The Apprentice 2011: Helen eats Natasha for breakfast – and gives us all food for thought

What we learned from last night's Apprentice episode

With each new episode of The Apprentice, it gets harder to sift the real business lessons from the theatrical shenanigans. No-one is more theatrical than Lord Sugar; frankly, there hasn’t been a better pantomime villain on our screens since Wolf from Gladiators hung up his leotard.

Every time he appears on the show, descending from a glass elevator or emerging from a long corridor, it’s as if Darth Vader has arrived at a Sith board meeting, and his very presence appears to reduce each contestant to a babbling half-wit. Watching them beg for mercy and slit each other’s throats, it’s hard to believe this is the ‘entrepeneurial elite’ we are promised at the start of the programme.

Last night’s episode was as farcical as ever. Asked by Sugar to create a viable fast food business, from scratch, in just two days, the two teams went off on markedly different tangents. While Logic, comprising Helen and Tom, created a tight-knit and well-conceived outlet based on British food, Venture, led by Jim, dissolved into a morass of squabbling buffoonery, eventually serving up some half-cooked, half-baked Mexican food to universal disapproval.

Britain’s restaurant industry is currently healthier than ever – a recent report claimed UK consumers are set to spend £42bn on eating out this year- and fast food is a crucial segment of this market, as Startups’ guide to starting a restaurant shows. Thus many Startups readers will doubtless have considered opening their own fast food outlet, or franchise, at some stage. But what can these readers take from last night’s episode?

Here are our top five lessons:

Create a proper system

When Sugar walked through the door of Caraca’s, to music which sounded like the theme from Jaws, it was only going to end badly for Jim’s team. The system they had created was nothing more than a rabble; Susan was running about as a host-cum-waitress, to no use whatsoever, while Natasha flapped and floundered on the checkout.

Eric Partaker, co-founder of Chilango and a former Growing Business Young Gun, was one of the fast food experts drafted in by Sugar last night. He told us: “I think it was clear that the losing team was doomed to fail. Running a business like ours requires planning and focus, and I think they lost their way.”

There’s no magical ingredient to making food quickly. All you have to do is create a clear, logical structure, in which each employee has a clearly defined role, and everyone communicates with one another. In other words, the opposite of what Jim’s team did.

Take a clear view

People often say that leaders have to be able to get their hands dirty, and lead by example. But in reality, this misses the point of leadership completely. If you’re in charge of an operation, you have to take a step back from the action, and allow yourself a panoramic view of what’s going on.

When Jim, as project manager, agreed to work in the Caraca’s kitchen, it was akin to the owner of an industrial company taking a job on the shop floor. When things started going wrong for his team, he was in no position to do anything about it.

In contrast, Helen put together a meticulous business plan, compiled a spreadsheet with forecasts and working out profit margins. Her decision to focus on smaller margins by adding high-quality steak to one of her pies was a brave one, but it was based on the soundest of research – and ultimately it paid off.

Market your brand

When it came to branding and marketing, the contrast between the two teams couldn’t have been greater. For Helen’s team, Tom analysed his USP, considered his target audience, visited shops for market research and compiled a scrapbook of ideas. Meanwhile Jim’s team plucked a name out of the air, and stuck a sombrero on it.

Eric Partaker said: “They (Jim’s team) were a lively bunch, but when Jim and Susan started talking about “Caraca’s” I wanted to hide my face in my hands and slip under the table.

“Their concept was clichéd, their design was flawed, they chose a bad name which I simply didn’t get, they provided poor service and even let a bank of microwave ovens be visible to their customers.”

Eric told us that, after changing the name of his business from Mucho Mas to Chilango, sales increased by around 100% – even though the menu, staff and location were essentially the same. Proof, if any was needed, that choosing the right name and creating an effective brand is integral to success in this market.

Make sure the food’s right

As discussed above, effective marketing and organisation is a vital part of the fast food mix, and demands the utmost attention. But, if you get the product wrong, you’ll still come unstuck.

As Sugar’s fast food experts were quick to point out, the food in Caraca’s was poor – and that was arguably Venture’s most damning shortcoming. Even though they’d had specialist chefs to prepare the food, even though the project manager was in the kitchen, even though the task was, clearly, about food, they still couldn’t produce a decent product.

Looking back on his own business, Eric Partaker said: “There’s one key component to a fast business – the right product. Not just the right one, but the best one. In the first five months of our business, we spent so much time and energy in getting the food right… every single weekend for a year was about cooking, cooking, cooking.

“That’s why our guests come back each time – the brand has evolved and we’ve grown, but it’s the food that sits at the heart of what we do.”

Show passion

If you don’t love your own food, there’s little chance anyone else will. If you don’t pour your creative juices into every meal you make, you’re going to be gobbled up by the competition.

Eric Partaker was particularly effusive on this subject, telling us that Helen’s passion “really stood out,” and criticising Natasha, the woman with a degree in the food industry, for her contrasting approach.

“I was surprised Natasha didn’t put herself forward as project manager with a degree in the industry, (but) being an entrepreneur is about believing in your product and having passion. You don’t need a degree – you need enthusiasm, guts and common sense. It seemed as though she’d given up on the whole process.”

With so many competitors out there, starting a fast food business is a daunting challenge. If you don’t believe in yourself, you’ll vanish without trace.

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