Category Archives: General Chit Chat

Avoiding fake hygiene ratings for a tummy-friendly Christmas

I can’t believe that nearly half of the UK general public (41% to be exact) never check food hygiene ratings for restaurants they’re about to visit.

On the one hand, I can see their scepticism about checking. Last year, the FSA warned many businesses about displaying fake ratings on their windows rather than the real McCoy, threatening prosecution. In the UK, businesses don’t have to display the hygiene rating sticker, but it’s becoming so commonplace around the country that windows without any stickers look ominously out of place. Some morally suspect restauranteurs have taken it upon themselves to manufacture a good rating, despite the possible health risks involved. (I can’t help but think it’s less much effort to simply clean your kitchen and practise good food preparation techniques.)

So, ahead of Christmas 2014, the Food Standards Agency is calling on people to check the food hygiene ratings of restaurants before booking Christmas meals, and this is better achieved by using the official app (which you can’t cheat).

So anyway, those statistics … Half of the UK don’t check ratings. Aaargh! It’s not worth the risk! And this is despite 39% of people reporting that they had a bad experience when eating out, and suspecting they contracted food poisoning from a restaurant or takeaway. In other words, you’ve already been burned and you still take the risk.

“The people we spoke to through our poll spend a lot of time and effort planning festive meals to make sure their family and friends have a good time, yet very few make food hygiene a priority,” said Catriona Stewart from the FSA. “It’s quick and easy to check a restaurant’s food hygiene rating online. Just go to the FSA website (

“Most restaurants have a rating of 3 or above,” said environmental health officer Emma Richbell. “However, as an inspector, I often think consumers would be surprised at which restaurants fall short of good practice. I’d urge everybody to look at the official food hygiene rating, rather than chance it by choosing a place they think will be OK.”

Don’t take chances. If, like me, you love Christmas and want it to pass without any great mischief to your insides, download the app and have a very happy one. In fact, use Foursquare or Yelp and share the good vibes with everybody else!


Do you still love anyone enough to give them your last Rolo?

I was pleased to read this week that Nestlé UK has launched a new campaign for confectionery brand Rolo, inspired by the chocolate’s original line, “Do you love anyone enough to give them your last Rolo?”.

I considered it as another one of those touchstone moments for forty-somethings until I read that the campaign ran for 22 years, which covers a few more people with my chocolatey sense of nostalgia than I originally thought.

There are five new videos that, according to Nestlé, explore ‘the tension between whether to eat your last Rolo or to share it with a loved one’, an issue I’ve grappled with for longer than you may care to tolerate.

Here’s the first video, inspired by one of my favourite films from last year, Gravity.

The next one seems inspired by the Tom Hanks film Castaway …

This rather more romantic clip, a departure from the film-inspired adverts so far, is a nice touch. I like it because it speaks to ordinary people who incorporated a piece of marketing into their lives and made it their own.

The woman in the next advert clearly has her priorities in order (and he needs a decent meal).

This final ad (my favourite because, at heart, I’m like a Rolo in a warm pocket) tugs at our emotions and rounds up what I think is a good, mixed set of commercials to push Rolo back into the minds of ever increasing chocolate-loving nations.

Should we trust someone who doesn’t eat cake?

According to a new survey (this time, not about the prospect of independence for Scotland), the UK is at its happiest when it’s eating a slice of sponge cake at teatime.

The survey, commissioned by British Baker magazine, also reveals that nearly 80% of us treat ourselves at least three times a week. This is interesting news, as I’m a self-confessed cake fiend; I love it, especially moist, delicious carrot cake. And even though the survey is to mark National Cupcake Week (15-21 September 2014), I confess to only indulging in cupcakes now and again, as I haven’t had one yet that’s Earth-shatteringly exciting.

According to the poll, more than 40% of us are now baking our own cakes at home, which is no surprise thanks to the phenomenal success of the BBC series Great British Bake Off. I think a lot of it was confidence; we simply didn’t think we could muster enough sugary, buttery spirit to knock up a Victoria Sponge we could be proud of. Alas, we can, and mine has cream in it, unlike Mary Berry’s.

The nation also likes sponge, which apparently wins hands down over fruit cake (what, even at Christmas?).

So, what else did the survey reveal? Are we gluttons for chocolate? Do we lick half of the mixture off the spoon before we’ve even baked it? Do we feel guilty about eating cake?

Hundreds of people took a ‘cake happiness test’ devised by British Baker magazine, to gauge current cake tastes, preferences and to find out if cake lovers experience a sense of guilt. The answer was no.

  • 92% of us would describe ourselves as cake lovers.
  • More than 86% of us say cake makes us feel happy.
  • More than 38% of us say cake is a guilty pleasure, yet 36% disagree!
  • 39.33% of us eat cake 2-3 times a week.
  • 40% of us eat cake once a week.
  • 41% reckon they never buy cake (because nearly 50% us are baking at home 2-3 times a week).
  • 46% of us eat cake at teatime, which is the UK’s favourite cake time of the day.
  • 47.2% of us prefer sponge.
  • 26.95% are fruit cake lovers.
  • 53.90% say they prefer cupcakes.
  • Chocolate is the nation’s favourite cupcake flavour (25.71%), followed by lemon (20%), vanilla (19.29%), Red Velvet (11.43%) and carrot (10%).

The most telling survey statistic of all is this: Not a single respondent said that they never eat cake. I conclude that you should never trust someone who doesn’t eat cake. They’re not like the rest of us.

A trip down Memory Lane courtesy of Jacob’s in Aintree

I’m feeling nostalgic today, as I just read that United Biscuits is celebrating 100 years at its Jacob’s factory in Aintree, Merseyside.

I was a schoolboy when I visited this factory in the 1980s, and I remember walking around the factory floor with my classmates soaking up the noise of the machinery as it created all sorts of colourful snacks. It was as close to being in Willy Wonka’s factory we would ever get, and it felt amazing.

The site was the first Jacob’s factory in England, built as the Jacob’s brand expanded on its Irish roots, and remains the primary producer of Jacob’s products in the UK, including Cream Crackers and Twiglets.

Yes, it’s the home of the Cream Cracker, but it’s also integral to the development and expansion of many Jacob’s products, including the Biscuits For Cheese selections and Oddities.

However, I don’t remember seeing crackers. I remember marshmallow, which we were allowed to taste straight off the line. It hadn’t dried and toughened yet, so was smooth and easy to lick straight off the biscuit. What a day!

Flour Blending at Jacob's in 1926.
Flour Blending at Jacob’s in 1926.

What I didn’t know at the time was how long the site had been producing food, so to read that it opened in 1914 just blows my mind. It’s not just a product of my own childhood, it’s a product of many childhoods, and I can only imagine all of the happy, young faces that have passed through its gates over the years.

“Our Aintree factory has played a crucial role in the success of Jacob’s, and the broader business of United Biscuits,” said Kevin McGurk, group supply chain director at United Biscuits. “It is the home of Jacob’s, and with around half of all British households buying Jacob’s crackers, it has national as well as local significance.

“As a local manufacturer, we think it’s important to give something back to the community, which is why we play an active role with local primary and secondary schools and support the Aintree Fair Share scheme.”

It’s great that a new generation of schoolchildren is able to enjoy what I enjoyed when I was a nipper. I left with a small, yellow tin full of Club and United biscuits. I wonder what they leave with these days?

Will brand giants such as Starbucks capitalise on ‘independent’ thinking?

I was talking about customer demographic yesterday, and about how McDonald’s (in the UK, at least) has managed to capitalise on a broad cross-section of society more than any other outlet I could think of.

I used Starbucks as an example of a global company that doesn’t seem to have managed the same feat, and perhaps it’s all for the better.

When I go to the US, most of the Starbucks branches I come across are generally untidy places that could use some TLC, and they’re often set up ‘to go’ rather than to sit and relax and let the pressures of the day unfold around a short cappuccino.

In the UK, Starbucks feels different. The branches seem to be larger and take into account a number of factors, such as a section for getting in and out quickly, plus a large room (sometimes two or three rooms) with various seating options for comfort and laptop use.

You could argue that the Starbucks demographic, which I officially know very little about, is quite different when it comes to the UK and the US, yet the clientele can often seem similar: business types in sharp suits, students with friends, couples, middle class families, and trendy hipsters looking for a place to chill out or work. You don’t often see children, which you’re more likely to see at McDonald’s.

Espressamente illy is another kettle of fish, being designed with white surfaces, clean lines and shiny tables. You won’t find much in the way of wood panelling here, and design/art is very much the theme this company would like to convey while you sip on tremendous coffee (I’m biased – I love illy coffee when it’s well made). Who comes here, you may ask? I look around and I see older couples (20+) and small groups of friends, travellers with suitcases in tow. It’s well lit, proud of its art and its Italian heritage, but also welcoming to its sometime technology partner Samsung. (In New York last year, I visited a Samsung popup that had an illy coffee bar in the middle, and drinks were free. Likewise, in London a few months ago, the new Espressamente had a section that enabled customers to use Samsung tablets free of charge.)

Espressamente illy at Park Plaza Westminster Bridge in London.
Espressamente illy at Park Plaza Westminster Bridge in London.

Costa Coffee is going through subtle changes at the moment, seemingly in an attempt to break the mould that’s been unashamedly copied by many other coffee shops (chain or independent). You can walk down any major high street in the UK and see identikit coffee shops that reveal a lack of originality, yet this perhaps plays safely into the hands of a certain coffee-consuming demographic.

Some independent coffee shops are trying a few different things, such as Mokoko in Bath, which is small (no inside seating) and only two or three tables outside. It’s set up for ‘to go’ coffee, yet still serves its sit-down customers with proper cups and saucers, and the cake is delicious. The proposition is simple so far: cake, coffee and croissants; the decor is simple and clean, and the bar is dominated by the large coffee machine and the friendliness of the staff. I hope winter isn’t too hard on them.

Artist's render of Mokoko in Bath.
Artist’s render of Mokoko in Bath.

This is where ‘chains’ start, just like Pike Place in Seattle, where Starbucks first proffered coffee and became the business goliath it is today. Same for Costa; everyone starts small, don’t they? So, let’s take a look at Starbucks’ new stores in its Seattle birthplace, to see how the company is stretching its European design ethos across the US.

For example, just a mile away from its original Pike Place Market location is a new store in an old bank building near a college, other restaurants, pubs and boutiques. I’m a sucker for dark, broody design that contrasts textiles such as wood with steel, stone and brick. I find it warm and inviting, and would much rather spend time working in a place like this, or entertaining friends, or simply enjoying some solitude.

Seattle Broadway Pike Interior shot of the new Starbucks.
Seattle Broadway Pike Interior shot of the new Starbucks. Photo by Starbucks.

The University Village outdoor shopping mall near the University of Washington is the location for a new Starbucks Reserve. (Did you see my video of the Starbucks Reserve in Amsterdam, where the barista Evert demonstrated the Clover Brewing System?) The ethos here is to tell the ‘coffee story’: Angled mirrors behind the bar bring light into the space and allow customers to watch as baristas create their beverages. Rich displays of coffee artefacts invite discovery and hand-stitched printed maps connect customers to the farms around the world that grow Starbucks coffee.

Leschi Starbucks branch in Seattle, with bike theme.
Leschi Starbucks branch in Seattle, with bike theme. Photo by Starbucks.

In Leschi, five miles south of the last location, Starbucks’ Seattle heritage takes yet another design turn in celebrating the community’s tradition of cycling, with a wall of upcycled bicycle tubes. This is as individual and thoughtful a space as you can get from such a massive brand, and I like it. It demonstrates that corporate brands can be just as thoughtful as independents when it comes to embracing a community ‘look and feel’, and I think it’s this strategy that will help the giants of the high street stay competitive.

What designs are you seeing in your new coffee shops, cafes and fast food restaurants in your hometown? Let me know by leaving a comment below, wherever you happen to live.

Mining social media to understand what we think about food and drink

The horse meat scandal just won’t go away, which is probably a good thing. At the beginning of last year, it was headline news for good reason, but why are we still talking about it 18 months on?

The reason is simple: we need to ensure it doesn’t happen again. As I said in an earlier blog, the crime in this case was that a nation that does consider the eating of horse meat as taboo was deceived.

What disturbed me most wasn’t the fact that we may have been eating horse meat all along, but the fact that no one told me. I’d like to have a choice over what I eat, so being honest and open about ingredients is top of my list. However, it’s only my opinion. In order to discover what everyone else thought about the horse meat scandal, researchers at Cardiff University have been busy looking at social media engagement from when the news first broke.

By analysing social media data, the researchers will discover public perceptions of the horse meat scandal for the first time, tapping into a rich vein of media coverage that revealed widespread fraud and uncovered the complexity of the UK meat supply chain and the extent of meat imports.

The project will investigate how the growing complexity of international food supply chains is giving rise to a new generation of risks and concerns.

It’s a massive undertaking, but an important one that may change the way we use social media for marketing purposes in all sorts of sectors, whether we’re mining it for positive change or for being able to sell a product in two years’ time.

The University’s Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory (Cosmos, of course) has been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council grant under its Global Food Security Programme (a joint initiative with the Food Standards Agency). The project is in collaboration with NatCen, the University of Warwick and the University of Westminster.

“Cosmos provides a unique opportunity to study the story arc of crises in unprecedented detail,” said computer scientist Dr Pete Burnap. “We have collected data from public Twitter accounts since 2012 and our database of more than three billion tweets will allow us to trace the unfolding of the horse meat scandal, pinpointing moments of escalation, de-escalation and duration.

“We can also mine the data to discover variation in levels of public sentiment and tension around the topic, as well as identify demographic characteristics of those involved and the geographic spread of the scare.

“This study will enhance understanding of the potential of social media analysis to access public perceptions and how these evolve, and to establish how social media analysis can be used in risk governance and engagement with the public about risks more generally.”

I can’t help but imagine a future of such detailed research being undertaken by the food & drink Goliaths of our day. Scratch that; they’re probably already doing it – mining our tweets and posts about flavours, regional trends and packaging choices. It’s not a bad thing. If they have the money to do it, it cascades down to those who can’t afford to do the research, which leads to more innovation and competition.

As Dr Luke Sloan from the Cardiff School of Social Sciences says, “The research will generate new empirical findings on public perceptions of UK food supply chains; what people’s concerns are, what influences these and how they may be best managed in the future.”

If the NSA can mine our data, so can we.

(My thanks to Fil Dunsky for the brilliant illustration used in this article.)

Free Evian helps Tube travellers beat dehydration

I’m no doctor, but I have known of the health benefits of being well hydrated since I had an unwelcome case of heatstroke when I was young and invincible.

I am now Chief Annoying Hydration Officer to my nearest and dearest, advocating the drinking of water to solve the many ails of the day. Here in the UK, we’re having some unfamiliar hot weather, so I’ve been particularly busy in keeping everyone up to speed on downing enough water to stave off headaches, low energy, sickness etc.

The news that Danone Waters (UK & Ireland) is giving out free bottles of water to London commuters is really great, and I applaud Transport for London (TfL) for taking the initiative. Free bottles of Evian Natural Mineral Water will be given to customers travelling on the Tube, to the tune of 250,000 bottles.

It’s all part of TfL’s ongoing Beat the Heat and Travel Better London campaign, which aims to raise awareness of how passengers can help to reduce delays and improve the environment for themselves and fellow travellers by making small changes to their travel habits.

Danone Waters has agreed a three-year partnership with Transport for London that will see additional water distribution days across the London Underground network during the summer months until 2017. The partnership will help secure Evian’s presence across London, which is also supported by its annual Live Young January campaigns and sponsorship of The Championships at Wimbledon.

It’s so easy to forget to drink water when you’re having a busy day, so try to carry around a bottle or two of the free Evian or your very own container. Need reminding? Look at tourist kids – they always seem to have a bottle hanging from their backpacks. They could teach our UK kids a thing or two about staying hydrated.

I also wrote about hydration in June, when I shared the Vittel Refresh Cap with you. Has anyone seen this bottle yet?


Starting on 19 August, consumers in New York City can use the hashtag #evianBottleService to have free water delivered on-demand to select locations throughout the city.

Evian begins its ‘Bottle Service’ for three days around Bryant Park and will continue to keep the city hydrated near select parks around the city. Exact locations and times will be announced via the brand’s social media channels.