Anyone for country cooking?

I’ve never quite worked out the geographic spread of readers of these articles. I get phone calls from some very interesting places. They’re a constant reminder that a large portion of the hospitality industry is spread out around the country, away from our major cities. The 35,000 kilometres per year I do in my car while travelling to country clients is another reminder.

Running a hospitality businesses in the country presents some interesting problems that city operators don’t have to contend with or even think about. Some of my city clients regard their country cousins as tender souls who’ve wimped-out and are now living in idyllic surroundings, raking in the money away from the rat race. These misconceptions are fuelled by the country people who come down to our training courses and gleefully tease the city folk about the traffic, pollution, frenetic pace, speed cameras, parking problems and other negative aspects of urban existence.

The reality is that you still get the same ulcers, grey hairs and white knuckles running a business in the country as you get doing the same in the city — it’s just that you get them from different sources. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s more difficult to run an excellent country business than it is to run an excellent city business.

Take the problems of marketing a country business. It’s relatively easy to get a customer to travel five kilometres to a business in the city, but consider the difficulty getting them to travel fifty, or one hundred kilometres, as you might have to in the country if the population around you is not dense enough to provide a solid customer base. Worse still, the owners of country accommodation businesses often have very limited marketing resources, yet have to direct their advertising and promotion into a major city several hundred kilometres away.

Then there’s the problem of maintaining an appropriate standard. It’s easy in the city where all your staff are surrounded by the current industry standards every time they go out, but what happens in the country when all your staff come from a small country town and most of your customers come from the city? City folks expect city standards, they don’t understand or care about country owners’ problems. Country staff are often asked to achieve a standard they’ve never seen or experienced themselves — one that is considerably higher than the normal standard in their town. This is degree of difficulty 9.9 with full twist and pike on the scale of management challenges.

To compound the difficulties in creating good standards, it can be nearly impossible to find staff with appropriate experience in a country area. Imagine if I asked you to pick any one of the local unemployed in Whoop Whoop and turn them into a maitre d’ in six weeks, after finding your advertising for a skilled candidate had proved futile. Do you think you could do it?

Alright, if you reckon you could handle that, try getting a really good Chef in the country. For example, in the past I’ve advertised offering top salaries for Chefs for country hotels and resorts, and ended-up with two or three resumes from institutional cooks. It makes it bloody hard to turn out good food, let alone control costs.

If you do get lucky and get someone who can cook, the next problem is ensuring appropriate supply of supplies. City Chefs get used to getting on the phone and shopping around among the plethora of suppliers, all of whom want your business and are prepared to deliver regularly. The further out you are the more you have to take what you can get: ‘Yeah, sure, we’ve got lettuce . . . Cos? Rocket? Never heard of them. All we’ve got are the normal type . . . don’t get much call for fancy stuff up here. We’re out your way every second Friday’. Often, the only way to get what you need is to drive to the city markets once a week as a few of my clients have done, making a nine or ten hour round trip. The cost of the trip must then be added to the cost of the goods, making them awfully expensive.

Moving on, think about getting things fixed in the country. Imagine your coolroom goes kaput. The refrigeration mechanic may have to travel up to 150 kilometres either way to get to and from your location — you’ll get charged for that time, plus the leisurely ‘rustic’ pace that is directed to the repair job itself.

There is irony in being based in the country. Everything except real estate seems to cost more, but you can’t demand city prices for your products or services because of the laws of supply and demand. The perception of city folk is that things in the country should be cheaper.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. I’ve really written this with a two-fold intention: First, I’d like to jar those dreamers in the city who fantasize about moving to the country and showing those yokels how it’s done into reality — just send me the money you were going to invest in your country venture and stay where you are, you’ll save yourself a lot of trauma and make me very happy.

Secondly, I’d just like to tell all those country operators that someone in the city knows the reality of their situation and appreciates them achieving what they do. City folks have got it easy, really — I’d rather have 20,000 competitors than have to try to get a cook from a mining camp to run a four star kitchen.