Weekend on a Plate

The weekend digested: blue Christmas on the high street and Pizza Express downgraded

All the news, reviews and trends from December 8-9, including Waitrose's robot farming initiative and chocolate shrinkflation.

10 December 2018
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Food news

Blue Christmas

Both the Sunday Times and the Guardian predict a bad Christmas for the high street. The former writes that retailers and restaurants will suffer from a “a toxic cocktail of Brexit-induced consumer jitters, a mild autumn and rampant online competition,” while the latter cites research from Springboard that predicts a decline in footfall of 4.2% compared to last year, making it the quietest Christmas since the credit crunch.


Robot farmers

Waitrose has become the first British supermarket to farm food using robots, according to the Telegraph. The retailer is embarking on a three-year trial with a trio of machines – dubbed Tom, Dick and Harry – which will identify and remove weeds as well as plant seeds. The robots will initially be set to work cultivating wheat used for bread and flour, though if this is successful their purview will be extended to rapeseed. Farmers involved in the project have said the technology is necessary to avoid potential Brexit pitfalls like subsidy losses and migrant worker shortfall, while also cutting costs and improving yields.

image credit: Getty Images

Choc horror

The Sunday Times takes stock of ‘shrinkflation’ in the chocolate category, as manufacturers attempt to keep prices steady while costs rise. Boxes of Cadbury Roses and Quality Street have shrunk by 40% in the past decade, while Celebrations have diminished by 33%. This weekend also saw the release of Which? research that found the same companies also put fewer of the more popular chocolates – in the case of Quality Street, Purple Ones and Green Triangles – into boxes.


Pizza Express downgraded

Credit ratings agency Moody’s has downgraded Pizza Express from B3 to Caa1, citing the chain’s rising costs, debts and declining profitability as reasons for concern. “While we expect the negative like-for-like sales trend in the company’s home market to abate somewhat next year, fierce competition and sustained cost pressure means a turnaround during 2019 is unlikely,” said the agency. The Telegraph notes, however, that the restaurant brand has no urgent need for cash, and has slowed its overseas expansion to offset worries that it is stretching the base too thin.


Meat-free Christmases

Research by Tesco has found that one in 12 Brits will dine on a meat-free Christmas Day meal this year, while almost one in five hosts will have to provide a vegetarian or vegan option for a guest. The Guardian notes that flexitarians are changing the normal festive shopping basket, with Waitrose announcing that its vegan party food range is up 20% since its October launch, while Tesco has reported a 50% increase in demand for frozen and chilled vegan food this year.


Domino’s franchisees threaten war

Over at Domino’s, the simmering anger of franchisees threatens to boil over, after 11 of the pizza company’s biggest franchisees banded together to announce they would “declare war” if their demands are not met. This call to arms could involve boycotting the brand’s annual pizza-making festival in March and refusing to open new stores, according to the Sunday Times. The battleground being fought over is whether franchisees are able to make enough profit from their operations, which are being squeezed by rising costs and pressure to open new sites.


Going bananas

The first-ever bananas grown without soil are being harvested this week, reports the Financial Times. The experiment is one of several potential solutions to Panama disease, a fungus that threatens to wipe out the Cavendish banana, the species that accounts for 95% of all bananas sold globally. Other strands of research involve breeding strains of wild bananas resistant to the fungus and utilising gene-editing techniques.

image credit: Getty Images

Patisserie Valerie drama continues

Patisserie Valerie’s former marketing chief may have flagged financial irregularities to its board more than a year ago. The Times notes the information was submitted as part of a claim the ex-employee is making for breach of contract and constructive dismissal


Food reviews

Hicce, London N1C 4AB

“Like a mildly disorganised indoor picnic or barbecue” is how Marina O’Loughlin describes her visit to this constituent of the Coal Drops Yard development, as she traverses a menu that seems to have very little cohesion. Tuna ‘prosciutto’ with lemony crème fraîche and spring onion sits alongside Brussels sprouts with toasted hazelnuts and kohlrabi, and “tough, sinewy lamb neck with strident, coriander-heavy green mojo sauce and an overabundance of collapsed, semi-cooked tomatoes.”

image credit: Hicce

Gunpowder, London SE1 2SD

Small plates at this Indian restaurant draw influences from Kashmir to Kerala, writes Keith Miller, who notes that what Gunpowder does best is “taking flavours and textures that anyone who’s eaten “Indian” food in the UK will recognise and sharpening the focus a little.”


The Urchin, Hove BN3 3YS

This week sees Jay Rayner dine in a gastropub serving up delicious seafood morsels, from salt-and-pepper squid and squid karaage (made using a Japanese deep-frying technique), to a dish of curried Malaysian prawns with lentils that is “all swoon and ahh.” Clams appear in a “forceful” tomato and chorizo broth, while mussels bathe in beer with bacon and crispy onions.

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