Rod Liddle

There’s a reason restaurants everywhere are failing: Red Hen Syndrome

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

Anxious to find out what food they served at the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, I clicked on the relevant site and was transported immediately to a discount motorcycle website entirely in Korean, or Japanese, or maybe Chinese. I don’t know — I can’t tell the difference between those respective hieroglyphics. Maybe that was the point: the restaurant was weeding out people like me who have never bothered to distinguish between different oriental alphabets and are therefore racist and banned from the Red Hen, probably for life. More likely, though, is that the site has been hacked by clever and jubilant Trump supporters.

The Red Hen is where the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, took her family for a bite to eat, and from which she was evicted when the homosexual staff recognised who she was. Her rude defenestration was supported by the restaurant’s owner, citing Donald Trump’s reluctance to allow transgender people to serve in the US military. It is, clearly, a liberals-only restaurant. They should write that on the front door, so that everything is clear, but as a sop maybe have a water fountain out front labelled ‘for conservatives’.

This whole incident has energised social media. Liberals were supportive of the restaurant and suggested that people associated with Trump shouldn’t be allowed to eat anywhere, ever. One black chap on Twitter, possessed of the great warmth and even-handedness which is typical of Social Justice Warriors, said Sanders was a ‘vile, heartless, depraved, lying, amoral waste of oxygen. You and your family are pariahs.’

But support for the horrible Red Hen was outweighed by about five to one by enraged conservatives, one of whom advised immigrants that the restaurant was offering free meals to illegal aliens and all they had to do was ring the number, which they quoted in full. My favourite, though, came from a local bloke who said that people in the area were disgusted with the Red Hen and that the owner was ‘a New York transplant’ and related to Meryl Streep. Enough said!

The best possible outcome is that the owner of the Red Hen loses her business and the gay people working for her are forced to find employment in the US military — perhaps in Iraq or Afghanistan, where they will receive a fairly sharp lesson in comparative homophobias.

But in truth, the Red Hen was simply displaying an extremely familiar conceit which you may recognise if you have eaten at a restaurant recently: overwhelming arrogance. I don’t know of any London restaurants which refuse to serve people because they hold political opinions which differ from their own, but it is the kind of thing they might do, so puffed up with their own importance have they become.

The restaurant industry in the UK is in crisis, apparently. More and more are going out of business. Increasingly, people are not eating out, or not eating out in the numbers that can sustain a healthy turnover. For the country in general, this is good news, of course, but we’ll come back to that.

The Food Programme on Radio 4 held a debate on this crisis last week. The show suggested a few reasons why so many restaurants were going under: a huge hike in business rates, Brexit (this was the BBC, remember) and social media. Social media how, exactly? The presenter Grace Dent explained that Trip-Advisor and other similar websites might be putting diners off because of hostile reviews.

And it was here that, inadvertently, the panellists from within the industry revealed what is probably a major contribution to their forthcoming bankruptcies. Red Hen Syndrome. The first two respondents — a glorified cook and a front-of-house monkey, i.e., a receptionist — were both in agreement that TripAdvisor should be completely ignored. Take no notice whatsoever. Do not engage with it. The second chap to speak went so far as to say that bad reviews were good because it meant ‘that kind of person’ wouldn’t be visiting the restaurant again.

They were not challenged on this. Such breathtaking, monumental arrogance! Trip-Advisor is the public responding to your food and service, you fools: ignore it and you will be out of business, I would suggest. It is an invaluable resource for the diner, too, despite the snootiness shown towards it by that new thing we have these days, food critics, who also think they know it all. Skim through 30 or 40 TripAdvisor reviews and you’ll get that restaurant’s measure far more accurately than by reading the tortuous peregrinations of some hack who has sampled perhaps two of the main dishes but clearly thinks he’s bleedin’ Escoffier.

Cooking is not terribly difficult. Nor is it an art. It is at best what Orwell referred to as a ‘half art’, like photography. We have undoubtedly benefited from the increased prestige conferred upon people who can put stuff in a frying pan and stir it quite adeptly, these past 40 years. But latterly it has also bred within the restaurateurs a distance from and even a contempt towards the people they are serving. So that they are now agreed that the feedback they receive from their customers is utterly worthless: they know what they are doing and nobody can tell them otherwise.

And because cooking is dead easy, lots of people think — probably rightly — that they can do it and have set up restaurants themselves. That’s the other reason so many are going bust — again, a point not made on the Food Programme. It is an utterly saturated market. There are 20,000 more restaurants in the UK today than there were just ten years ago, a rise of 30 per cent in a decade. That is one reason why all the useful shops have gone: they’ve been converted into a place selling Bengali tapas or Belarusian sushi. And it may be that we’ve had all we can take, especially when these outlets are suffused with such self-importance. The Red Hen Syndrome stretches wider than Sarah Huckabee Sanders could imagine.

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