Wednesday 13 December 2017

Boiling Point: Winding Stair owner on how over-regulation is killing food flavour

Over-regulation of restaurants is killing creativity - and the flavour of our food - says Elaine Murphy of the winding stair

Elaine Murphy of The Winding Stair restaurant in Dublin
Elaine Murphy of The Winding Stair restaurant in Dublin

The Irish restaurant industry is thriving, but no thanks to its over-regulation which costs not just the restaurateur but the diner too. But my biggest gripe is not the financial burden. For me, it's more critical: over-regulation stymies the very essence of what we are about. It is counter-creative.

Take the current requirement to list 14 allergens on restaurant menus. Previously, a menu change was an exciting and relatively easy manoeuvre. The game supplier has a limited stock of veal in season? Let's put it on special or on a seasonal menu. Now, we have to analyse the dish and print an allergen guideline. Soon, we'll also have to analyse the calorific content. The result? Let's not bother putting it on!

The seasonal dynamism of menu changing becomes tiresome, costly and even prohibitive. Restaurants also are less willing to offer, for example, gluten-free options as we are expected to have a dedicated gluten-free kitchen which not many do. The result is less choice and less flexibility for our customers.

Outside dining is also over-regulated. Despite our Irish weather, we are still drawn to sit outside for a coffee, a smoke, a chat, with a lapdog. People often marvel at the cost of a coffee on the sidewalk being €3 or more, but it costs the Dublin restaurateur tens of thousands in licence fees to put a few tables on the street. Plus, you must supply images and plans of the type and colour of the furniture and are expected to adhere to a particular type of screen.

Again, the impact is more than financial. Think of cityscapes abroad, teeming with colourful outside spaces, with brightly painted chairs and tables, benches wedged into lanes and on to walls, signs and A-Boards everywhere announcing menus and deals.

Street dining and drinking creates a positive presence, reduces crime, gentrifies in the real and best sense, creates a hub, reduces the need for policing and brings a street alive at night. Without prohibitive licensing and costs, areas of Dublin that are abandoned and less populated with restaurants and bars could come alive again.

Speaking of licences, we require a costly licence to manage our waste and grease. The council sub-contracts these licences to companies that regularly inspect us. We spend excessive time working through paperwork when we should be researching and creating, and excessive money on these licences, which could be used for keeping prices down.

Overly tough health guidelines hit our food's flavour, too. Think of Spain and Italy: dried meats hanging overhead, people with their dogs in tow, one customer toilet (if any) and bowls of anchovies and olives and all sorts of yummies lying around.

While I'm not suggesting that we relax our regulations to unsafe levels, our legislation currently disallows all of the above. Food must be fridge-cold (rendering it tasteless) and very little can be exposed.

Where's the joy in all of this? With all of these hidden costs, it's no surprise that very small restaurants are few and far between. Over-regulation stymies the very creativity that needs to be fostered to help our industry truly thrive.

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