Tuesday, 31 May 2011

What Can Go Wrong, Will, Trust Me!

Have you ever encountered “Murphy’s Law”? You know the one where if it can go wrong it will.I have on numerous occasions. I don’t think that there is anything left for me to experience in the pub trade. I've had fires, floods, electrocutions, power cuts, gas leaks, explosions, robberies and thefts amongst others.

I was always told that these events were either “part of life’s rich tapestry”, or “part of your training” or “part of a steep learning curve”. At the time I thought that they were a complete inconvenience but with hindsight I realise the importance of these experiences. This is why I thought that I would share some of my more unfortunate anecdotes with you. 

One of the best incidents was at a small pub just outside of Lichfield in Staffordshire. It was a small community pub in a mainly residential area that sold copious amounts of cask ales but not much else. The cask cellar was archetypical, small, square, directly under the bar, low brick arched ceiling and was only used for the cask ales, the keg being “out the back”. Anyway, one morning I was on my way down the steps to get the ale ready for that day’s trade, when I noticed something was not quite right. It had been raining for about three days solid, Michael Fish probably predicted sunny spells, but the main road looked more like a river. 

What I couldn't understand while I was descending the cellar steps was why I could see my reflection in the stone floor. I stopped and looked, then realised that the reflection was from the water. Water? I still had about five steps to go down and I was paddling like a kid on Blackpool beach. I leant forward and at full stretch I could just about hang on to the wall and poke my head around the corner in to the cellar. There was about a foot gap to the ceiling and floating all over the show were the barrels! Super. What was strange is that the water was absolutely crystal clear apart from the odd trace of Draught Bass. This couldn't be rainwater. It turned out that the assistant manager, in his wisdom, had decided to clean the cellar the night before and leave the hosepipe on in the sump. The sump in this particular pub was very large so it wouldn't have been noticed filling up with water the night before, but the pump had got stuck and was not pumping the water away. Luckily the electric sockets were high on the walls but ended up only being a few inches above the water line. I was scared stiff when I waded in to get the sump pump working again. I also got a plumber out to get another pump on the job. It took four and a half hours to get rid of all the water with two pumps running at full bore. At least I didn't have to clean the mess up that was left. I got the assistant to do it!


Another funny incident was when I was a young lad and had just started working in the trade. These were the days before “wireless communications” and credit cards were dealt with via paper and a device that rubbed an imprint of the card onto several carbon copies. It was the first time I had ever used the till. 

At the end of the shift the boss came to me and asked where all the credit card receipts were. I thought about this and then, quite matter-of-factly, told him that I had “whizzed them”. Apparently this was not the correct procedure. By the way, that’s not exactly how he put it. I was instructed to salvage them from the bin. Not a problem I thought, I knew which bin I had put them in, but the chefs had emptied it. They used to put all the bags from one kitchen in a pile before removing them, so now I realised that I’d have a few to look through. To my horror I noticed that the pile had also been removed and thrown into the large skip that we used to have. As Homer Simpson would say, “DOH!”. There were around twenty bags in the skip which I ended up having to rip open in the back yard and search through like some sort of tramp at Christmas. I think there were ten to find and after about two hours of rooting through kitchen waste I’d found nine of them. From that moment on every slip went into the till. I remember years later that a girl that did exactly the same thing. I remember telling her that there was only one thing she could do. She had a look of horror on her face but to be fair she only had one bag to go through though!


I don’t think I could make up half the things that have happened to me. Experience is everything, but by my accounts by now I should have a Masters Degree in it!

The Customer is Always Right, Right?

The term “the customer is always right” is a very interesting American idiom. I totally agree that great customer service is imperative no matter which industry you are in. You can sell a bad product well, but you’ll begin to struggle much more quickly if you sell a good product badly. 

The thing that has always narked me about this comment is that if they are always right then we are always wrong. Right? Wrong! How can we always be wrong, what they should say is that “the customer must always feel as though they are right.” That makes much more sense. The customer should always be treated to top quality service as standard. Service definitely sells. 

People expect good service nowadays as the norm and quite right too. If you are fantastic at delivering customer service you will be successful in your business or at least you deserve to be. However, in my experience the customer will reward you with priceless one liners and no-brainer comments for the service that you give them. This, I find, is the most rewarding part of dealing with Joe Public. I'm sure that many of you in your time have had a bit of a giggle at someone else’s expense without them knowing. There is nothing wrong with that, it is purely human nature. Laughter is by definition healthy.*(Doris Lessing)

In my time, nearly fifteen years in the pub trade, I have heard and seen many things that still make me laugh today. Like the time I asked a customer how he would like his steak cooked, to which he replied simply “grilled”. That made me chuckle. A lady once complained that her steak was undercooked so we happily cooked and re-plated the steak for her, but we were then instructed that we should “over-cook every steak in future”. How would that work then my dear? We endeavour to cook every steak perfectly but as we are still only human errors occur, but at least you can correct an under-cooked steak. Of course I told her that her comments were very much appreciated and that I would instruct chef to carry out her wishes. I also remember a lady telling me that she enjoyed her salmon fish-cakes but that they were “too fishy”.

On one occasion I remember that there was a power cut in the pub I was working in at the time. Unfortunately I had to inform all the customers that we were unable to cook their food and that they would have to have a refund and return at a later date. Most people were very understanding apart from two old dears that were rather perturbed that we didn’t have a back-up generator. I wish we did have one because the electric went off again the following Friday night at 10.30pm when the restaurant was packed. Super.

There was once an instance, in the days before twenty four hour drinking, when I had rung the bell at ten to eleven as normal. After making sure everyone had been served I took the tills away to cash up at about five past. One of the staff came to the office about ten minutes later to say that a group of four blokes, the youngest being well in his forties, were “kicking off” and being very rude because she wouldn't serve them another drink. Now, I'm all for a lock in, however, I was working in a managed house at the time and such things just were not done. Now maybe I could have served them another drink if they had asked politely but the first thing they said to me when I went down stairs was, and I quote, “we’re going to write to the brewery
and see about this. You will be in bother.” Now being a young lad at the time this got me worried, but I thought about it for a minute. I replied, “I will get you the address”. My logic was that I wasn't going to get in trouble for NOT breaking the law. The funny thing was that the next week they apologised and from then onwards they were as nice as pie. So if I had done what they asked I would now be a criminal.

I find that working with the public means that no two days are the same. I would hate to have to sit in an office cube for thirty odd hours a week. The great thing is you have to talk to people and you get paid for it. I enjoy making people laugh and I don’t mind laughing at myself and that makes it all the more fun. 

However, the underlying principal is still service service service, but that doesn't mean, in my opinion, that the customer is always right. But then again I have been wrong before!

The Sparrowhawk Is Not Sitting On The Fence!

Most people these days, due to the numerous celebrity chefs and glossy magazines, have heard the phrase “food & wine matching”. However, there is another liquor that goes equally well with food. Yes, beer!

Unfortunately you seldom find good examples of both in the same place. There are good quality local boozers that are striving to provide top class cask ales from a plethora of micro and independent breweries, but their fare by the way of food is usually limited to crisps and nuts and sometimes the odd triangular ham sandwich with half a tomato as garnish strategically placed on top.

Or, you have “gastro pubs” that claim to create high class restaurant food in a “pub” environment, but their idea of a real ale is a nitro keg beer with enough chemicals, additives and CO2 to get Greenpeace worried.

The Sparrowhawk in Fence, near Burnley in Lancashire is the exception to the rule.

Having suffered becoming a managed, plastic pub in the nineties and serving rubbish food and even worse keg ales, it has been refreshing to see that “smoothflow” beers are all but a distant memory.

I worked there as a young lad in its last dying days as a “real” pub. I used to empty the bottle skips and clean the cellar. I remember the bar manager at the time, a lovely chap who didn’t smoke until 3pm but then got through 60 Bensons, and who didn’t drink till 8pm and then poured the best part of a gallon of Carling down his throat, seven days a week, 365 days a year. He was old school personified. He taught me the art of looking after and conditioning cask ale. His first words to me on entering the cold, damp cellar for the first time, were,

“If you knock a barrel you can do one of two things. Either get out of the cellar and the pub and never come back, or, you will never leave the cellar!!”

Needless to say I didn’t ever knock a barrel.

I used to be amazed at the ease with which he used to throw barrels, I do mean thirty sixes, on to the stillages. I still practise what he showed me to this day.

“Cask ale is a living breathing product”, I was told, ”It takes time and skill to ensure that every pint that goes over the bar is perfect”. That, I think, is the reason that so many places these days fail to deliver consistency of product. 

Nowadays The Sparrowhawk offers up to five cask conditioned ales. They currently have Thwaites Original (3.6%), Marstons EPA (3.6%) and rotating guest beers from Prospect Brewery, Whatever! (3.8%), Bank Top Brewery, Sweeney's (3.8%) & Reedley Hallows, Monkholme Premium (4.2%).

To complement these ales they also have Franziskaner and Leffe Blonde on draught.

It is good to see local beers in a local pub. It is also good to see fresh, local, contemporary food in the same place. Wherever possible they source the finest ingredients from Lancashire and its surrounding counties. They are also committed to buying their meat from British farms & seafood from British waters. They pride themselves about this.

So why do so many people choose wine with their food when they could try ale? I think it is because they don’t know that they can. That is the reason why, at the Sparrowhawk, they are thinking about matching some of their wonderful dishes to their beers and recommending matches on their daily specials board.

For example Game goes well with dark lagers, Beef goes well with full bodied bitters such as Draught Bass. You can always quaff a bottle of Kriek whilst enjoying a succulent duck breast. Malty ales like Thwaites go well with turkey. Don’t forget the stout when you are tucking in to a rich chocolate brownie and how many of you have tried stilton with a glass of barley wine? Not many I wager.

Beer, therefore, offers as many if not more possibilities as wine when it comes to drinking with your meal.

So, remember, the next time you visit Fence pop into the Sparrowhawk for some quality food and maybe take a look at what beers are on offer before you automatically ask for the wine list, you maybe pleasantly surprised.