simon Numphud about The AA Restaurant Guide 2012

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th May 2011

We're here to talk about the AA Restaurant Guide 2012,  it's probably one of the most liveliest debates we have on The Staff Canteen.

We reach anywhere between 22 and 25,000 chefs a month, I think from our perspective it would be wholly unfair of us to allow chefs to have their say, share their thoughts, and even their criticisms about the AA without allowing the AA to debate that and I hope we can do that today?

So if we can start Simon by you giving us an outline of the role of an AA Restaurant Guide inspector those that would inspect a hotel dining room or a restaurant, how many inspectors you have and how many operations you will cover as inspectors on an annual basis.

The first thing to say, so we don't have different inspectors, apart from our campsite team who just do campsites but all hotel and restaurant inspectors will do the full breadth of our inspection services.

We've got members that will contradict that, we have members who haven't had a food inspection for two years yet have had a hotel inspection.

Our hotels receive an annual inspection, we would love to, overnight every year, but commercials don't allow us to do that, just in terms as a resource model that would be impractical and the fee we'd need to charge for the hotel to do an overnight every year would be high. What we do is we do an overnight every other year.

Obviously on the overnight we will always do dinner and on a day visit, depending on what these inspectors' schedule is if we can take lunch we will, also some hotels won't open for lunch so you have one of those issues. I think any guide will say the same thing it's practically impossible to visit everywhere absolutely spot on every year.

We endeavour to do most and I truly believe in terms of our resource out of all the guides we probably eat the most in we get round the country as much as possible, but there will be instances where we might not have got somewhere after 13, 14, 15 months. Sometimes it does lapse a little, also, chefs move on so having to keep pace with that is sometimes quite challenging.

Sure, what would you say then if you've got a hotel and they're pushing for three rosettes and it is a day inspection, and because of their business demands, their restaurant isn't open for lunch or they serve s bar snack, light bites, would you say that's a fair model for somebody who's pushing very hard for three rosettes that he's not assessed overnight and he has to wait potentially another 15 months before somebody comes back?

Would I say that's fair? I would say that's reality of the process and the system we have unfortunately. Guidebooks standalone as an inspection model are expensive to run, there are limitations while we'll always do our best, where we do see, say for example, a hotel that is aspiring to three rosettes and obviously if they do have a very good visit we'll send someone back at our expense to actually go and reassess again but there's always a balancing act with so many establishments that we have in the scheme and that's just a reality.

So how many inspectors do you have then Simon?

We have 30 full time inspectors and then we have a number of what we call freelance eater/writers, that eat and write professionally for us

Without doing the maths, on your guide at the moment you've got 1,900 inspected operations.

That's about right Mark yeah.

So 30 into that, that's quite a few places that you've got to do it doesn't go. Simon how do chefs get on the AA  radar? They've just taken over a new operation, it's already a two rosettes how do they say to you, "I'm new come and visit me." Is it a case of sending you menus, dropping you an email, what's the process?

There are a number of avenues and it's a good question, anyone that's looking to obviously be assessed we'd ask them to send in their menus, their CV, any other information pertaining to the property in terms of background, we do actually ask them to send a hard copy. I think you get a better sense when you see something in hard copy rather than actually someone just saying, "Please see my website,"

We get inundated with menus but actually we try to make the process a little bit more formal, to make sure that anyone that's serious about joining the rosette scheme or applying for the rosette scheme is serious. In terms of the process we would ask new properties, or existing properties that might not be in the scheme and who feel they should be, to send in formally a copy of their chef's CV, a profile of a restaurant perhaps send clipping from other guides and other write ups they might have, together with their menus and wine list.

So is there a dedicated area on your website that specifically says where that should go to a direct channel?

No not really. I don't think, I'll have a look into that.

Think there should? No it's a good idea if we don't do that that's something we could definitely pinpoint.

But then that's probably an argument to  make this highly visible

Absolutely and if we're not signposting at the moment it's definitely we could look to do. Once those menus etc. come in we do actually acknowledge receipt and I think it's really important that the proprietor or chef  gets a "Thank you very much for the menus etc. We will look at the menus in due course." We can't guarantee a visit because we get inundated, if they are successful we will instruct a visit to happen over a period of time and at that point an inspector will go and inspect, obviously show their card at the end of the meal and just have a brief conversation, depending on who we get to speak to.

Just on that then Simon, if a hotel inspector inspects a hotel do you always make your presence known at the end of that inspection?

We would always make our presence known anyway, the only exception would be if we're doing a second or third visit to perhaps verify something we might not always deliver our card. If the general manager's not there we would ask to speak to the next senior person, then ask to look round and then offer feedback relating to the report which would then cover the food at the same time. We always ask openly, "Would you like us to speak to the chef?" sometimes they might say, "The chef's here actually would you mind speaking to him?" and we're always happy to do that,again something that sometimes gets overlooked, but the AA's always been happy to offer feedback to chefs and I think it's the only guide that really does do that and I think that's always been a positive.

Yeah absolutely.

Obviously it courts debate as well but debate is a healthy thing.

We mentioned digital we've been talking about websites, so how relevant now is a guide, a physical, printed guide in today's digital era? Printed media, through no fault of its own is in huge decline, we know that and that's not because anyone suddenly started doing a bad job it's because the internet has now probably taken over, is there still, in your opinion, or in the opinion of the AA, a necessity for a printed guide?

It's an interesting question, I mean obviously the AA's the largest travel publisher in the UK and we produce over a thousand titles.

Do you really?

Yeah absolutely. People just think obviously breakdown but publishing is quite a large part of our business and we produce a huge variety of books through lifestyle guides which the hotel and restaurant guide are part of that family, through to atlases, both domestically and European. We still think print has a place but at the same time recognising the emerging digital channels. I suppose the best analogy is something like our atlas, we still have about 60% of the marketplace and still prints and publishes several million a year despite the proliferation of sat nav systems. I do still think there is a place for a printed guidebook.

Obviously it's not men buying them, we never get lost.

Absolutely. ((laughs))

Well we do we just don't like to ask anybody directions.

Well you can get lost on sat nav nowadays anyway without common sense but I truly believe there's still a place for the guide and I think we were talking off air before, I think there's still some excitement when a guidebook comes out.

Absolutely yes I agree with that. There's always hype around it and rightly so, you and your competitors always build it up and absolutely right.

And I also think just from a book perspective in general there is something obviously"

Something tangible. 

central as well with actually having a book or a paper that all the iPhones and laptops and Macs can't give you to a degree "

So you've got no immediate plans to go fully digital?

We recognise the emerging digital stream so therefore over a year and a half ago we launched iPhone applications, we have 23 iPhone applications in the marketplace now that have done circa 1.4 million downloads to date. Those similar applications are now being obviously done for the iPad and for the Android platform. We also have a relationship coming up with Nokia which we're very excited about where all new Nokia handsets will have preloaded AA information on them. The lifestyle guides have been available to download on the Garmin sat nav for 18-24 months . So we are embracing digital streams, we think they're an important distribution channel but we see them being complementary to print as opposed to saying, "We're not going to do a book any more."

I've noticed your website of course can be more instantaneous if somewhere loses or gains a rosette in print you have to wait until the next print however your website reflect this quicker"

 Without question, Mark, and I think everyone realises that's where obviously digital comes into its own because it is immediate. Obviously the reality of anything printed is as soon as you print it it's date.

In terms of that then do you still think there's a relevancy with online digital and the way we can all now feedback? We are all now critics, we're all now reviewers, do you still think that the inspector is the right model to critique hotels when so many chefs are now saying, "It's actually the customer that's important?"

The AA always said that the customer is the most important person. I would always worry about a business that is focused predominantly on accolades, rather than its customers. I think accolades are the icing on the cake and helpful to promote your business but the context is actually running a healthy business in the first place. You could get two customers going somewhere right at the pedestal of our industry Le Manoir as an example.. One person might think it's absolutely fabulous and fantastic value for money, others may be disappointed and think it's really expensive. It depends on what the individual's expectations and knowledge base is like in terms of are they used to eating at places like Le Manoir or are they very experienced, it's all about context I think in terms of an opinion.

Would you accept though if you're a hotel or restaurant and you're two rosettes and you're pushing for three, yes it's very, very important of course to be commercial and money in the bank is worth much more than accolades but if you get three, it does then, in my opinion, open you up to a different market. There will always be the tick box diners, "Oh three rosettes, got to go there now," whereas they wouldn't have looked at it as two. So as an organisation are the AA aware that there's a lot of people out there that are pushing on the door of three rosettes and commercially you do have an impact potentially on them by not getting round to them or if it's not driven by customer feedback if you've got the majority of people who dine in any restaurant saying, "In our opinion this is a very good meal," is that not better than sending in three inspectors over a year?

That's a good question you could take the same analogy to anywhere, like a high street restaurant, for example everyone goes to Pizza Hut and 95% of the customers say, "I've had a fantastic meal," does that mean it warrants one rosette? The fact that people recognise rosettes and the impact it might have on the business says to me that actually having a rosette scheme is quite positive for the industry. I think that even presses the need even more to have something like an independent organisation like the AA which I believe has credibility and heritage of actually inspecting and working with the industry to provide.

... To be continued...

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th May 2011

The Staff Canteen talks to Simon Numphud about The AA Restaurant Guide 2012