Watching the Apprentice’s final episode last night, I found myself feeling, as well as pleased for the winner, a certain unease. Yasmina Siadatan, the bright eyed twenty-something who ran her own restaurant, had clearly been very efficient at her tasks and performed well over the series. But I found myself questioning the meaning of ‘efficient’ in the context of business in the Apprentice. One of her tasks had been to create an event, cater for it and charge for admission. Alan Sugar, in the recap, stated that Yasmina had made an ‘unheard-of’ 200% profit on this event, partly explained by the fact that she sourced the cheapest ingredients for everything, including tuna for the cold canapes. Footage of this particular episode showed guests wincing at the taste, and making complaints, while Yasmina’s presentation was also questioned: the tuna was plonked on the plate without an attempt to make it look pretty. However, as Sir Alan Sugar said, profit was the most important thing here “You made a 200% profit, a few complaints don’t really matter”. Her task in the final episode involved making chocolate and turning it into a chocolate bar. Again, the taste of this was apparently pretty horrific (we have Jonathan Ross’ word for this, and he looks like a foodie to me). The boss’ reaction? “You put price first, then packaging, then marketing and then if the product isn’t right, you can always tweak it. That’s how corporations work” (I’m quoting from memory).
Why did this make me so uncomfortable? Firstly, I am disappointed that someone who runs a successful restaurant should be driven purely by profit considerations about the food they offer customers, rather than by a love of good food and sharing it with others. As a waitress in my teens, I was taught to ‘water down’ tuna in sandwiches by adding ultra-cheap mayonnaise to the mix so that customers’ sandwiches would cost less to produce. It’s this kind of ‘profit before all else’ attitude in catering that leads, eventually, to cutting too many corners and food poisoning. I’m also old fashioned enough to believe that the product and the customer are the most essential thing for sales: of course marketing, packaging (although this is often not eco friendly!) and price also count, but so does the intrinsic quality of the product itself, and good customer service: otherwise, how are you going to lure a customer back? They might eat in your restaurant once, but will they return?
The essence of the tasks in the Apprentice are to finish the task successfully, and make a profit: they’re not about staying in business long-term, or building up a relationship with customers. That, in the end, is what makes me feel that while the show teaches us about how to make sales, it does not necessary teach us about everything that makes a business work. This does not detract at all from Yasmina’s achievement, and I’m sure she will make a great Apprentice, but I think small ethical businesses like mine would do well to take some of the business lessons given by the show with a pinch of salt.