The truth about Spanish tapas

Being born and raised in Galicia (North-West of Spain) I’ve had my fair share of tapas. However, when I moved to England I found just how different the lifestyle is there. In Galicia, a great deal of the culture revolves around food. In England people joke about how bad the food is (whose favourite food is fish&chips?). One of my favourite parts of the Spanish culture is tapas. This concept has been sort of imported to London, however the essence of it is missing. Even when the owners of a Spanish restaurant are Spanish too the business model is different to what they would do in the Iberian peninsula. This story will describe what tapas is all about and what are the differences in culture I perceive from Spain vs England.

Some common Galician tapas, including classic such as Calamares (fried squid), croquetas, ham and cheese, stuffed peppers, tortilla (Spanish omelette), olives and bread. You will be lucky if you get as much stuff just for the purchase of two beers but some bars will give you this and more sometimes.

Tapas is all about sharing, and tapas are free. You don’t go to a bar and pay for tapas. You pay for a beer or for another drink and you get a complementary dish for free. That’s why tapas are so popular in Spain. In England though, it seems the model is different. I’ve seen countless times that tapas are a small dish you order and pay for in a restaurant. How can the Spanish give away food for free? How does it work? What is a bar?

A major difference I’ve found between Spain and England is how people eat daily meals when outside of home (i.e. in the office or at university). In England, common options are: packed meal or sandwich at the supermarket, fast-food chain, or takeaways. In Spain though, fast-food is not as popular and supermarkets do not sell much ready-to-eat food. Instead we have bars. These are a different type of business that are loosely related to pubs in England but are not quite the same. A bar is the place where most people eat lunch outside of home. Usually a bar will prepare a “menu of the day”. A special dish that may or may not be paella (there exist foods other than paella in Spain). Because this special dish will be prepared in bulk, the bar can sell it at an affordable price.

Where do tapas come from? Well, there are two common options. The first one is that tapas are the leftovers from that main meal from the “menu of the day”. Many delicious dishes are still good to eat hours after they have been prepared, so the bar will give the food away to customers over the afternoon in the form of small portions that are complementary with a beer or another (not necessarily alcoholic) drink. I find this a great concept because it’s clearly profitable for bars (they wouldn’t do it for so long otherwise) and it makes customers happy. I also believe it’s a great way of generating customer loyalty, some bars in Spain are famous for their tapas, and customers will flock to them like rabid seagulls in hunger fly to a source of food. Finally, much less food goes to waste. It pains me to see how much food is thrown away in the UK in supermarkets and restaurants. There are ways you can give it away for your profit like bars do in Spain.

The second way of preparing tapas is doing the main dishes where they come from explicitly rather than recycling your “menu of the day dish”. When bars do this the quality of the tapas increases and this attracts plenty of customers. A bar can cook three or more great dishes in bulk, then give away small portions of it. Again, because of cooking in bulk the cost of each individual “tapa” is reduced, yet its perceived value for customers is huge. I mean, who doesn’t like free tasty food! I find it so hard to fit this original concept of tapas in the UK, a country where sayings such as “There is not such a thing as a free meal” are so commonplace.

Why is Spain able to give away food for free in this manner whilst the UK cannot? Well, I personally believe it’s due to a couple of reasons:

  • Cultural differences. Spain champions food much more than the UK.
  • Bars are commonplace in Spain and have a strong customer base. The UK feeds people in a different way.
  • Rent costs are much lower in Spain allowing businesses like bars to cut one of their largest costs.
  • Waiters earn way less in Spain, due to the economy, and due to competition (there are more bars in Spain than people pretty much). This allows again bars to reduce the price of what they sell significantly (€1 for a coffee or for a beer in Spain vs £3 in the UK are normal prices).

I would like to conclude coming back again to the point with food waste. Despite all the economic and business factors that may make a model suitable for a country, I still think there is no excuse in wasting food. Spain can give away the food to customers instead of throwing it away and I think maybe this would be possible in the UK too with some work and within the correct framework. Maybe I’m missing some obvious reason why this is not possible, but I would certainly enjoy eating some tapas Spanish style in London. Bars in Spain profit from giving away these small portions why generating customer loyalty. Customers benefit from free tasty food. It’s such a unique and great model.

I hope you’ve learned something new about Spain and tapas, feel free to contribute to the story with your thoughts.


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