Annie Stirk sees herself as North Yorkshire’s answer to Gordon Ramsay, without the swearing. MAXINE GORDON finds out how she is shaking up local restaurants.
CHEFS, waiters and bar staff beware – a team of mystery diners may be watching your every move. Are your menus clear and clean? How about your fingernails and shoes? Is the welcome warm and the steak cooked just as requested?
These are some of the points Annie Stirk and her staff are looking out for when they conduct their culinary snooping missions.
If it all sounds a bit sinister, that is not the intention.
“Gordon Ramsay spends a fortune on mystery diners at his establishments,” says food expert Annie, from Stillington. “In terms of what we do, local businesses don’t have to splash the cash as he would.”
Indeed, recruiting a mystery diner can be a quick and affordable way for a restaurant, bar or pub to get a warts and all overview of their business.
“I started this up last year as a way for businesses to get an affordable, intensive, independent and ruthless look at what they are doing. The idea is that the boss hires us to go in anonymously to make a thorough assessment.”
So what’s on Annie’s checklist?
“We note everything from the initial phone call to the welcome. We look at the outside: are last year’s hanging baskets still there looking rather dishevelled? You’d be surprised how often they are.
“We look at the general level of housekeeping, and things like whether there are any spelling mistakes on the menu. We had one where they had ‘lamb lag’ on the menu. It shows things aren’t being looked at properly and checked over and it gives a very bad impression.”
Annie says they are “very hot on cleanliness”, noting dirty fingernails, mucky shoes, stained tea cloths and whether hair is tied back. “If things are slipshod out front, that’s not always a great sign,” says Annie.
Not surprisingly, just as much attention is paid to what comes out of the kitchen. “The food is the key,” says Annie.
“We’ve had quite a few instances of food not being cooked to your liking, particularly things like lamb or venison, where they were cooked so rare in a couple of cases they were still bleating, then sent back and still came out not to your liking.”
Then there are the microwave mishaps, adds Annie, where the food comes out either like molten lava or hot at the edge but cold in the middle.
Steak and risotto are the perfect dishes for her spies to order. “They show what the kitchen in made of,” says Annie, who recounts an encounter with a disappointing steak.
“It was so terrible I had to leave virtually all of it. I told the waitress it wasn’t any good and that she should tell the chef. She came back and said the chef said it was all right and that he’d never had any complaints before. That was such a crass handling; the worst possible way for a member of staff to handle a complaint.”
Annie, 59, is well placed to be dishing the dirt on restaurants. She has spent a career working with food, firstly as a home economics teacher, then as a TV chef on Gloria Hunniford’s Open House before moving behind the scenes on This Morning, where she worked alongside Brian Turner, Gary Rhodes, James Martin and Delia Smith.
Annie is also a restaurant judge for prestigious food awards in Yorkshire and has her own publicity firm, Absolutely PR and Marketing (absolutelyfood.co.uk) tailored for the catering and hospitality industry.
She knows about food, cares about the industry, and believes a service such as mystery dining can help businesses and consumers alike.
“I’m a little bit like Gordon Ramsay – without the swearing,” she says. “Gordon gets a lot of pops at him and what he is trying to do. But I really applaud him. If you work in the hospitality business and are concerned about it, you do want to make sure it delivers."
Particularly in the current climate. The recession has hit the trade hard, she adds. People are thinking twice before dining out, which means businesses have to try harder to win over customers.
“There are fewer businesses chasing fewer customers,” says Annie.
“I’m a stickler for high standards. If you are going out, you are paying good money, so there should be no excuse for sloppy service.
“I’m not saying that things can’t go wrong, but in general, every night should be as good as the last night. It’s a bit like a theatre performance.
“In fact, it is all about theatre: you want your diners to come through the door and receive a warm welcome, be entertained, be kept warm and nourished and looked after until the moment they leave.
“If they leave with a smile on their face, that is the best possible result.”