Interview: Elizabeth Carter, Editor Good Food Guide (2013)

Posted on: January 22nd, 2013 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Elizabeth Carter

Elizabeth Carter, Editor Good Food Guide 2013

The Which? Good Food Guide is a long standing, trusted companion – providing an interesting read as well as a reliable source of information.  The Guide has proven as dynamic as it is robust by moving seamlessly into the twenty-first century.  This has been achieved, in no small part,  by embracing forms of communication and content distribution that are so important in the modern age.

The Guide was founded by Raymond Postgate in 1951; during the last 62 years there have been only seven editors.  Elizabeth Carter (left) is in her seventh year as editor and found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide.

Interview took place Tuesday 3rd January 2013 at The Square restaurant, London.

How have you enjoyed your experience so far as editor of The Good Food Guide?

I can’t believe that I’m about to embark on the seventh book as editor, the time has gone by so fast and I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Of course there have been challenges and opportunities – when I came in we had to change the way the guide looked (and was perceived) while bringing it firmly into the twenty-first century.

Achieving these objectives has not been easy but nonetheless an enjoyable challenge.

Tell us about the features you have introduced.

A strategy with two strands. First, to take the book forward by introducing a number of new features and making various upgrading and updating changes. Second, by embracing the digital and mobile worlds of content distribution that are imperative in the twenty-first century.

The top 50 has been important and the responsibility in compiling it is something I take very seriously. Indeed, our readers as well as the chefs have responded very positively to it.  I remember contacting one chef to provide notice that his restaurant was being promoted from 8/10 to 9/10. His immediate reaction was to think of the top 50 list and that I was telling him he was in ninth place. When it dawned on him he had achieved a rare 9/10 score – he was speechless with shock and delight.

The Reader Awards have been another integral addition and they reflect the Good Food Guide philosophy very strongly. They tell our readers that their views are very important and that we’re in this together in making recommendations – they are the backbone of the guide.

I’m really proud of the fact that the guide is a more colourful, interesting, inclusive and accessible read than ever before.

And also about the web presence and subscription model.

We put a lot of time, effort and money into producing the book each year.  While the book remains a very successful publication, it is important for The Good Food Guide to reach the widest possible audience, which involves embracing all modern channels of communication.

In terms of the web presence, we are taking concrete steps to significantly enhance our nascent website and provide more dynamic, timely content.  We have launched a subscription model and we’re excited about the flexibility this brings – our readers can now pay a small monthly subscription to access our reviews online or can opt for a ‘bundle’, giving them the print guide and a year’s online access.  Moving The Good Food Guide (as I’m sure all guides are finding) from a static publication to one that is digital, dynamic and interactive for the reader is one of the biggest challenges being faced today and one of the most exciting.

Moving forward, we expect to offer a full range of information to subscribers over and above content available elsewhere.  The Good Food Guide also has the interactiveness of the web at its heart – reader feedback has been integral to the guide from the very beginning and we want to protect and extend this dialogue with our readers by embracing user-generated comment, albeit in a careful, moderated fashion. The Good Food Guide is not in the Trip Advisor marketplace! We’ll be making some significant online developments this year, yet to be announced.

And about the mobile app…

The 2013 Good Food Guide iPhone app has just launched (January) with the entire Good Food Guide, including reviews, available to the user.  We’re very excited about this version, which is a step up in terms of functionality and interaction. February will see an automatic update to the app, delivering Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter integration.

The world is going mobile in terms of distribution of content (and functionality) and the app has been a great success – both this year’s and last year’s app went straight to the number one spots in the relevant charts.  I really appreciate how good it is as I have used it myself when out and about:  I was doing a research trip in Devon and Cornwall last year (2012), it was pouring with rain and I just wanted to stop somewhere for a bowl of soup.  I tapped in my location and sure enough some local places were suggested and I found a great pub that served good food.  It was a proud moment to find it all worked so perfectly (smiling)!

I’m delighted that the annual Good Food Guide app is selling so well without denting guidebook sales.  This is not to say that the paper world of publishing isn’t facing tough times, it surely is. However the move into the digital world has been a successful one for The Good Food Guide, and we feel we are reaching out to a newer, wider audience.

At the moment we are specifically targeting the Apple iOS market with the app but are not ruling out additional platforms in the future.

What is your review of the restaurant dining scene over 2012?

London has seen a remarkable amount of vibrant positive energy over the last year considering the recession faced by the country.  From street food through to the top end all appear to be doing well in the capital, and food related pubs are also strengthening, it seems to be the wet-led pubs that are closing.

In the countryside there is sensitivity to price – some areas without doubt have struggled.  Possibly food in country house hotels has been a tough market in 2012, and some have begun to change the way they operate – look at Lime Wood with it’s Angela Hartnett connection and more relaxed attitude to dining, and Chewton Glen’s introduction of the more accessible Vetiver.  It’s a reflection of the changing times: people are more interested in informality and accessibility than ever before and this has led them away from the more formal or traditional offerings.

The Good Food Guide Newcomer of the Year – The Gunton Arms in Norfolk – part pub, part bar, part hotel, part restaurant – is an example of a modern establishment that has got everything just about right for its customers, and is thriving as a result.

What do you expect to see in 2013?

The year of the food-led pub (again).  If you look at the financial figures, for a young chef or a young couple starting up a business, an independent restaurant just doesn’t make financial sense.  A pub has the benefit of lower start-up and maintenance costs (if leased from a brewery) as well as a customer base for the drinks side of the business. Just look at chefs like Tom Kerridge and Steve Harris and see what they have achieved with the Hand and Flowers and the Sportsman – both brewery-owned pubs.

These types of venues offer the chef the opportunity to have anything on offer from morning coffee, through breakfast, bar snacks to full menu dinners and possibly a few rooms.  This scope and flexibility is what customers are looking for and provides a market for the future.

In comparison, the small 20 or so cover independent, family-run restaurant will make little viable business sense.  In America they’re known as “mom and pop” restaurants and tend to be aimed at the budget market. In Britain they are inclined to have higher aspirations and higher prices – financially not for Britain in the midst of a prolonged recession and I’ve already seen a couple of closures in that area and know of others up for sale.

In Britain, we are seeing a cultural shift in terms of people eating out.  The idea of having destination restaurants for birthdays and anniversaries is still there but now supplemented by the desire to eat out more often. This will continue into 2013 but I expect to see people being careful in choosing their restaurants, both in terms of the style of offering and the sensitivity to price.

Where do you see The Good Food Guide going in the future?

It started in 1951 and, 62 years on, the guide remains robust and secure in its position as the bestselling UK restaurant guide. The Good Food Guide has always had a strong reputation and I’m pleased that we have continued to build on that strength by opening up to the digital world of the twenty-first century.  And we know, because restaurants tell us, that the Good Food Guide puts the most ‘bums on seats’, and I am convinced we will continue to do so.

I’m very proud that the guide champions and celebrates British chefs, in an inclusive manner, from those that run small tea shops through to those at the top end who stand up, benchmarking wise, to the very best in Europe and beyond.