Eating Exeter isn’t just about fine dining and nice nosh, we go to places you might not necessarily think are worth writing about, and that includes in-store cafe restaurants. I am personally fascinated at how different in-store cafe’s can alternate so wildly in the way they are managed and the varying degrees of success that you experience depending on where you go. From the in-store cafe of John Lewis where a member of staff can be found organising the queue at busy times, to the unbridled chaos of Sainsbury’s in-store cafes where it is easy for your order to be forgotten (write-ups to follow).
I find the general experience of in-store cafe’s to be one that borders on the traumatic sometimes. People don’t tend to travel distance just to go to the cafe, its not a destination moreso an ‘add-on’ to the shopping experience. It is a convenience more than anything else, so the whole experience is often measured not on customer satisfaction but how many bums can fit on so many seats, with the feelings of the customer strangely lost in the midsts of screaming children and tepid tea.
So with my pre-loaded prejudices, we walked in to the cafe in Tesco Exe Vale with food on our mind. It was Sunday, it wasn’t overly busy and I don’t like carvery.
Tesco outsources their cafes to Compass, an external company who come across as the ‘hidden McDonalds‘. They are a huge company that look after all sorts of cafe services from Tesco’s to hospitals and staff canteens. And unfortunately that is exactly what you get on first impressions. The whole cafe seems to feel like a canteen, its functional, cold and bland in decor looking out over the tops of the shelves of the non-food section from a large mezzanine level. This cafe is ‘proud to serve Costa’ coffee by the apparent logo’s spread over the walls; the evil of Costa and its brand of coroporate coffee crappiness knows no bounds. There is NO NATURAL LIGHT, I mean what exactly does the outside look like?
After half an hour in here I had forgotten that the outside world existed, I forgot my name and decided to that the fish was my friend.
So, down to business.
Hot food was laid out in a carvery style, the pre-cooked nature of the carvery is something to be expected but quite literally it seemed everything hot seems to be cooked and ready to be served. This, in my opinion, is bad and what was worse was that this included the battered fish. The only thing that I wanted however, was the fish, I wanted Fish n Chips served with Tartar sauce at £4.95. My other half wanted Liver and Bacon for £4.
The gentleman behind the counter could not have been more friendly and ready to help, in fact the service throughout the whole experience could not have been faulted. I decided to give the fish a go regardless of the fact it had been lying around for hours/day/months under a hot lamp. With this there is an option of peas or beans, and to be honest the peas were snot coloured and looked dry, beans are always a good bet because beans are hard to get wrong. Thankfully Compass didn’t get the beans too wrong but they were stodgy and overcooked. The chips were actually better than those I had at Wetherspoons, crunchy and soft inside with a good colour.
The lady at the till was polite, slightly stressed but was able to banter and have a laugh. We had a cup of tea, and a Lucozade which came to just shy of £12 for the whole thing. As we already had the food, there was no wait, we just tucked in.
If you have ever had the pleasure of living in a halls of residence that is catered, this wonderful thing pictured took me straight back. Mass catering, no personal touch, soggy batter, stodgy beans and the taste that you would imagine. But stop right there, The chips had a soft inside texture and a nice dry coating, and the fish was moist and taste which despite the miserable soggy batter, it was not a bad bit of fish.
The report from across the table was that the Liver and Bacon was acceptable but the accompanying mash was flavourful and delicious, better than Morrison’s cafe’s similar offering.
The whole experience was what I had expected. Like sitting in a canteen, the glare of the flourescent lights made you realise that you might as well be eating your food in a warehouse filled with neurotic children and a herd of randy cattle. Had the food and the staff been transported from the sea of uncomfortable chairs and badly coloured tables, it would have scored higher in my estimation but the surroundings really didn’t work for me.
To give credit to Costa coffee, despite their corporate ambition to take over the entire world’s caffeine supply, the coffee has got better since my first disastrous visit all those years ago, and the tea isn’t half bad. Had Tesco’s cafe been serving their own coffee? Who knows what it would have been like. Go for coffee, go for a slice of cake, spend your money but don’t go for lunch.