Brown's beer: Stop pushing extras onto us, we aren't fat cash cows!

Beer guru Pete Brown makes an impassioned plea for publicans to treat their customers like humans

“Would you like any cakes or pastries with that?”

I appreciate that people have said worse things to each other, but if I’m ever unfortunate enough to find myself on the edge of a nervous breakdown, this is the phrase that will push me over the edge and see me arrested and sectioned for squatting in a corner of a London train station concourse throwing insults and excrement at passers-by.

It’s an insult. In fact it’s two insults for the price of one: one physical, one mental.

I am somewhat overweight. If I buy a big coffee and a bacon baguette or a bag of crisps, and then someone asks me if I would also like a nice greasy cake or pastry, that person is basically calling me a lardass, someone who obviously looks like he enjoys the pies and just needs a little nudge to succumb to the urge to smear sugar and complex carbs around his greasy chin.

Or that’s how it feels, anyway.

And it’s also suggesting I might be mentally subnormal. Listen: if I wanted cakes or pastries, I would have said so when I placed my order, wouldn’t I? I’m not so mentally vacant that I need to be reminded to eat.

“Would you like any cakes or pastries with that?”

“Oh my God, yes I would! Thank goodness you reminded me. I’m so stupid I’d have starved to death eventually without your help.”

A simple “Anything else?” would be fine. That’s a straightforward question. I may not have finished my order, and you’re just making sure. Trying to sell me something specific that I have not asked for is entirely different.

I’m not stupid. And I did once work in marketing.

(And no, those two sentences do not contradict each other. Not entirely, anyway.)

I know this practice is called ‘upselling,’ and I know staff are ordered to do it, and I know this is because it increases turnover when implemented.

But – and by God, never has it been more difficult to write a column without swearing – it is *&%£^@$ RUDE to the customer. However you look at it. And it makes this particular customer want to be rude back to the staff in turn. I hold it in – as much as I can – because I know they have been ordered to insult my intelligence and physique in this way.

What a wretched travesty of customer service our retail standards have become.

Even at its best, even by retailers’ own standards, even if you take my paranoid ranting out of the equation, upselling only works because it makes people buy something they did not intend to buy when they approached the counter. Most of us are trying on a daily basis to avoid tempting treats we know are not good for us. It’s a tiny victory of willpower and self-definition each time the cake or pastry lover manages to order a skinny latte without giving in. And then these BASTARDS mandate their staff to say, “Oh go on, you know you want to. You might look great now, but your inner fatty is trying to get out. Fatty.”

Whether you buy my paranoia or not, upselling demonstrates a lack of respect for the customer.

For me, it’s mere irritation – as it stands right now. I’m lucky that I don’t actually like French pastry covered in sugary glaze. I’m entirely unmoved by the prospect of a pain au chocolat. It’s dirty food and I want none of it.

As soon as the bastards work this out and start asking me ‘Would you like some chips with that?” or “Would you like a cheeky bacon roll with that?” I’ll be dead of a massive heart attack within the year.

Why am I raising this in column that is supposedly about beer and pubs? Simple.

Because pubs do not upsell.

And that is one of the many things that make them great.

The relationship between retailer and consumer is totally different in a pub from anywhere else. It’s not just a transaction; it’s also an exchange of welcome and greetings.

We demand and expect a less formal, more human interaction in the pub. When we are regulars, or even just recognised, it’s common for us to exchange pleasantries or even serious conversation in a way we would never do with the staff of AMT Coffee or the slaves to upselling at Upper Crust – whose point-of-sale now asks us to seriously believe they are ‘fanatical about baguettes and pastries’, as if they’re foisting extra calories upon us because they simply can’t bear the thought that we might not experience such bliss on the palate, or that their wonderful creations may remain unsold and unloved after we’ve all got our trains home.

Even in pubs where we get surly minimum wage service and the pub of the collective imagination feels far away in some Enid Blytonesque past, it would be vile and sordid if they were to upsell. It would shatter the whole atmosphere that sets the pub apart from a mere coffee shop or sandwich vendor.

How do I know?

Because last week, for the first time, someone tried to upsell me in a pub.

“Would you like any crisps or nuts with that?”

I wanted to burn the place down.

Suddenly I wasn’t a punter in a local, I was a customer in a shop. There’s a blankness to it, a dehumanizing of the relationship. It’s such a formal thing to ask, it contains a Russian Doll’s worth of meanings within meanings. Beneath the outer skin of impersonal rudeness, there’s a steel skeleton of indifference. It may be completely wrong, but the upsell suggests that this person is a robot, someone who can only speak in pre-approved phrases. This is not someone with whom you’ll be sparking up a conversation about the football or the weather, or trading jokes.

And suddenly it feels like a retail establishment, and the most important ingredient of the pub – its atmosphere – has evaporated, and you ask yourself why you’re not buying beer from Tesco’s instead, and drinking it at home.

Good publicans understand this. And that’s why I have only ever been upsold in a pub once, and why I’m confident it won’t happen again. It may increase the turnover on individual transactions, but we do not love those transactions or the people we make them with. And the good publican understands that our love and affection is worth far more than the margin on an overpriced bag of nuts.  

I don’t care how many branches you have or what kind of monopolistic stranglehold you enjoy. You can learn from pubs that consumers are people, and enjoy being treated – and respected – as such.

Pete Brown is the author of the newly published Shakespeare’s Local, an amusing romp through six centuries of history through the George Inn near London Bridge, watering hole to Chaucer, Dickens and the Swan of Avon. It is currently Radio 4’s book of the week.

Pete is also celebrating being crowned Beer Writer of the Year for a second time

Readers' comments (1)

  • Don't know about the weight part of it because I think they ask everyone, but I'm with you 100% about it being INCREDIBLY rude. It's like they think we're morons who don't know that they're trying to sell us something extra. Internally I always think: "DID I ASK FOR A 99 CENT BAKERY ITEM?!!!" Bastards. I hate it.

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