Cosmo – the refined way to gorge

Last week I was invited to meet some friends who were visiting from out of town. It was suggested that we eat at Cosmo, a restaurant I’d not really heard of. I was the first to arrive and was asked to wait in the lobby. At this request I’d thought we had clearly set our dining goals very high. The restaurant was well lit, richly decorated and had two maître d’s.

It wasn’t until being shown to our table did I notice a) the vastness of the place, b) a gargantuan array of self service Bain Marie’s, c) how full the place was and d) the mix bag of people electing to eat there. It appeared that many people had dressed up for the ocassion, most as family get together; there was even a surprise 40th birthday party.

  

At this point a wave of joyful greed washed over me. I usually avoid places like this as the emphasis is placed on how much you can eat and very little on creating a joyful ambiance. But on this occasion I’d paid my £13.50 and I was going to eat my quota and more.

Armed with my plate I set off. The agenda (and you need an agenda) was to eat my way through the different geographical regions on offer: India, China, Malaysia, Italy and the U.K. (roast). I avoided the U.K. and Italy as these are staple regulars of mine. Similarly I avoided dishes that I’d previously experienced out or judged too safe; your korma and sweet and sour chicken etc.


It was genuinely an exciting experience and I was ecstatic to try foods I wouldn’t have usually risked if ordering solely as a main. Cosmo even had a tasting area, encouraging its diners to attempt different dishes.

As I went round with my plate eagerly eying up the 150 dishes it did seem that lots of people were opting for something fried with chips. However people were requesting fish portions at the ‘cooked to order’ bar or alternating between the obvious and the adventurous. It’s worth mentioning that there was only one Bain Marie holding chips, ten for Indian options and at least twenty for Chinese dishes.

I worked my way through a shameful (impressive) three plates. I felt people averaged two, heeding the Cosmo slogan along the lines of love food hate waste.

Dessert was a different story. The youngsters particularly loved the sweet counter, bathing their choices in two types of chocolate.


Small portions of dessert were made up, a great way of preventing customers from accidental overindulgence. Surprisingly it was the fruit bar that had depleted its stock by the time I got there. By the time I’d returned to my table friends had either finished dessert or were still finishing their mains.

The social dining experience was very disjointed because of this. I believe our table of 7 sat down together for a total of 30 minutes throughout the 2hour duration of our stay; someone was always off on the hunt for more dishes.

So what does this experience say about our food culture?

1) value for money – ridiculously cheap especially if you eat 3 plates.

2) a diverse range people want value for money. Even those who look like they could  afford a lot more.

3) people can (and do) choose healthy options even when presented with more exciting unhealthy choices.

4) the restaurant encourages customers to try new foods.

5) the restaurant encourages moderation.

6) modest eaters are susseptable to overindulgence.

7) diners will try to eat the equivalent of the bill.

8) value is placed on food and not experience (money versus quality).

I believe Cosmo did a great job at catering for its customers. I felt it pushed people to experience foreign cuisine and moderated unhealthy choices.

Unless you or your group are able to exercise control on when and how long to fill your plates for this style of dining clearly depletes the group experience. The restaurant was busy and full of excited chatter, not ideal credentials for a long awaited catch up. It is this element that worries me…

are we placing food quantity over a quality group experience? 

FRISKA – healthy fast food for the now?

In my search to discover more about our eating culture I spoke to Griff Holland, co creator of Friska – a healthy fast food restaurant set up by Griff and his business partner Ed Brown in 2009. There are currently six Friska’s located across Bristol as well as a recently established place (as they refer to them) in Birmingham, so their menu and ethos is clearly being accepted across the South West and Midlands.
Friska’s mission is to ‘redefine your expectations of how a breakfast and lunch place makes you feel’, so a small feat then. I asked Griff about how they were redefining peoples expectations; whether the restaurant trade caters for its customers needs or did it try to lead customer choices. Here’s what he said:
Steven Sales: In your opinion what is the most important meal of the day?
 Griff Holland: Lunch followed by Breakfast (surprisingly)
 
SS: Which is the most popular Friska dish?
 GH: Our HotBox’s are our best sellers but the actual dish would depend on the season. 
 
SS: Do you consider your menu reflects society’s current food preferences, or are you aiming to initiate a change in what people eat?
GH: We hope our menu reflects people’s increasing interest in the (culinary) world around them and the increasing awareness that people have in the food they are eating from a quality and provenance and sustainability point of view. 
 
SS: What characterises Friska’s main customer base?
GH: They are typically young(ish) professionals, active and happy. They are Interested in the world around them and have a certain “full of life” personality. 
 
SS: Does Friska target specific groups of customers? 
GH: City professionals.
 
SS: How do you target them?
GH: With a relevant, interesting and  good looking voucher via loyalty App, through good word of mouth / reputation / etc etc.
 
SS: You highlight your eco/responsible business ethos on your website. Why do you believe it is important to share this information?
GH: Because it’s a nice thing to share with customers and helps develop and better represent the brand. 
 
SS: Does this enhance Friska’s appeal?
GH: I think so
 
SS: What key factors influence people to choose Friska?
GH: Consistency, speed of Service, good Service, good Food, brand.
 
SS: Since opening the business, have you noticed any changes in customers’ eating habits? (perhaps reflected in how many people takeaway or eat in, the time people spend eating etc)
GH: [People are] more open to new and “different” dishes.  
 
SS: You use ‘ready to go’ containers even for customers choosing to dine in. Has this concept changed the eating habits of your customers or simply responded suitably to this general shift in Bristol/UK?
 GH: It’s because our offer is geared around quick service and therefore we want to make it as easy and fast, whether eating in or taking away. 
 
SS: Has bench seating played a role in changing people’s eating habits?
GH: No
SS: Thank you.
So what do people want from the places they eat? If we take Griff’s experience it would seem that people want healthy food from a range of cultures, from a place that is eco friendly and ultimately quick. All these objectives sit happily with me. Healthy food, responsibly sourced shouldn’t be an unachievable goal and the guys at Friska are making a great job of it.
IMG_7578                             (pictured Pho chicken noodles)
The idea of speed does seem to have had the biggest impact of peoples dining habits. Whether it’s a case of getting back to work within your allotted lunch time or the fact that places like McDonalds, KFC and even Whetherspoons have reduced the amount of time we now find acceptable to wait for food; speed of service will impact your decision to dine at the same place again. To counteract this Friska has even removed the use of tableware (ceramic or otherwise) in an attempt to increase service times. My Pho Chicken Noodle dish (shown above) was presented in this a paper container, despite a decision to dine in.
When asked whether bench seating has changed peoples dining habits, Griff said no. However, I think bench seating has impacted our dining experience, not only at Friska but across the county. During busy periods, one may find themselves sat next to complete strangers, the smaller tables having been taken first. Bench seating removes a sense of ownership (however brief) we have when dining; we’ve all claimed ownership of a table at some point by draping jackets over chairs etc. Eating is a personal ritual that is not easily shared; and bench seating is likely to make you hurry rather than delay your stay.
sandy-danny-grease-           (Sandy and Danny trying to have an intimate meal, Grease)
This seating arrangement twinned with ‘one time use’ tableware signify that we are clearly eating our meals quicker.  Whether this is the restaurant meeting the needs of its customers or manipulating our dining rituals is a path to explore. In regards to Friska, as Griff mentioned, their ethos is geared around quick service and from repeated personal experience they do this well.
However, could this notion (necessity for some, obsession for others) of speed be the beginning of the end of ceramic tableware?