Tackling fryer with fryer

Next month in Tottenham, a revolutionary new way of tackling our younger generation’s obsession with fried chicken is being launched. It’s so compelling that you have to wonder, as with so many great discoveries, why no-one has done this before.

And what, you ask, is this great alternative to the fried chicken shop? Why, it’s a fried chicken shop, only Chicken Town will be unlike its high street competitors by being an ethically driven social enterprise, using properly reared chicken and healthier oils which won’t clog up your arteries and then in time clog up our hospital corridors. It’s a project driven to tackle the ever more obvious need to think outside usual boxes to stem the tide of obesity and related diseases young people are inflicting on themselves.

The cleverness of the idea is in engaging adult customers in the evening to come into a restaurant for what most adults I know love to do which is to eat good fried chicken (look at smart restaurants like Lockhart which sells a portion to adoring customers at £12.50) in a restaurant environment with nice drinks. The cleverness is that the profits this part of the business is set to generate then get used to subsidise £2 boxes for schoolkids during the day, alluring them away from their dodgy competitors.

Once again initiatives like this or Jamie Oliver’s sugary drinks tax show that businesses are way ahead of governments in tackling systemically growing health problems.

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The tales of two inmates

The more time I spend in prisons, the less I feel I have yet to understand what goes on in an inmate’s mind.

Yesterday I spent three hours in a Young Offenders Institute with eight prisoners doing something I wouldn’t have imagined participating in and which you might think a frivolous activity but which was deeply impactful. In groups of two, in a project developed by great organisation called Create, they were making stories for their children.

They then were bringing them to life in art, creating pictorial collages which would then be part of a printed book containing a CD on which they would record their story and present it to their children.

I spent time with each of them watching their tattooed, muscle-ripped arms make dainty cardboard cut-outs of mermaids, work out how to make glitter to make their picture sparkle and read their stories in animated voices.

Fascinatingly, whilst all the stories had very different characters (dinosaurs and lions, I found out, were commonly adopted) they had a very similar message – a big character was separated from their loved ones and in their various tales all eventually returned home with the promise that they would then stay together forever.

A lot of the work I do with prisoners and ex-offenders is around training them for a world of work and indeed each one of the men I met had commercial or career ambitions for when they were released. They need jobs to engage them away from a return to crime. That’s usually us telling them what they need.

What Create brought out of the groups like the one I was with yesterday was miles away from the commercial cases against re-offending. Perhaps articulating their feelings of being separated from their children will help bolster the work of projects like Bounce Back and Switchback who successfully manage to buck the pattern of returning to crime in the absence of any alternative.

If you want to see the meaning of the phrase a picture tells a thousand words, come with me next I visit them.

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Celebrating migration

In a week when a British Bangladeshi girl in hijab is on our front pages probably for the first time in a story un-connected to Isis and instead because she is the favourite to win the Great British Bake Off, in a month when we have seen the horrors of those fleeing Syria and other awful places to up roots and seek a better life for themselves here, the idea that Britain has a permanent Museum of Migration has more appeal than ever.

I met with the creators of the idea recently – Barbara Roche, a former immigration minister and Robert Winder, the author of Bloody Foreigners which is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand what being British really means in all its multi-layered complexities. Ever since the end of the ice age we have been invaded, populated, swamped by peoples from somewhere else. And of course in turn we have gone on to invade, populate, swamp other countries often in equal measure.

Yet we still find it difficult to accept migration as a positive force except when it comes to finding Jamaicans post-war to come and run the NHS, Asians to make curry our national dish, eastern Europeans to fuel our even growing demand for construction workers. Attacks on synagogues and mosques are higher now than they have been for decades so clearly we have yet to learn to celebrate how Britain got to be Great.

Thankfully Barbara and Robert’s plans to rectify this are gaining wide support and hopefully over the next year or so a permanent building will be created in London which chronicles the many highs and sometime lows of how the various bits of Lego weld together. Like with Lego, bits come off and others are added on. It looks like an odd construction but if we understand how the first piece came to be and what happened when the second, third, fifteenth, hundredth all came to add on we will understand the whole more fully than we currently do.

At Roast we have employees from 30 different nationalities serving up a traditional British dining experience. Case made.

 

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Refugees – what businesses can do

The picture that shook the world has galvanised many people into action rather than shouting at their TV sets. The government has albeit reluctantly allowed more in, local councillors are under pressure from their voters for each council to take in 50. Churches, mosques and synagogues are all stepping forward too.

But so far from what I can see as yet businesses aren’t playing their part.

So many times businesses these days are ahead of the social curve – whether it’s on sustainability, on employing ex-offenders or on implementing volunteering programmes. Yet we seem to have slipped up in not keeping up with the national mood and ethic this time.

We have hired refugees before. Like with ex-offenders they have proved loyal and hard-working team members, desperate for economic engagement to get away from their former lives. Businesses that have volunteering programmes could divert some their excellent activities to assist refugees find their way around our communities, how to make the most of housing they are being offered, how to make their way around the areas they now find themselves.

That’s a good start but we could so much more. We can hold fundraising events and activities, we can help them apply for jobs and we can as employers offer them jobs.

It sounds slightly mercenary but in London and other cities there are huge employment shortages – chefs, builders, cleaners. There will no doubt be higher qualified people among those we are now taking in, but we all start somewhere, right? Why not combine their anguish with our commercial needs and see if we can get them working for us where appropriate?

I’m surprised business organisations are not calling for such initiatives. A bit more joined-up thinking could yield big results.

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In defence of Michelle Mone

I hadn’t heard of her much until recently, both with news of her appointment to the Lords and now heading up a government programme to promote entrepreneurship amongst our most disadvantaged communities.

Early snidey comments about her image and her lingerie business (Lady Bra-Bra, as one paper dubbed her) were predictably cheap and based around the fact that she is blonde and attractive and therefore of course must be intellectually challenged.

These must be seen by her as predictable knee-jerk reactions to how she looks being more important than what she does. I imagine her Glaswegian upbringing makes her from sterner stuff than to be upset by such pigeon-holing. She’s probably used to it.

What staggers me more is how little journalists understand what it’s like to run a business. A BBC business reporter has chosen to dig around on her commercial activities and shock, horror it’s not always been easy – she’s had boardroom battles, then bedroom battles having to buy out her husband. Her company outsourced production to cheaper countries, as if it were a crime to give business to people with much greater economic problems than ours. And would you believe it, some times her profits fell – how on earth did she get so promoted in government? Well, you just have to look at her to see why – nudge, nudge wink, wink.

Undoubtedly if she produced widgets and looked like Ann Widdicombe there would be a lot less interest in her. But if the level of our business journalism amounts to little more than high-brow sexism coupled with low level understanding of the world of commerce,  Michelle Mone’s crucial message that entrepreneurship is a great driver out of poverty is in danger of being lost by its messengers.

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The Company aside, what about the Kids?

I’ve met Camila Batmanghelidjh and can see why, as is reported today in one of the papers, that the prime minister was enthralled by her. This must be more a revelation about him than her – firstly for someone who likes to be seen as a toughie and secondly as an indication perhaps to potential suitors seeking to befriend him because even if you do, you still get dumped.

Last year she came to a private breakfast meeting I hosted at The Cinnamon Club for south London gang leaders so I could encourage them to use their entrepreneurial skills and bring them to the safe side of the road. Also in attendance was a member of the House of Lords who told us about the time he went to visit her in Walworth and a huge seemingly deranged man came hurtling towards him brandishing a knife.

Camila quickly told him to stand behind her, which she did. She looked at the man and held out her arms. He hugged her and broke down in tears.

It’s amazing how little has been reported about the relentless work she has undertaken against many odds with some of our capital’s most troubled young people. Instead we all now know she has friends in high places (how else would she have got this project so far?) and her uses of funds may not have ticked the right boxes for charity bureaucrats and civil servants. Err – you cannot always deal with such vulnerable and hard to reach groups by getting people to fill in assessment forms and conventionally audit all the time.

There has been no suggestion that she personally undertook financial malpractice. The worst she is accused of is not being transparent enough with her board or engaged them fully enough as to why she conducted her brilliant work the way she did. In this she is no different from many heads of charities and social enterprises.

One of the reports this morning says government officials are now frantically scurrying around trying to find other charities to support now that The Kids Company is to be no longer. If this government really wants us to believe they are seeking to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and they had sufficient evidence that this charity could not stand up to sufficient scrutiny to warrant public funding, they should have given her a strict deadline to bring her house in order to continue to be backed.

It’s clear they have known about the issues there for some time yet I hear very little about the government officials who cocked this up so majorly that only this morning are they thinking about the kids themselves – and even then from what I can see only with an eye on public damage limitation.

Camila is sadly being hanged out to dry whereas the real culprits of this mess will never I imagine be named or shamed.

 

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Conducting the lead

A conductor who was trained under Leonard Bernstein and who performs with the St Petersburg Philharmonic has a very interesting and probably very lucrative sideline – he uses his experience to advise on leadership to Fortune 500 companies. He shows how different conductors use different styles to engage their teams from some who frantically wave their arms to control each section to the more laid back one who allow musicians to express themselves more.

A few years ago I took the opposite approach. I noticed a food runner at Roast who clearly saw his role as taking plates from the pass to the table as his sole mission. For him, there was just a starting line and a finishing line which he had to get to as quickly as possible. Inevitably he would occasionally barge into his colleagues and I thought it could only be a matter of time before he barged into a customer.

There are fancy management tools around like neuro-linguistic programming which among other things can make us aware of the physical environment that surrounds our given purpose but rather than try and introduce that, we engaged a theatre director. Each service, I thought, was like a show – everyone had their part to play but it needed choreographing. Dancers need to spark off each other rather than make a series of solo performances and the duty manager needs to be the conductor of that show.

Itay Talgam’s book The Ignorant Maestro takes that process further in a manner that most forward-thinking companies now understand. It’s not just your team who are your stakeholders – the audience has to be engaged too. If they don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing and just know what you’re doing, they’re not fully engaged.

Over the last few months I’ve been taking Talgam’s idea and raising it. I have been inviting some of our most regular customers to visit farms and producers whose wares they have expressed an interest to me in, so the supplier becomes a stakeholder. Recently I cranked up my activities with prisoners and their rehabilitation prospects through employment in the hospitality sector by hosting a mini Roast pop-up in a young offenders institute where we taught inmates to cook and serve a Roast menu to an audience made up of some of our customers and some of our suppliers. Our suppliers then become stakeholders, as do the charities and social enterprises we engage with as a responsible business.

And so the responsible business becomes the more complete business.

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Class snobbery in food health

For some time now I have been thinking, writing and talking about and the way in which fast food operators live in a largely unregulated world using saturated fats in fried chicken and the huge cholesterol and calories in burger joints. And rightly so – I told a friend who runs an east London hospital that across the road from him these businesses are creating the next generation of his patients by firstly clogging their arteries and then clogging his diabetes and cardio units.

Yet yesterday when I had a delicious cheeseburger at Roast I felt no much disdain. In the west end there is a very good American restaurant which serves fried chicken at £18 a dish and everyone loves it. The Soho House group have Chicken Shop and Dirty Burger in their growing empire. I wonder how many of their (or indeed our) well-heeled customers ask about saturated fats or calories. Hardly any is the answer.

The enlightened middle classes prefer to probe others rather than themselves, much in the same way I suppose that the medical profession has one of the largest proportions of heavy drinkers and big time smokers in their midst.

In trendy parts of London’s food markets the hot dog is undergoing a renaissance. In Soho, a new restaurant gaining a lot of fun coverage is serving only chips. Walk through Borough Market and you’ll see educated and well off visitors drooling over and devouring doughnuts. Yet we will condemn Greggs for serving things like these because of our concerns over diabetes.

Clearly there is a level of something mounting to hypocrisy in my and others’ indignation.

But out of all this there are some sensible and sustainable advances being made. In Tottenham, a project is under way to make a fried chicken place using ethically sourced poultry and healthier oils and more grill options where adults pay middle class market prices at night to subsidise the ability for school kids to buy a box at the same price as their regular usual haunts in day time.

Like many social enterprises, this adopts an “us and them” approach, where we, those who can afford to, pay up for goods or services our perceived “they” who cannot at the same price.

It’s a step forward for food democracy that we’re increasingly eating similar things now but I still can’t help feeling we – me included – are arrogantly dining our way in socially polar directions where things are OK for us to eat but not so much for others.

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Feel the right moment

There’s a gentleman going by the name of Pitbull who currently earns a living in the music business but whom I’d like to meet and encourage to become a business coach instead. At the beginning of a song with the wonderful Christina Aguilera “Feel This Moment”, he makes the following hugely perceptive comment: “Ask for money, get advice. Ask for advice, get money twice.”

Our long suffering finance director sent me an e-mail the other day asking “How many bloody people do you mentor?” I said a) it was cheaper than having children and b) if I had a mentor when opening The Cinnamon Club I wouldn’t have made half the daft decisions which he then had to repair.  He didn’t reply, which is as close as I get to him ever agreeing with me. Luckily we’re friends.

My mentees range in social profile from a Brixton gang leader, through to the only kid on his council estate who wanted to go to university, all the way through to highly educated street food entrepreneurs. One trait they all have in common is their utter belief that all they need to start their own businesses is the money to get them going. Mentors aren’t supposed to invest in their mentees but I tell them that if I were an investor looking to back their businesses, there would X, Y and Z reasons why I wouldn’t.

We then go about fixing the X’s the Y’s and Z’s so they in due course become credible investments rather than just good ideas.

Going back to Miss Aguilera’s wish “I just want to feel this moment”, I tell my mentees the moment they want to feel is not when they get started, but when they succeed. I remember the first general manager we had when we fought to open The Cinnamon Club where against all odds I raised £2.5 million to do so. After a troublesome build and launch, he quickly dispelled my feeling of relief. “This isn’t the end of your troubles,” he said. “This is the start of them.”

We often talk about the challenges of the start-up but perhaps we need to look at curtailing the number of start-ends.

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False comparisons

The prime minister’s repeated call yesterday on Muslims to more actively denounce and detect extremists in our communities led to attacks on him from two Muslim politicians on different sides of the political fence.

Former Tory minister Sayeeda Warsi said he risked demoralising Muslims with this constant refrain whilst newly elected Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi observed that white people weren’t being asked to condemn the killings in South Carolina. Indeed on Twitter there are many people saying that black people aren’t asking white people to condemn it let alone undertake their own condemnation.

I wonder if any of this is helpful. Whenever there is an act like a 7/7 I always get asked by newspapers to write a “not in my name” kind of article and in the past I have done so but I believe the vast majority of the British public do now know that the vast majority of the British Muslim public subsection are law-abiding, peaceful citizens. We shouldn’t need to do this any more.

There are massive issues driving extremism and these accusations and counter-accusations don’t really help us get to the bottom of what we are facing let alone how to tackle it. Undoubtedly if we detect clear signs of radicalisation amongst people we know we shouldn’t hold back from firstly tackling them ourselves rather than “shop” them with abandon.

But we mustn’t confuse cause with effect.

Many of us have opinions about what drives radicalisation and extremism but the fact is that we really don’t know for sure. One former minister asked me once: “Why are Muslims so angry?” to which I replied “How long have you got?”.

After the Brixton riots in the 1980s a major government enquiry was launched as this too was much misunderstood. The resulting Scarman Report made huge inroads in our understanding of inner city deprivation and police tactics in the criminalisation of young black men. The Stephen Lawrence enquiry was hugely impactful too.

A calm, detached and inclusive enquiry into the causes of radicalisation and extremism would surely be more constructive than the current froth of noise which doesn’t seem to get us to the better place we want to be on this.

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