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.

baked beans on Town Mill toast

Last night I made steak and mushroom pie for the two of us. It took me four hours, from making the pastry until it actually made it to the table. Four bloody hours!

There are tons of other things I could have been doing, and a whole list-full of stuff I probably should have been doing, but I decided to make a pie. And then, when we finally sat down to eat it, with some steamed veg, homemade oven chips  and a bottle of wine, I realised that this was more than just a pie. I’d put a lot of love into this pie and it wasn’t something to be wolfed down in two minutes flat just so we could get back to watching the Antiques Roadshow. This was more than  just a meal. It was Sunday night after all – a time to gird one’s loins for the week ahead. A time to take time, enjoy the four-hour pie, and really taste it. This was food as much more than just fuel; it was a pie that commanded our respect.

So we sat there, respecting the pie but eating it at the same time, and the more I thought about it the more I realised how little we respect ourselves when we eat pop-it-in-and-ping ready meals and, quite possibly, how little we respect whomever pings it for us, the places which sell it and even the people who work there.

Convenience foods, like convenience stores, I would argue, are breeding convenient emotions. If the meal you are eating took 5 minutes from fridge to table via the microwave, just how much love did that take? And not much respect either, I would guess. If you are eating trash, or feeding others with meals with very little nutritional value, what does that say about how much you care?

And don’t start giving me a hard time about people needing to save time, or feed huge families, or count every penny. I’m not suggesting you need to harvest and serve your own caviar at every meal in order to show how much you care for your family or respect your food. It could simply be beans on toast that you are dishing up, but if you make your own you get to stir in a bit of love at the same time. This is what ‘taste the difference’ is really about.

Now it’s your turn to have a go. Here’s our recipe for Town Mill Bakery baked beans:

What goes in: 1 head of celery, 3 Spanish or medium onions, 6 cloves of garlic, 2 x 2.5kg tins of tomatoes, 4 tbsps of molasses, 2 tbsps Worcester sauce, a pinch of salt and pepper, 500g brown sugar, 1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda, and 1.5kg of dried haricot beans.

Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water with the bicarb. Then boil until soft, for between 1-2 hours. Finely chop the celery, onion and garlic and sweat them in a covered pan. When soft, cover with water and bring to the boil, then liquidise. Add the tomatoes and liquidise again. Add the seasonings and cooked beans. And you’re done.

This makes Town Mill quantities of baked beans, so adjust the amount of ingredients to make less, or just make this whole big batch, freeze portions and then reheat when needed.