The Apprentice: Fast food – as easy as pie or chilli con carnage?

There’s just one week to go until the final of The Apprentice, and in a slight change of format we have one last task instead of the usual interview round. The teams are tasked with creating a new fast food chain concept in just two days. Logic ride the gravy train all the way to victory, while for Venture it’s a Mexican wave bye-bye for Natasha ‘Yeah?’ Scribbins, who becomes the 12th recipient of Lord Sugar’s Digit of Doom™.

Facts? Who cares about facts?

Helen's background made her well suited to be project manager on this task (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Sugar summons the five remaining candidates to a shopping mall in central London and informs them that food is big business. (No, really?) He tasks them with turning two empty shells into fully operating outlets to demonstrate their new fast food chain concepts, to be judged by a panel of industry experts. And Sugar himself.

The teams remain unchanged from last week, so it’s the terrible trio of Natasha, Susan Ma and Jedi Jim™ Eastwood (Venture) against the dynamic duo of Helen Milligan and Tom Pellereau (Logic). Jim and Helen are quickly nominated as project managers.

The first order of the day is to come up with a concept. Helen and Tom settle on pie and mash, with a hybrid traditional/modern spin. Susan suggests Mexican because she’s eaten in a few Mexican restaurants before, and she is very excited by the idea of sombreros and cactuses. Natasha isn’t keen on the idea simply because it came from Susan. And also because it’s hardly the most original idea in the world.

Next, the teams split up to focus on the menu and branding. Natasha, who was happy to big up her degree in International Hospitality Management from McDonald’s University (or somewhere), leaves Jim to sort out the food while she and Susan team up on branding. They don’t actually come up with any ideas for names, though, other than Susan asking what ‘El’ means. (Give me strength.) I can neither confirm nor deny whether she then goes on to ask if Mexicans are fond of their children, but she does infuriate Natasha enough for her to snatch the phone out of her hand.

Eventually it is left to Jim, who has been busy researching product ideas and working with a chef on recipes, to suggest ‘Caraca’s’ (he actually means ‘maracas’). As a brand name, this irks the pedant in me because (a) Caracas doesn’t have an apostrophe in it and (b) it’s the capital of Venezuela. Which is kind of near Mexico, right? In the same way that I am near to running a four-minute mile.

Tom's knowledge of history proved to be a little sketchy (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Helen and Tom are faring better. Helen who – let’s remember, has experience in both the restaurant and bakery trade – is all over the taste of her products, which are being prepared by a Heston Blumenthal lookalike. And she is carefully considering trading off margin against ensuring a good quality product. She is talking sound business sense. Did I switch over to the wrong show? Meanwhile, everyone’s favourite madcap inventor is seeking branding inspiration for their mini pies by taking photos in a baby boutique – no, I don’t know why either – and then misreading a random sign in a shop window that prompts the idea ‘MyPy’ which, it has to be said, is genuinely very good. Helen agrees, adding the tagline ‘Say hello to British pies’.

So far, so good. But then the pair have a disastrous phone conversation about naming their pies after influential British historical figures such as William Drake (Sir Francis’s lesser-known brother perhaps?) and the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who they agree discovered the potato. Obviously, it wasn’t Walter Raleigh, then – who presumably invented the Chopper bike?

Tom chuckles at the end of the conversation:

It’s either utter madness or complete genius.

Many a true word, Tom. Many a true word.

A new definition of ‘fast’?

The following morning, both teams have six hours to dress their restaurants, organise and rehearse their processes before opening the doors to an unsuspecting public. Hats off to both teams, whose off-the-cuff design concepts are both pretty good. At Caraca’s, there is lots of focus on dressing the shop and no focus whatsoever on the kitchen or front-of-house processes, with the two girls seemingly leaving this all to Jim and their overwhelmed kitchen hand. Things are going more smoothly at MyPy, where all is calm and they organise a dummy run before proceeding. Their only hiccup comes when Nick Hewer questions Columbus’s nationality, leaving the question artfully hanging as the awful truth dawns on Tom.

As lunchtime beckons, both restaurants throw their doors open for two hours to serve 100 paying customers. (You really have to hope they’re not actually paying, but have been roped in as part of the set-up. And given indigestion pills.)

Susan: "friendly but slow" or "crazy waitress"? You decide (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

At Caraca’s, one customer waits ten minutes without receiving his fajita, stretching the definition of ‘fast food’ way beyond the point at which the elastic snapped. Others receive their nachos and fajitas cold with a sprinkling of unmelted cheese. Really? Did no one notice? Or is Jim hoping to use his Jedi mind powers on customers to convince them their food is piping hot? And their order-taking system appears to involve Susan and Natasha running around flapping their arms and shouting a lot. I hadn’t realised this was the bookmakers’ task.

At MyPy, they are serving customers inside three minutes – pretty good. But surely serving pie, mash and gravy in a cardboard box is a recipe for (a) burnt fingers and (b) a large laundry bill?

Test run done, both teams breathe a sigh of relief and review their customer feedback forms. MyPy seem to have received a largely positive response, while Caraca’s, er, haven’t. Comments include “friendly but slow” (a perfect description of Susan, no?) and “crazy waitress” (this could potentially have been the unbroadcast footage of Natasha telling a disgruntled customer that a 15-minute wait for food was a ‘win-win situation’). And those are just the positive responses.

Expert opinions

The final day of the task, and the candidates must employ the lessons learned the previous day as they have to serve Sugar himself and a pack of industry experts. (Sadly, Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders are nowhere to be seen.) Together, they will mark the teams out of ten on four factors: customer service, standard of food and menu, brand identity and long-term business viability.

Jim is unlikely to find a future as an accountant (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

First up is a visit to Caraca’s, where the presentation of the food reminds Sugar of something his son’s dog puked up. When quizzed on his business numbers, Jim suggests that 60 customers in two hours spending £7 each somehow equates to £4,800. Which he then corrects to £4,200. Er. It’s an awfully embarrassing moment, but in fairness to Jim he has had to do pretty much everything on this task, so a little brain fade is perhaps understandable. Nonetheless, I really want him to be my bank manager.

MyPy are complimented for the quality of their food, their strong messaging of having 100% British ingredients, and for occupying a viable niche in the market complete with a sound understanding of the numbers. Tom steps on Helen’s toes at one point during the pitch and is flummoxed when asked how they will cope as a hot food concept in summer, but otherwise it’s a confident and competent performance by the pair. And seriously (a) this is Britain – what summer? – and (b) I don’t exactly see those West Cornwall Pasty Company shops having any problems during the summer months. Or, you know, curry houses.

Boardroom brouhaha™

This turns out to be one of the dullest boardrooms ever, largely because it is so obvious which team has won and also which member of the losing team is going. Sugar praises Helen and Tom, and it is no surprise when the experts’ scores give them a resounding average of seven out of ten versus just four for Venture. Helen and Tom are told they are in the final – no treat, though – while the losers head off to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™.

Jim is sure he knows what went wrong:

The girls didn’t play ball – throwing toys out of the pram. I was like Mother Teresa as opposed to project manager.

He has a point. Jim’s contribution to the task was certainly much more than one-third, while Natasha and Susan seemed to spend most of their time either buying sombreros or arguing that black is white.

Natasha was quick to talk up the relevance of her hospitality degree - until it came to the boardroom (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Sugar is in no mood for forgiveness back in the boardroom, slamming the team for not having worked out their costings and margins. Natasha is grilled over why she didn’t utilise her experience from her hospitality degree. Having earlier bragged about how she had effectively had to complete an assignment almost identical to this task as part of her course, she then backs away from its usefulness in this task, saying that it wasn’t being taken in the right context. She accuses Jim of making personal comments and that she would rather keep things professional, only to turn around and accuse him of having a dark side.

Susan did make one key contribution – correcting their ordering and serving process on the final day – but she also spends too much of her time playing the blame game (“Jim didn’t do this, Jim didn’t do that”) and denying all responsibility for anything whatsoever during the task. Except the sombreros. She also prattles on about how she has lots of original ideas. Like the sombreros, obviously, which isn’t a cliché at all. It’s an interesting definition of the word ‘original’ which is perhaps closer to ‘blatant rip-off’.

Jim holds his own, though, bemoaning Susan’s excitability and manic enthusiasm on the one hand, while slamming Natasha’s apathy and despair on the other.

Karren Brady warns Sugar:

You need a sieve with Susan because you have to work out what stuff is meaningful and what is meaningless.

Sugar makes up his mind, and it is clear that he now has the measure of the three of them. Jim is a charismatic blagger with no plan. Susan doesn’t get on with people – she is one of those people whose glass is not only half empty, but chipped and contains hydrochloric acid. And Natasha has looked lacklustre in the last few weeks. (I think he’s talking about her lank hair – if he’s talking about her performance, he’s being too kind.)

Sugar tells them that Susan is in the final, and Jim is too. And just in case they haven’t joined the dots, he informs Natasha she is fired with one jab of the Digit of Doom™.

In the Taxi to Obscurity™, Natasha claims:

In this process some of the characters will scream and shout and fight. I’m not willing to lose my own dignity. I’ve walked out of this process with my head held high.

It was time for Natasha to go. She brought a lot of energy to the process, but also a tendency to spout business buzzwords in entirely the wrong context. Asking the Ritz to hand over confidential supplier information to a competitor and describing it as ‘a win-win situation’. Trying to couch rubbish removal as ‘working in partnership’. Even her winning sub-Loaded magazine concept (“porn sells”) was poorly thought through and executed. Behind all the commendable enthusiasm, there wasn’t a huge amount of business nous there. Not that I’m saying Jim (a one-trick sales pony, albeit a very good trick) and Susan (a terrific Del Boy-style trader, but terribly naive, negative and awful in teams) are that much better. I still find it difficult to see beyond Helen and Tom, as I have all along. I’m sticking with Tom to win it.

Next week (Sunday, actually): It’s time for the four finalists to hand over their business plans and face an interview grilling from Lord Sugar’s appointed team of rottweilers. Which means … Margaret’s back! (But don’t forget to address her as Ms Mountford, eh?)

The series concludes with a two-hour special on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm, covering the final and including You’re Hired with Dara O’Briain.

Link: BBC official website

Episode reviews:

Season 7 preview

£250 business start-up

Mobile phone application

Discount buying for the Savoy

Beauty treatments

Create, brand and launch a pet food

Rubbish

Freemium magazine launch

Paris

Biscuit

Flip it

Whatever happened to the previous Apprentice winners?

Season 1: Tim Campbell

Season 2: Michelle Dewberry

Season 3: Simon Ambrose

Season 4: Lee McQueen

Season 5: Yasmina Siadatan