Interview: Peter Harden (May 2017)

Posted on: May 27th, 2017 by Simon Carter

Right from those early days, it was clear that a restaurant industry related career beckoned for Peter Harden: From being a discerning young foodie at Cambridge University through to his early experiences in Manhattan using the Zagat Guide, Peter (and his brother Richard) were destined not to spend a lifetime in city based banking.  The formation and evolution of Harden’s Guides tells of a fascinating journey, along with many razor-sharp insights into the restaurant industry landscape, Peter Harden here shares his career stories and observations with Simon Carter of fine dining guide in an interview which took place over a memorable lunch at The Waterside Inn, Bray in early May 2017.

Peter Harden

Tell us some background about yourself and also about the formation of the Harden’s Guide.

I’ve always loved food, in fact, I was a portly teenager. When I arrived at Cambridge University my nickname was ‘Hoover Harden,’ I went on to do a lot of rowing which helped me lose a significant amount of weight but did not diminish my love of food. I was food and drink secretary for my college May Ball and at that time saw myself as a more-discerning-than-most (of my peers) dining out person.

My father loved to travel, nowhere particularly exotic, but he would always enjoy finding a restaurant that he said had a bit of fun and a bit of life about it. For his 65th birthday, he came down to London to visit my brother and I and tasked us with finding a celebration restaurant that cost no more than £10 per head! We went to the Alounak (Persian), which was one of London’s first pop-ups in a Portakabin in a car park by Olympia station. We had to cheat a little and do BYO on the wine but it was great fun. People would not think anything of that type of informal pop-up nowadays, but it was both special and unusual at that time.

As to the formation of Harden’s Guide: I was working in New York as a Junk Bond Analyst and my brother was working in Germany as a banker. In Manhattan, the Zagat Guide was a handy pocket size guide and based on reader feedback, which had been around for about five years and was taking off in New York. There was also a similar, pocket size series of German restaurant guides based on reader feedback called Marcellino’s, which my brother Richard had used when dining out.

After 3 years in New York, I was looking to move back to London and met my brother in Chester (where we grew up) for one of our father’s birthdays. We discussed the absence of useful reader feedback restaurant guides for London produced in a similar way to those that we had found so useful on our travels. My brother Richard suggested we start our own guide and it took me about 30 seconds to say yes! We started Harden’s Guides on New Year’s Day 1991 and launched our first book on 10th November of the same year. My brother had continued working in banking for the initial period to help fund the setting up of databases and the necessary research processes, which included a lot of eating out!

What are the key moments in the evolution of Harden’s Guide.

Today the buzz around entrepreneurialism, the availability of information on the web, and the high profile of dining out would mean a couple of brothers starting a restaurant guide would be a quite natural thing to do, but back in the early 1990s, it seemed more unusual and adventurous. Essentially our first survey was made up of 110 friends’ restaurant experiences.

The fact that affordable desktop computer technology had just been invented facilitated the whole process of research management through to publication and we were at the forefront of using such technologies. In fact, once upon a time, we had a Psion 5 app, which was very bleeding edge (and prescient) by today’s ubiquitous technologies standards.

After our first year of publication we were briefly in competition with Fay Maschler’s Evening Standard Restaurant Guide, a situation which lasted for a couple of years, and the reality was that retail book publishing was not the most lucrative space to inhabit. A breakthrough happened through an introduction to a leading city figure whose company ordered leather bound customised editions as Christmas gifts to employees. This opened up the market to bulk sales to city and property companies. In addition, the kind of people that business leaders wanted to give away copies of the book to were likely to be discerning diners, this fact had the dual effect of creating an ideal reader audience plus an ideal potential market for restaurant surveys. As this market has always represented two to three times the volume of sales via retail stores then the quality of the guide benefited in a positive cycle.

The Harden’s Guide has been published for 27 years but only for the last dozen or so of those years has social media provided a vent for “real people” to share their opinions with those who really wanted to listen. By a kind of happenstance, from an early stage, the Guide marketed itself virally before viral marketing existed – The deal remains that if you submit five reviews of different restaurants you receive a free copy upon publication. Back in the 1990s, largely city workers, who were spending as much as six figures a year on dining out had the cathartic experience of sharing their dining experiences while naturally growing the circulation and credibility of the guide to experienced diners.

We had a big business opportunity with the 1997 General Election when the New Statesman magazine wanted to move with the times and align itself more with champagne socialism than the labour movement’s traditional diet of beer and sarnies, and as a result purchased 30,000 cut down copies of Harden’s Guide to put on their front cover. The Guardian picked this up and purchased 250,000 of our Cheap Eats Guide and then The Observer sponsored the first national survey, from which we completed six regional results packages, with the result that the paper circulated half a million copies of the National Harden’s Guide.

Harden's Guide 2017Later on we had a ten years sponsorship relationship with Remy Martin from which we developed a five year arrangement with the Sunday Times: Harden’s data was used to produce the Sunday Times top 100 restaurants list. This relationship came to a conclusion this year.

Our aim remains to be the most accessible Guide as it is focuses acclaim on restaurants giving real value at all price levels, rather than just lauding the most expensive establishments. Overall we remain proud that discerning diners are a key audience for the Harden’s Guide. The fact that it is so price sensitive is a reflection of a market where consumers quickly vote with their feet to find optimum value!

How would you describe the marking system of the Harden’s Guide?

Our survey asks for unprompted nominations of favourite restaurants visited in the last twelve months in different categories, together with marks and comments. The qualitative nature of the resulting data is far higher quality than saying “what do you think of such-and-such a restaurant”. As well as the customer survey of restaurants visited, Harden’s conduct telephone and web research to produce benchmark prices for the restaurants featured. These prices are then used to divide restaurants into five league tables.

So let’s say that there is a premier league of around 100 restaurants at over £90 per head and you are wanting to work out that given your (larger) budget, where can you eat that gives the best value for money for that spend? In each table, we average the raw marks achieved in the survey, directly awarded by our readers from 1 to 5 for each of the three attributes on our survey form: food, service and atmosphere. We then take those average marks and rank the restaurants for each of those three attributes. A given restaurant’s ratings depend on the positions that restaurant achieves in the premier league table. This process goes on for the further four league tables of decreasing benchmarked price to determine relative quality and value against food, service and atmosphere.

It may sound complicated but it is actually completely logical and provides valuable information from otherwise raw and unstructured data.

How has the rise of the web affected Harden’s Guide?

The web now offers us a significant opportunity, having presented as such only after initially appearing as only a threat. Actually, although the web was a threat to print media publishing it was not necessarily an existential one, but the smartphone was. I would say 2007 and the advent of the iPhone was a big milestone for consumer publishers and more significant than that of the web per se.

At the same time, there has been a cultural shift in dining out habits around the world – dining out is now something that touches far more people everywhere. In the UK in particular it is no longer viewed as elitist. Today, a journey to a restaurant of any cost probably starts with half an hour’s on-line research. Opinions are sought after and considered carefully. This is a big opportunity compared with 20 years ago when interest in dining reviews was seen as being very niche.

Probably the largest threat to Harden’s Guide pre-web and pre-cultural shift was that no-one would bother to buy a Guide of any kind and that publishers would see the occupied market as tiny, inaccessible and snobby. Not so anymore, everyone is eating out and so many also take advantage of the empowering social media platforms to be a reviewer. People are generally engaged in the whole process of seeking out feedback, dining out and providing their own feedback – this can only be good for Harden’s! The business case is more-and-more solid for a geo-located mobile app that includes subscription access to quality current data in line with the Harden’s model of restaurant assessment. We aim to publish the latest iteration in around October 2017.

What are your views on on-line reader-led websites such Trip Advisor, Google Reviews and Bookatable?

There exists a lot of accumulated unstructured data without much in the way of credible information. While all the eyes are on-line, the actual credibility lies elsewhere. My local pub The Andover Arms was rated number two out of 17,500 restaurants for much of last year on Trip Advisor – In fact it wasn’t the second best out of five pubs within half a mile of where I live. This shows the huge limitation of such measuring systems. While web reader on-line sites have gained reach they have yet to make headway to pick apart data and make valuable information. Overall big unstructured data equals confusion by comparison to more focussed approaches such as that followed by Harden’s.

What are your views on the rise of blogs, digital media sites and social media.

I’m full of admiration for the insights and entertainment value of bloggers, particularly specialist ones. But when it comes to creating a guide, the weaknesses of the blog or journalistic model is that the perspective is as strong as the amount of comparative data; an individual only has their own dining experiences to rely upon and no matter how discerning, grounded, knowledgeable and eloquent an individual may be this will always be the limiting factor. This is not to say that opinion formers, as individuals, don’t exist but even where they do, their opinion will be limited compared to a collective. The collective will always represent the tide even where the individual may witness the turning of that tide with a given view of a particular restaurant. The nature of the restaurant market is such that the inverse also holds, in that collective data will demonstrate a change in preferences that individuals (journalists/bloggers) have not seen or been unwilling to highlight due to pre-existing relationships or fear of promoting a view that sticks out too much from accepted wisdom.

Tell us your insights into the high-end dining marketplace in 2017?

Leaving Brexit to one side, the market will get bigger and probably better through the seemingy limitless interest of private equity in the restaurant world; social media offers a visibility instantly and the moment you get any traction there’s a queue of private equity or crowdfunding to back your idea. Pop-ups are a well-established route by which to test run a concept in search of backing. Previously, the time required to build a reputation and develop a concept and build a business was decades, now it can be measured in quarters.

Another area is the continued rise of provenance as the field to fork mentality is the best mechanism for producing an identity for a chef, the cuisine and the customers.

What are your thoughts for the future?

We have a 60,000 strong high-quality mailing list so we can explore various avenues – We are moving into events. We did Harden’s Invites to Le Gavroche and Harden’s Invites to Le Manoir, so expect more of those. I’m hoping to get a Harden’s Club off the ground but it’s too early to announce the details.

The Guide continues to move with the times regarding technology and will continue to do so in the print, post-print and mobile app world.

We now also offer restaurants an enhanced listing (such as images, biogs of the chef and other extended information) or sponsored listings in regional searches. While the restaurant cannot change the survey results, owners and marketeers do have the opportunity to affect their presentation. Overall I expect the continuation of a 27 years adventure in one of the most thrilling market spaces around – and you get to eat out in the process!