We all love applause a dammed lot more than we like criticism. But to paraphrase Kipling, if we can treat those two imposters just the same…

The thing is, while applause is great it’s often criticism which is more useful… as long as it’s focused on the problem. But I think I speak for just about everyone in a creative business when I say it’s the over-egged criticism that provokes acute frustration.

If just one person blogs or tweets that they really, really hated the experience in your restaurant, you instantly forget the twenty who loved it and stay awake all night worrying that the business is going to fail because of that bad review. I completely understand why actors take to drink.

And it’s not that we don’t want people to say what they think; it’s just that we want real, honest feedback focused on the point of our failure, rather than something confusing and beefed up by adding 20 other minor or non-existent offences for good measure.

I have obviously experienced this recently because why else would I be writing this.

Someone wrote this same criticism in several travel review sites: “Don’t be deceived by some of the reviews you may find about this place, my own experience at least was quite poor. I walked into this place with a friend just before 2pm mid week May and the whole place was shambolic. There was no help at the counter where just a few unappetising bits of food were left over. My mate had a soup and I ended up having a slice of cake as there was no savoury choice left, just a few sorry looking salad leaves. I had to shout at the surly baker to ask them what to do and was told to just grab what I wanted and to move on to one of the benches where one of the waitresses would have taken my drinks order. We sat down, among the abundant debris of other diners, finished our meagre repast and nobody materialised. The two waitresses were busier chatting away with some of the locals, but made no attempt at making eye contact so we walked out, paying close to £9 for one tomato soup and a slice of cake, consumed surrounded by dirty dishes. Frankly I don’t know how places can get away with such poor service. You are better off with a takeaway on a park bench, at least you know you are not being ripped off.”

However, what then tends to happen is that a happy customer comes to our aid with counter explanation of the experience, such as this one: “We visited this bakery in May; we almost walk past as it’s slightly set back from the road. It is a working bakery, at the back is were you can see all the bread, cakes & savouries being prepared & cooked, the seating is simple & basic with 2 very long communal tables with long benches either side. It is basically self service, for breakfast you find a space (if you can it gets very busy) get your tea or coffee from the table on the side wall, the coffee is fresh made, then go over to the other side where there a huge selection of freshly baked bread, grab a loaf & start slicing, drop you bread into the toaster & away you go, butter, jam & peanut butter are in huge bowls on the tables, Toast was £2.95 for as much as you can eat. As the morning moves on towards lunchtime all the lunch food starts to come out, a very good choice of pizza, flans & all manor of savoury things all £5.95 for a big portion. If you have your heart set on something in particular you need to be quick as its goes very quickly.”

The problem is that all the extra criticisms of the complainer get in the way of the things we can actually fix. For example when the complainer spoke of “sitting down, among the abundant debris of other diners” we recognised this as an issue and have now focused our energies on clearing away as soon as people leave the table, or before.

If you actually complain to us while you are in our restaurants we can do something to rectify the problem then and there. Hopefully you’d go away happy and be more likely to come back, and we wouldn’t stay up all night wishing you’d said something when you were there, instead of torturing us with a rambling online grump.

So next time you’re in one of our restaurants and you think all is not well, please please tell us. We can take it. And we can probably fix it too.

I know I was zigging while everyone else was zagging, but when I started this business in the summer of 2005 I had a vision that we would have a string of baker-owned bakeries.

The idea was that each baker would be given shares in the business at whatever outlet they ran, but we would provide the premises, equipment, infrastructure, branding and marketing.

We called it our simple, repeatable formula.

However, because at the time I didn’t have any fuck-it-we’re-doing-it-my-way-money my vision got sidetracked by others who were driven by cash, ego or conventional wisdom.

This meant that we ended up following conventional wisdom, which was to use industrial units with cheap rents in which to bake bread, and have a fleet of vans and army of drivers distributing to kiosks, cafés and stores in the high street.

While that is a rational way of doing things, it has no sex appeal to the consumer, and it ended up not working for us.

Over the past five years I’ve realised that following conventional wisdom has failed us, but now we have a big opportunity to rethink our business. I like to think of it in the context of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. 

What my instinct was telling me back in 2005 was that customers who don’t have to make their purchasing decisions based solely on price want sex with their purchase. Not literally, of course, but you get the idea.

What this means is that they go to Tesco to get commodities like toilet rolls, but buy their chicken with added heart and soul from places like River Cottage.

My generation – the baby boomers – have been creating brands since birth; just think of the NHS, Mary Quant, Thomson Holidays, Habitat, Mothercare, Halifax Building Society, The Pru and, more recently, Saga Holidays.

However, as this generation gets older its needs change, and brands grow and shrink accordingly. A prime example is Glastonbury. 40 years ago the festival-goers pissed in fields but now they want luxury toilets with soft paper and a hand basin. This desire to change the status quo is in their and, now, their children’s genes.

This generation and their children are our customers and, after all, they make up 50% of the population and they are not poor.

When we brought bread-making back to Lyme from our unit in Topsham sales went up, and this was because people appreciated that we were baking onsite and rewarded us with their custom. Quality also went up, because the freshness improved too.

But now I want to take this even further, or rather I want to take a step backwards to the original, pre-war baking schedule of the baker. Our bakers will start at 4.00am with bread made first, morning goods next, then a lunch offer and finally pastries for tea. Then they’ll head home around 2.00pm leaving the sponges on for the next day, while the apprentice does pizzas in the evening because he’s young and needs the tips.

So now it’s time to think about spreading our business model even further afield.

What I want to continue working towards is the pre-war idea of a tradesman/shopkeeper making his living from his own output, craft, imagination and personality. In that pre-war world, delivery was expensive and slow, and distance-to-market was limited by car technology and a relatively under-developed road network – I’m talking horse and cart or a tiny engine in a tiny van, although this idea may turn out to be even more relevant today than it was five years ago, given our current economic climate with rising fuel costs and cuts in bus routes and so on.

So how do we do it?

We start by training bakers. Plenty of people are shelling out ridiculous sums of money to attend training courses at artisan bakery schools so we know there are people out there wanting to learn the craft of bakery.

We’ll start with one apprentice on a graded pay scale over the course of their training. Once they are fully trained we’ll send them off to run one of our bakeries, and to give them an incentive to work hard we’ll give them shares – 20% – that will pay them a dividend of the monthly profits of that outlet on top of a £7,543 salary.

They’ll only have to produce 200-300 loaves of five different types of bread, which will more than meet customer demand, and because everything will be made on site it will save us time and guarantee the freshness of the product every day.

Since we’re no longer doing wholesale, this will increase the individual profitability of each of the bakeries in our estate and enable each one to become a brand in its own right, with its own personality.

And that’s it. Simple and effective, giving the customer just the right amount of quirky, relaxed, 21st century, sustainable glamour with their pain de campagne, cup of coffee or lemon slice.

After all, we’re not just in the food business; we’re in the entertainment business. Our customers want more than simply sustenance – it’s the entertaining parts of life that people remember and want to keep returning to. That’s what builds a brand: an addiction to fun.

As some of you may have noticed, I recently had a bit of a rant on our Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Town-Mill-Bakery/213293970927) about the August visitors (for some reason it only seems to happen in August) who think that it’s a lifestyle choice to just waste food or, in this particular case, left piles of uneaten crusts and bits of bread on their plates.

I have to apologise for the ‘rantiness’ of what I said because I could have put it better and maybe started a debate rather than encouraging people to rant back, but I’m not apologising for the sentiment expressed.
What I wanted to do was simply address the issue of waste when it comes to food. Here’s another good example…
Natalie, our chef, cook and mother to three children came in early this Saturday to make jam with hundreds of punnets of English strawberries that she’d bought the night before from her local Co-op superstore. They had one day left on their ‘sell by date’ and were reduced to 25p a punnet, so Natalie spent £150 on them and would have bought four times as many were it not for the fact that she had reached the limit on her credit card.
It’s highly likely that the rest of the strawberries she didn’t buy ended up in the supermarket’s skip, probably because of a sales promotion gone wrong and stock calculations mismanaged.
What a waste.
I know it’s a cliché, but this is where the butterfly wing effect happens. Work backwards from those hundreds of punnets of wasted strawberries, add the hundreds of others stores involved in the promotion and think about the energy used to heat the poly-tunnel, make the packaging, transport them from grower to market or to the distribution centre, then on to ALL the stores, and chill them on display. The transport cost, wages and time of all the people involved in the growing and the handling has simply been wasted.
Maybe it can’t be helped, but surely parts of it at least can be avoided?
Something that can be helped is not wasting the jam that Natalie makes for our breakfasts by smothering it on bits of bread or slices of toast that then don’t get eaten.
The modus operandi in our place is trust. When it comes to bread, we have a sign by the toaster that encourages people to have “as much as you like”. We rewrite it each day because it gets smudged, so the wording changes from time to time, but it has never said “all you can eat” because the former is an invitation, while the latter a challenge.
We also have another sign which explains how eating at Town Mill Bakery works. It tells you to:
Find somewhere to sit
Grab a wooden board [your plate]
Take what you want to eat
Order your hot drinks at the coffee machine
Remember what you’ve had
And pay when you’re leaving.
Again, a system based on mutual trust. We’re human beings and we like to treat our customers as human beings too. Our business is not a faceless corporate entity and we don’t view our customers as either cash cows or sacred ones.
We are also vigorous supporters of our local economy. We make just about everything in house that you’ll eat in all our restaurants – apart from the sugar, salt, milk, cheese and butter, pretty much – using local ingredients as much as possible. So, for example, we make jam rather than marmalade because oranges are not grown in England, let alone locally. Having said that, we do make peanut butter, but the importer – like our suppliers of seeds, nuts, olive oil, coffee and tea – is very local.
We also directly employ over 60 people and, indirectly, getting on for a thousand.
So my point is this: comments left in response to my rant about waste on Facebook, and others on mums.net, included a fair few in the early stages that said “He has a point”. However, they were soon drowned out by the ones saying “Get over it because we live in a Western capitalist, highly disposable country.”
It’s almost like people have resigned themselves to that as fact, and that it somehow allows them to be wasteful simply because they have paid for something.
We also live in a Christian country but it doesn’t mean you have to believe in a God.
We’re not saying we’re whiter than white, but there are people starving all over the world because they don’t have access to plentiful food supplies – like in Pakistan right now – or because they can’t afford enough food, like many families even in this country.
I just think that’s something we should bear in mind next time we’re leaving half of that second or third or fourth piece of bread loaded with jam that we didn’t really want in the first place but thought we’d have a go at just because it’s there and we felt entitled to take more than enough.

How stupid do some magazine publishers think consumers are?

Once every three months or so I get a call from someone in the sales team at a local free magazine.

“Mr Cobb,” they say, “We have an amazing, one-off promotion that we know your business won’t want to miss out on.”

The premise of what they are droning on about is this: they send someone over to write a review of my restaurant, but in return we are expected to buy an advert in the same issue of the magazine.

My problem is this – because I’m placing an ad, they guarantee that they won’t write anything bad about my restaurant.

On the surface you might think this is a great idea, but it’s actually a really BAD idea. It means we lose our integrity, and it makes the readers of the magazine out to be stupid.

Do these publishers really think that if their readers see a glowing review of a local business with an advert alongside it, they are going to fall for it? Well they’re not. Everybody knows this trick and no one falls for it any more.

These so-called sales executives should be locked up for wasting everyone’s time, energy and resources. People want to read honest reviews. The reason A.A. Gill’s restaurant reviews in The Times are so popular is because of the gulf between the places he loves and the places he hates.

You can’t engineer success through lies. I’d rather we had an honest, bad review than a made-up, flattering, paid-for one.

So I do the most constructive thing with the 400 or so copies of this magazine that we get delivered to our restaurant every month. I put them straight in the recycling box the moment they arrive.

I’m saying no to this kind of economically driven propaganda, just like I’ll be saying no to that sales rep, if they ever ring again.

We now are beginning to use recipe books as inspiration rather than as a manual showing us how to cook.

In the 19th century, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, for example, was the one book many households had. When we got to the 1950s it was the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book: The Cook’s Classic Companion.

Now we buy book after book and maybe, only maybe, do we convert one of their recipes from page to table.

It’s a bit like porn. You don’t act out everything you’ve seen in a porn film – and you don’t marry a porn star – but you might take some inspiration from it.

When I was growing up my mum only told me one thing about sex: don’t go into fields with girls. And that was when I was 12.

Luckily for me, at the same time I was going to confirmation classes at church on a Sunday afternoon, and the back of the classroom, chatting with my mates – particularly those who’d gone to Grammar School and were doing biology – was where I really learned about sex. The ins and outs of it, as it were. It was the only thing that kept me going to those classes and got me confirmed.

And if it wasn’t for porn I’d never have heard of blowjobs or anal sex. They didn’t teach that at school – not at my comprehensive anyway.

The same goes for food. The more images we see, the more we can explore. Our imagination allows us to fill the gaps of what we don’t know. Cookery books are a good thing because even if we don’t read them from cover to cover and follow every recipe to the letter, they get us worked up about food.

Take Heston Blumenthal’s books. Even if you’ve got one you’re probably more likely to eat at his Fat Duck restaurant than you are to ever cook something from one of his books.

But that’s not really the point of cookery books. It’s the power of the image that draws us in and excites our senses and imagination.

Long live pornography!

Customer care to us is about doing our best not to kill or harm our customers with food that we know uses ingredients that will do damage to humans, our community or the environment.

You may think that our lofty position on the moral high ground must be constantly giving us nosebleeds, but it’s not really about that.

There’s more to choosing what to serve in your restaurant than simply shoving a load of easy choices into the path of your customers as if on a global brand name conveyor belt.

One of our restaurants – the original – is in Lyme Regis, where many of the town’s cafés and delis have signs proclaiming the use of local produce and homemade products. But there’s nothing local or homemade about Coca Cola, nice as it is. Most places which sell stuff like Coca Cola because they claim it’s what their customers want are just being lazy. What the customer really wants is simply a refreshing cold drink.

The only cold drink we sell is apple juice (the water is free), which comes from North Perrott Fruit Farm near Crewkerne, which has been producing fruit since the sixth century. It’s a blend of Cox and Bramley apple juice, pasteurised but with nothing else added, so all you taste is the fresh, thirst-quenching hit of apple. We chose apple juice because, as our business expands, given that apples grow just about everywhere in the UK we can always be sure of a supply.

In four years of running this business I’ve only once been asked “is there anything other than apple juice?” and when I said no, they said “well then apple juice it is”.

Giving the customer what they want is laziness at best and edging, in my opinion, on criminal at worst. I don’t know how newsagents live with themselves, selling tobacco products.

Customers put their trust in us, but cynicism is a growing trend amongst those who care what goes into their stomach. Hugh’s ‘Chicken Out’ and Jamie’s ‘School Dinners’ campaigns have highlighted how easy it is for suppliers to be seduced into following the money at the expense of the health of their customers, communities and the environment. And they always blame the choices they make on the customer.

We like to think we care a bit more than that about our customers. We don’t want to help them kill themselves with bad food. That would be bad for them, and bad for business.

This little boy’s Saturday morning was all about peeling a boiled egg. He sat on one of our benches, concentrating and peeling away while his grandfather sat opposite him, just watching, and the rest of his family were off making toast.

He didn’t need any help, and it didn’t matter to us if he made a mess because we are not in the food business, we’re in the having fun business. We want all the family to have a good time for as much of the day as possible, and that starts in the morning.

At breakfast we don’t do serving – we let people do their own thing the way they want to do it. In fact, we don’t do much of the conventional corporate customer care thing at all. We prefer watching and listening to people trying to work out the process of getting fed. Let the children make their own toast and get involved – it brings the hunter-gather out in everyone.

And this is another reason why we don’t do highchairs. If your child is too tiny to sit up on their own, we think they should sit on your lap. Even if they’re not too small they can still sit on your lap. Highchairs are like digging a moat around a child; they keep them safe but they’re not interacting.

We want to see a lot more cuddling, and a lot more boiled egg peeling.