I’ll start with a story. It has the virtue of being amusing and true although it didn’t happen to me. A friend, let’s call her Mrs A, lives in Hastings/St Leonard’s. The massive Tesco Extra for the area until recently got by with a small cafe space that had latterly been an unimpressive Costa (more on these things later) and it underwent a refurbishment over the summer. The day came when the gleaming new cafe was ready and Mrs A, having done her shopping, thought she’d have a restorative coffee and maybe a cake. The kind of thing that people have in supermarket cafes. Over she went to the this new place called “Decks” where before even noticing the sign that told her to wait before being seated she was asked, “Have you booked?”
Maybe you had to be there. But that little episode, weird and wrong though it is, does not even begin to scratch the surface of all the things that do not work about this thing called Decks that is how some bright spark at Tesco imagines its proles want to eat.
So, let’s go through what we like about cafe supermarkets. These are things that work to greater or lesser degrees if you go to Morrisons, Sainsburys or Asda. You want a straightforward cheapish cup of tea, coffee or carbonated beverage. If you want food a small selection of standard cakes or a few standard meals or jackets. Breakfast baps rather than wide selection of cooked breakfasts. And you don’t want it to be a burden greater than your weekly shop. I’ll declare here that I am a habituee of several of these places. I like the functionality, the reasonable quality, and I like the price.
Tesco has dicked around with its cafes. You don’t often come across one of its nice ‘bogstandard’ places. If you’re lucky they’ll just have converted into a Costa, if you’re unlucky it’ll be a Harris & Hoole. In both cases the faux hipster coffee environment is somewhat wrecked by being able to see the home pregnancy kits whilst you’re sipping your slightly too hot americano. I used to like the straightforward places offering 8 item breakfasts and 70p coffee. I can just about cope with artisan infiltration although I’d rather be at Asda. But, Decks.
Let me explain how it ‘works’.
You are shown to a table having waited to be seated. Honestly. You can’t just sit down. You then have to wait to be served. The server does not bring you food. Or drink. The server scribbles down that you want go to the deck (this means you want food) and what drink you’d like. You then go to the deck. There is no option here, not really. It’s either a breakfast deck or, bizarrely, a roast deck. Like a full-on, proper, Toby Carvery selection. We were there at lunch so it was roast deck. We could either have a roast in a baguette or roast on a plate and choose our own vegetables and gravy. What we couldn’t have was a tray. Decks don’t do trays. They also, once you’re at the Deck, take away the menu so you can’t even see what few alternatives they are and nor can you see how much it costs. Bizarrely eight left-over breakfast sausages were being warmed at the end of the ‘deck’ but no one knew what to do with them.
So, we filled up with our Sunday roast when we’d thought we were having a midweek snack. Our drinks never showed. Instead, we were brought, several minutes later, two glasses and told to fill our own. The machine was practically back inside the supermarket. By now the whole experience was so poor we were wondering how many words it would take to describe how bad it was. (609 so far and counting).
If you want to know what the food tastes like I’ll explain. It’s like Toby Carvery have given up. Go to a Toby and – naffness aside – you get a decent portion and all the food tastes fresh even if it has been flown in frozen from Gdansk. You also get to be in a pub where this sort of thing makes sense. This food does not taste fresh, the Yorkshire puddings crunch and the veg and gravy are less than so-so. This is all so meh.
After we’d partaken of this unexpected, not really wanted, and mediocre-at-best feast, our lovely, smiling waitress asked if we wanted pudding. You don’t got to a deck for this, you either get a hot pudding brought to you or get given a glass bowl for your sundae to take to an ice cream machine. It’s basically the kids offering from Pizza Hut. Gee, thanks, Tesco. We declined. Our smiling waitress told us smilingly, as we paid, that many customers don’t seem to ‘get’ Decks. They come in expecting a Costa, or a normal cafe. Funny that.
There was absolutely no need to ‘book’ this time. Lunchtime on a busy day for the supermarket and the place never got busy. The majority in there had confused expressions like us. Nobody seemed to be enjoying themselves.
And why would they? Decks is basically insulting. Creating a restaurant without service and then where self-service comes without a tray, without decent food and without imagination or choice … well, it’s not exactly saying you respect your customers is it? It’s like a management group has gone, “The core British cuisine is cooked breakfast and Sunday roast so let’s only offer those, and Brits don’t care about things like quality food or good service so let’s take those out. Now, what’s the bottom line …” I suspect the profit isn’t bad at all given that this unenjoyable farce cost us just shy of £20. We could go to a real restaurant at lunchtime for that.
At no point do they seem to have asked why people would actually want to have a cafe in a supermarket. If they need some answers they should probably visit one Hastings/St Leonard’s other supermarkets that have all stuck to their core idea and which are all busy all day long – and where nobody needs to be reassured by the staff that it’s not really as bad as it seems.