The trouble with Harris & Hoole

There’s a new chain of coffee shops in town, which I’d normally regard as a major event: I like coffee but limit myself to one cup a day, so it’s got to be a good one.

I recently tried Harris & Hoole‘s London Bridge outpost and it’s exactly what a hip independent coffee shop should be: chalkboard menus, boho chic decor, unbrushed wood and sunny smiles. Even the server was an ideal representation of a Seattle/San Francisco hipster chick, all short hair, snakehips and big geek-glasses. (I thought she was hot, although to complete the vibe she was presumably gay, or at least bi-curious.) Perfect.

And then you taste the coffee.

Oh, dear.

It’s so bad you can taste the Tesco in it.

Yes, Harris & Hoole isn’t independent. It’s a venture by the supermarket giant, and it shows everything that’s gone wrong with Tesco in the last 3-5 years. There’s nothing wrong with a coffee shop owned by a supermarket; I shop at Tesco all the time. But I used to be a fanatical Tesco fan, and now I only go there because it’s nearby. It fell so far, so fast, so obviously that the brand just hollowed itself out.

I stopped loving Tesco about three years ago, when its boardroom cost-cutting showed up too much in the food. Today I buy the basics there, wine, maybe the odd bit of deli, but most of my £70+ weekly spend now goes to Waitrose. (Which I need to get in the car for.) Harris & Hoole illustrates why.

If you launch a coffee shop, it should really be about the coffee. That should be the single thing you concentrate on first, the one thing you don’t subject to salami-slicing on costs; there are lots of coffee shops out there, so the bean’s got to be special. Yet it’s the most characterless, bargain-basement discount filter drip I’ve ever tasted. And – sharing this with Starbuck’s – it wasn’t bloody hot. I know the marketing rationale: keep it cool and they’ll gulp it and get out, faster table-turn. Well, they succeeded: I gulped and got out. Trouble is I won’t be going back.

Oh, Tesco, you came so close. If only you’d put the resources that went into studying the Seattle scene… into the one thing that mattered.

Battling the zombie apocalypse in…. Reading

The Zombie Shopping Mall Experience! A derelict shopping centre in Reading, filled with actors playing the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse… the infection is taking hold, and this mall is one of the few places that may contain the cure. Armed with Airsoft pump-guns, played mostly without light, and with missions that include actual CCTV feeds in a control room and tinny Tannoy music conjuring up visions of B-movies, it all feels very real: a first-person shooter in real life

It starts the moment you step inside a back entrance to the mall. Filling in half-humorous medical declarations, the lights die and the banging starts outside… then it’s haul ass to the safe zone to be equipped with vests and weapons. The initial missions are led by the “cops”: leading you through the parts of a shopping centre you don’t normally see, back corridors and storage areas that connect the retail stores. These areas are the most fascinating (well, second most) part of the experience: the warren of tiny rooms, eerily empty now, all dark and most with conveniently hazardous tables and shelves to hide behind… or be ambushed from. (One of my three “deaths” took place in a derelict toilet.)

Zed Events: The Mall 10th & 11th August &emdash; There’s a fair bit of running: the organisers try to create a sense of chaos. Like Romero’s 70s zombie flicks, the terror of the experience is in its crushing normality: a child’s ball pit, a helter-skelter, the detritus of a thousand Saturdays. With a twist: several areas are outfitted as makeshift medicentres and refuges, and there’s a variety of human body parts scattered around for emphasis.

The later missions are the blind leading the blind: no cops, no guides, just two big teams of 8-10 players retrieving objects from various locations around the mall. Of course, it doesn’t take long (with team members checking into rooms and peering down corridors) for the teams to be split. And when you end up alone (which is often) in the lower levels inanimate objects like a greeter’s station take on genuine menace. What’s beyond? Your flashlight doesn’t reveal much, except your location to the denizens of darkness.

Then, of course, there’s the zombies themselves.

They’re a mixed bunch, as they’d be in real life: biting is a great societal equaliser. There’s a doctor, a riot cop, some students, a businessman, a few women (whom I felt really bad shooting.) Several are clad in body armour and take 30+ pings to take down; the only way is to work in groups, setting up impromptu execution squads to pepper the kevlar-wrapped undead from several directions.

My first death happened in the light: two attackers boxing me into a corner, without the fire rate to hold them off. (I made it theatrical; the zombies are game.) It’s a large building and there are plenty of times you just don’t see any friendly faces for long minutes; the dread of being in a dim corridor and hearing zombie growls coming from nearby doorways produces genuine cold sweat. My second death happened here: a single zombie advancing towards me, me fresh out of ammo, and nobody around to hear my final gurgle.

It’s a great experience: you work up a sweat, have fun doing it, and get a surge of fear/thrill/panic that lasts halfway into the afternoon. But more than that, it’s set me thinking about the philosophy of zombies, why we find these unthinking creatures so much scarier than (say) a random killer in a hockey mask. It’s the way they’re not humans, but used to be. That even the worst of them retain some vestige of humanity; that even the best of them just become mindless killers post-bite.

I have a standing joke that I’ll only live in a zombie-proof house; no windows on the ground floor, lots of locks, preferably a gate and escape route. (The reason is that a zombie-proof house is proof against more everyday risks, too, like burglary or breach; it’s a simple strategy that pays big dividends.) In the end, that’s why zombies are scarier than vampires or werewolves: they’re human but inhuman, combining a savagery that’s all animal with a passion for blood that’s never sated. And that’s why things like The Zombie Shopping Mall Experience matter. It’s not all games, you know.

And perhaps the funniest moment: when one of my trainers made a squeak on the floorpaint. Bear in mind she’s an actor surrounded by mutant zombies … the heavily-armed police deputy gasped with a, “f*&k me, was that a rat?”

Oh, Tesco: where did it all go wrong?

After yet another fruitless lunchtime sandwich-search in perhaps the most depressing supermarket I’ve ever been in, I asked the office “Does anyone else think Tesco is going downhill?”

Cue more nodding faces than a dubstep concert. (Or wherever the kids are going this year. I dunno, yesterday a 22 year-old said my “sex was on fire” and I didn’t get the ref.)

Tesco used to be my favourite supermarket, but it’s out in the open now: something’s gone badly wrong at the Big T, and I’m not sure it’s recoverable.

My fallen hero, there’s a simple problem: your food is crap.

Which hurts, because I know how difficult it is to do retail and Tesco is awesome at it. If I accidentally enter an Asda or Lidl, with their hunched masses of shuffling slackjaws – or worse, that TV woman slapping her bottom – I jerk backwards and grab the nearest blunt and heavy instrument*, thinking the zombie apocalypse has begun. Tesco has always felt like my supermarket, the place I’m happiest to invite into my kitchen.

(Waitrose is great, too, but the feeling I need to break out my tux and give my shoes a polish before entering is always a drawback. I mean, have you been to the Canary Wharf one on a Sunday morning? It’s more a dating club than a supermarket. They’ve got a wine bar and oyster restaurant right there among the aisles!)

Plus: Tesco does great credit cards. And of course it has ClubCard, probably the most worthwhile pointsback programme anywhere: some quarters I get thirty or forty quid in no-hassle vouchers in the post. (As a copywriter I’ve even written a few of their brochures, and enjoyed the experience.)

I think the chain started ossifying around the time it launched that ad campaign featuring talking trolleys. (You see two shopping trolleys in a park and what do you think? Blighted environment, that’s what.) But I think the real rot got a grip some years later, around 2009.

The shelves are well-stocked. The prices remain competitive.

But every dinner that began its relationship with you in Tesco is, today, a huge disappointment, isn’t it.

(Note the lack of question mark ending that last sentence.)

Tesco, oh Tesco. Did you really think we wouldn’t notice?

At the moment I’m working in cities a hundred and fifty km apart, and the limitations of a weekday rental make me more dependent than usual on stuff that’s top-oven-friendly. But the misses these days aren’t just outnumbering the hits; they are totally eclipsing them. Here are a few examples – and they weren’t hard to find.

Case Study #1: The not-so-Finest Pizzas. Has anyone in the Tesco boardroom actually eaten one of these things? If you drench one in olive oil and fresh herbs before cooking, it’ll be, at a stretch, just about edible… IF you also obliterate your palate with Dave’s Insane Sauce or something first. I mean, they cost up to £7 and they’re as blandly unsatisfying as Moshi Rox to a death metal fanatic. Appalling, especially when next to them on the shelf is Pizza Express at 2 for a fiver.

Case Study #2: A bunch of tasteless jerks. What on earth are those “Jerk [insert meat]” cartons that appeared around Q3? A box of lonely bones with a grain or two or rice spooned in? Trust me, the Carribbean contains few people who would recognise that ill-hidden strip of flesh under the jerk as chicken – and nobody at all who’d identify another dish as goat. What a shame; goat’s such an underrated meat and you’re turning off consumers at their first go. It’s an insult to goats (as well as to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a proper Jerk sauce.) I suppose I could make gelatine, but…

Case Study #3: The “Yes, We Mystery Shop in Marks and Spencer” Finest Meal for £10. The idea’s sound: main course, side dish, dessert and wine for a tenner. (I will make an allowance for the common supermarket lie “Serves 2”; everyone tells that whopper.) But my meatballs were like leftovers from a leather tannery. My potatoes had the generic consistency of yellowed lard. I don’t know what Gu thought it was doing, throwing that gritty white cake-like substance into the ring (I forget its name, but it doesn’t deserve to share space with their great chocolate puds.) And the wine? Come on folks, you wouldn’t sell that for £7 in real life.

Case Study #4: The Appalling Mr Hom. Tesco, this “Ken Hom” guy is widely known as a guy who can’t cook for toffee (including cooking toffee) – in America, a nation where half the population eats a minivan wrapped in carpet for breakfast. What’s your fascination with him? You’re not shy about pulling outside suppliers up by their bootstraps. Yet there, in the “Ethnic Food That Doesn’t Come In Jars And Isn’t Polish” section (okay, you call it “Chinese”) you give prime shelf space to a range of fried rice, spring rolls etc that are just appalling. Have. You. Ever. Actually. Tried. One? If your local Tesco isn’t open, go round the back and chew on a cardboard box retrieved from a dumpster to get an idea.

Case Study #5: I won’t rip you a new one over the takeaway sushi; supermarket onigiri are just too easy a target. But: if Lidl did sushi…

Case Study #6: A troubled relationship with alcohol. Now, most supermarkets are bad at wine (Waitrose excepted) but you’ve got noticeably worse since 2010. The white wine aisle is an endless acreage of Chardonnay, Chardonnay, and more bloody Chardonnay. If you’re really lucky, on the end of the aisle will be a chenin blanc, which is of course [Chardonnay]. There are other grapes, you know. I won’t go into here how alike the wines are – there’s barely one under £20 with any personality – because that’s just the market; most people like what they know. But c’mon, a little smoke or spiciness wouldn’t go amiss.

With great regret, it’s time to short Tesco. Could my future be that supermarket you never really notice… Sainsbury’s?

* Unless it’s the bottom. I mean, you can get arrested for that sort of thing.

Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa

I’m a big fan of restaurants, and last night chalked up the new venture by Jamie Oliver and Adam Perry Lang: “Barbecoa.” (Thank you very much, C&B.) And I’ve decided that it’s possible for a restaurant to serve flawless food while completely missing the point.

Now, celebrity chefs are a bugbear with me. By the time they’re celebrities, they’re not spending much time where they belong – in the kitchen. Most celebrity restaurants simply trade on a well-known face, no classier than an X Factor second album. But that isn’t the problem at Barbecoa: the food’s terrific. It’s just not…. quite… what it should be.

Its theme is barbecue. The relationship between fire and food. This relationship – going back, perhaps, to the exact moment an apelike creature scratching at the African savannah became Man – is deeply visceral, plasma meeting protein in a scorching, crackling celebration of sustenance. It’s about fun and theatre and the best things in life. If you doubt this, think of the happiest people on earth, and the people who do the best barbecues. You’ll have two identical lists.

So a barbecue restaurant should be a stage set. There should be visible fire, smoky aromas floating around,skilled chefs effortlessly turning moist cuts on spit, griddle and skillet. The food should be rough-cut and assymetrical, harking back to the days when the coolest tech in town was a struck flint and dinnertable conversation consisted of ughs. (Let’s face it, the second half of that remains basically true today.)

Most of all, the food should look like barbecue. Great platters of baby back ribs, massive hickory smoked cuts from the whole cow,vast piles of pork chops slathered in spiciness, whole crabs with blackened shells and giant prawns skewered with burnt-edged slices of belpepper and onion. Most of all, Jamie: where are the sauces?

Any Texan mooseying into this place would soon be muttering things like “Lah-di-dah” under his stetson. Actually they’d never make it past the door in the first place – Jamie’s business partner Adam Perry Lang is “One of New York’s top barbecue chefs”. (New York?)

Barbecoa is a great restaurant. Serving great food. But as for the claim to barbecue? Nah. It’s all a bit .. polite.