Chicken? In a basket?!” Those four words spat by DCI Gene Hunt at coma-patient-cum-timetraveller Sam Tyler in Life on Mars sowed the seeds of revolution against identikit, ‘creative’ plate alternatives – railway sleeper charcuterie, mini metal fire buckets full of chips and the like.
In lieu of plates during an undercover operation working behind a bar in ’70s Manchester, Tyler served a murder suspect they were investigating a chicken in a small wicker basket – an offence so grave that Hunt, empathising with the potential killer, dragged him into the boozer’s back room for a severe dressing down.
Since then the movement has gained momentum, with Twitter wall of shame ‘We Want Plates’ outing professional attempts to serve food on miscellaneous objects ranging from car licence plates and flip flops to skateboards and antlers to its 150,000 followers.
It’s clearly a divisive topic, so is there still room for gimmicks and novelty in tableware?
Marko Husak – a plate purist and founder and owner of Indian street food and craft-beer operator Bundobust – tells The Morning Advertiser that he was once served bread in a flat cap and says: “No, absolutely not.”
However, Gill Head, marketing manager at Artis-UK, a supplier of tableware, glassware, cutlery and barware to the industry – and who once had a meal presented to her on a shovel – believes it depends on the type of eatery you’re running.
“A colleague was presented with a dish of small pieces of dried fish pinned on a ‘washing line’ with pegs.
“This sort of presentation depends on your establishment. In casual dining, it can be perfectly acceptable. In fine dining – think again.
“Your table top is a fulfilment of your marketing plan. If this sort of presentation sits well in your restaurant, go ahead.”
Bar talker: What’s the most bizarre item you’ve been served food on or in at a pub or restaurant?
Lee Price, the Royal Pier, Aberystwyth
On a family holiday in Portugal, I was served up chicken fu yung in a miniature Chinese boat, complete with sails. If the chef had come out of the kitchen, I'd have told him to “stick, stick, stick your boat, gently up your…”
Vicky Martin, the Sup and Chow, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
Over in Spain on one of my very rare holiday breaks I was once served baby fried octopus inside of a bucket, accompanied by a spade. A little bizarre and perhaps a little sandy.
Oisin Rogers, general manager, The Guinea Grill, Mayfair
I was recently served a mediocre burger on a bit of wood, accompanied by chips in a pointless 200g capacity shopping trolley. All I could think was the chef couldn't cook. Take your shovels, flat caps, baskets and other junk and put them back in the shed.
Claire Alexander, the Ebrington Arms, Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire
If I get food served on anything other than a board (bearable) or a plate (preferable) I’m known to never go back there…Can’t stand these gimmicks. If someone served me chips in a fish basket I’d probably leave. People just need to stop it.
Making a statement
Debra Leslie Jamieson, sales and marketing director at point of sale supplier UK POS, says: “If you are trying a different menu or have upcoming special events, you need to attract as many people as possible and in a unique way.
“It’s all about the customer experience, so from the messages you display to offering service with a smile, this is what makes your business a success.”
Artis’s Head, however, says that while more refined eateries may look to take the wheels off mini shopping trollies full of condiments, they shouldn’t feel restricted to white porcelain if they want their food to be taken seriously.
“In more refined establishments, you can make the same point of difference by using statement plates and introducing different shapes and textures to the tabletop.
“For many years, white porcelain has been the order of the day and it is still prevalent today.
“However, we are seeing some elements creep in to break up the sea of white. Statement plates, for example, are big news and splashes of colour are beginning to be seen here and there.”
Trends to follow
These can vary from experimental colours and artwork to new materials – but importantly for the purists, they stick to the tried and tested flat, round, food vessel formula.
Head adds: “The industrial feel is also a key trend and Tafelstern’s concrete plates are bang on. They are available in a porous or fair-faced finish. Another big trend is vintage glassware, which continues to grow. We have just introduced a couple of new collections – Mixology from Luigi Bormioli and 1924 by Libbey – both of which are stunning.
“Copper, too, is standing the test of time, with stainless steel and, for the fourth year in a row, we have extended our collection of copper and stainless drinking vessels and barware.”
Making material changes to other table items can also help generate a new look and feel in your venue.
UK POS’s Jamieson adds: “A wooden display helps add a rustic feel to any environment and especially in the shabby chic design era we’re now in.
“Products such as our wooden crates create a stand-out vintage display – perfect for offering bar snacks – or our wooden leaflet holders are great for presenting menus in a way that is on-trend with the current market.
“It’s important that your business keeps up to date, you need to make sure your messages and displays are refreshed regularly and that they give a unique offering to ensure you emerge from the crowd.
“The footfall is getting smaller so customer experience and loyalty rewards are needed even more.”
Trends in tableware are also being driven by changing eating habits. The rise in street food, bite-size snacks and sharing platters mean that departing from standard plate sizes can complement a shift in food offering.
Head comments that: “Small plates and sharing is also big news. It is difficult to think of another area of the tabletop where there is so much choice to enable you to personalise dishes and create a point of difference with
Again, a more laid-back eating environment revolving around finger food and sharing can open the door to mixing it up with new shapes and sizes of tableware.
“I am thinking of materials – wood, porcelain and glass all feature; texture is important; amorphous shapes are in again and plate sizes vary from large sharing platters to small tapas-sized dishes and bowls.
“Mix and match is key here with chefs picking and choosing from different collections and carefully selecting plates and dishes that suit their creations.”
Environmental issues are riding the crest of a wave helped by and large by the success of BBC series Blue Planet 2. With a war on plastic straws in pubs and nine out of 10 Brits identifying as ethical consumers, it could well be the time to invest in ‘green’ tableware.
Head agrees. “It seems that the tide has turned, if you will excuse the pun, and that we are now making headway in the reduction of non-recyclable lines such as plastic straws and coated paper cups
“We do think that it will become socially unacceptable to use single-use items like plastic cutlery. The good thing about glassware is that it is basically sand and therefore widely recyclable.”
Husak, who’s Bundobust sites in Leeds and Manchester operate under a policy of using solely disposable and biodegradable tableware, maintains that while turnover in tableware in his sites is high, using single-use, biodegradable products made from green materials has other benefits.
“Some people at first think that our biodegradables are possibly bad for the environment but once we explain that they are made from plant-based materials and are 100% biodegradable people get on board.
“It’s better than continually having industrial dishwashers on.”
Husak has factored environmental issues into his business, and been calling for a ban on plastic straws and polystyrene, for a long time.
“It’s always something we’ve paid attention to and it was only a matter of time before others started to take it seriously.”
Tableware items can also be used by publicans to give a ponderous punter a stylish nudge towards special offers or promotions on-site, as well as contributing to a desired aesthetic.
Jamieson adds: “Our current most popular products are the chalkboards and wooden products we offer.
“In particular, for pubs and the hospitality sector, our table-top chalkboards and wooden easel menu boards have proved favourites.
“Statistics from shopper marketing show that as many as 68% of all purchases are now unplanned, so providing your customers with your best food and beverage offers at the bar between waiting times is the perfect opportunity to boost sales and impact the decisions they make.”
One of the key overall issues in picking your tableware is weighing up its contribution to the look and feel of your site, versus how practical it is. Is it worth spilling any drink within spitting distance in the Railway Arms to deliver a cheeseboard served on a railway sleeper?
Head comments: “For almost all sites this is a balancing act.
“Only the very finest of fine-dining places need pay no heed to functionality.
“Clearly your table and glassware should be able to stand up to the rigours of a busy kitchen and restaurant.”
Jamieson adds: “Functionality is extremely important. You can have the best-looking displays but they have to be practical and easy to use. However, it is also important for your business to look good and stand out to attract customers in the first place.
“Customers are always on the lookout for the next best thing and something a bit different.”