Five green candidates, hanging on the wall: The Apprentice, Episode 11

Naturally, the theme was something that was ‘Big Business!’ The voiceover almost enunciated the capital letters and exclamation mark for us, just in case we were being a bit slow. (Not for The Apprentice anything niche like vintage guitar trading or rare stamp collecting, where in-depth knowledge, a commercial understanding of the target audience and a sharp eye can make some serious wonga. No sir-ee, time is money. Just not in very big amounts most weeks.) And naturally, we were talking speedy. Not just something banged together from fag-packet to fanfare in 36 hours – although a task around re-thinking what the back of fag-packets could achieve commercially and socially might be a more interesting challenge – but fast-food. The series might drag overall, but taken an episode at a time The Apprentice is fast food telly. It fills a hole, it’s easily digested (if messy and a little hard to swallow), and it’s not as nourishing as it would like us to believe. Brownie points to the task-setter.

So … empty City shopping-mall unit to first branch of a fast food chain in about the same time it takes to prepare for a serious dinner party. On our left, Natasha, Jim and Susan. Natasha fielded her BA in International Hospitality Management, only to see the diners return it to the kitchen. (After it failed to win her PM status, she spent the rest of the programme parlaying it as something she did years ago and chose to never pursue. Which made Lord Sugar a little lumpy.) Selling her expertise in branding instead, Jim – a two-time loser as PM (as Susan nicely pointed out in the Boardroom later on), but a man with a personal grievance about playing second violin – saw no reason why he shouldn’t be PM. (He might even have meant Prime Minister.) They went Mexican, and Jim visited some Mexican food chains for inspiration. His brushes with novelty seemed to begin and end with thinking “Caraca’s” a) had an apostrophe in it, and b) was a Mexican percussion instrument. (It’s the capital of Venezuela, Jim. Google is your friend even if your geography teacher wasn’t.) Given that my local Mexican restaurant plays a relentless diet of Cuban music and serves mostly Spanish or Brazilian food, any hope of cultural understanding was always going to be a long-shot. If they’d pulled that off, I’d have eaten my sombrero. It would have been more nutritious than their nachos, which His Sweetness said reminded him visually of when “my son’s dog puked”. Charmed, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, Helen seemed to still be a little clenched after her Squeaky Bum Time moment the week before. More happily paired with Tom (their rivals were  having a nest of vipers moment), her serene-swan-pedalling-furiously-under-the-water composure failed to mask her desperation to have firm control over the whole shooting match. Apprehensively, she yielded branding and concept to Tom: mercifully, she didn’t see him wielding his digital camera in a baby boutique for inspiration. She needn’t have worried: from left-field beginnings, Tom delivered a strong combination of British tradition and modern touches: thankfully, she – and the punters- loved it. (Tom also handled her visible apprehension with diplomacy and tact.) She meanwhile stuck to what she knew. Pies. Posh, neatly turned out, pert little pies. “Do pies take after their designers?”, I wondered. As it later transpired, the two of them also found time to road-test the kitchen process before the dummy run, check their costings and break-even points (factoring in higher quality and lower margins to ensure quality that would get return custom and make another USP to accompany the “100% British” theme), and run up a business plan document. Maybe it’s hard to sleep after all those carbs?

Back in Caraca’s, the team got suitably rattled. Fast-food turned out to be slow food, and cold food too. Cool décor was a nice idea, but hardly the main point. Cool food, however, added a chill to the welcome. Having faffed over the décor interminably (I always chose fast-food outlets on the décor, don’t you?), they finally remembered they had a kitchen. Jim took charge. The fajitas took ages. The customers took umbrage. (I’d have nicked the chairs, if only in an attempt to get VFM.) Day two, with the Sugar-lead team of industry experts popping in for lunch, saw Susan intervene to try to inject a little logic and process into the approach, but you can only cook with the ingredients you have. Marked for their efforts – for once, not on sales but on aspects like Food, Branding, Service and Scalability by the pool of experts – they got an average of 4/10. Tepid, cheesy and under-seasoned.

Tom and Helen averaged a three-minute turn round on orders, overcame their initial ‘eating a pie in a box’ problem, and delivered tasty food in a fresh, cheese-free concept. A slight slip for thinking Christopher Columbus was British (never mind Tom, I’m sure they eat pies in Genoa too). But they could not only present their brand – and answer questions on margins and costings (no Jim, 60 x 7 is not £4,800: it’s £420, and you’d have gone bust by the way) – they could get it on the table fast, and keep it appetising. They averaged 7/10. Not exactly Masterchef, but a reasonable stab at a masterclass.

The Boardroom was entertaining, as three raw prawns were wheeled in for a rather hot grilling. Natasha had skills she refused to deploy that might have saved them, while Jim had no process in place and no business plan, even in his head let alone on paper. Ideaswise, forget half-baked; they hadn’t even bought the ingredients. Everyone said how much they liked to keep things professional, and then proceeded to get pretty damn personal. Susan’s business history and enthusiasm saved her for the final, although her tendency to be annoying was counting against her. (I’ve liked her by and large, and suspect she’s simply not a flavour that mixes well with Sugar.)  Jim’s charm had, under pressure, revealed its dark side: a manipulative handling of those around him to conceal a lack of any plan underneath. His own team both nominated him for firing without hesitation. A seller of things – and a sometimes masterful seller of Brand Jim – his weaknesses dribbled out of him.

But he made the final if only for one reason: he wasn’t Natasha. No better team a team player, her unwillingness to field skills to save the team from itself, her snippiness, and the gradual fading of that fighting spirit that had once seemed her primary strength saw her heading for the taxi. She sniffed back a tear, although I’m not sure anyone else did.

And then there were four, and it’s final time. Sorry, “Final Time!” The final task might even be educational for the audience: each of them has to prepare and present a business plan for ruthless interrogation. We even get the return of The Blessed Margaret, so I might even be able to watch without a fork jammed in one thigh.

From the office banter here this morning, we’ve already picked the likely winner. (We picked them a while back actually, and it would be nice to be proved right.) A review of the final to follow after broadcast, and I’ll try to figure out what we’ve learned from 13 hours of our valuable time. I might even invest another hour or so on that analysis, although I suspect it won’t be a great deal longer. You have to keep an eye on margins and returns, don’t you? And that PhD in Papyrology is looking more and more tempting …

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