‘It was nothing special, but it was a pub,’ said my husband, looking up from his copy of Bar magazine (which is not to do with the law). He was referring to the Grapes in George Street, Oxford. Obligingly, I asked him what it was now. ‘It’s a “craft beer and pizza bar concept”,’ he replied, snorting. Since he often snorts anyway, he put quite a stertorous effort into sounding dismissive.
I was surprised, not by the snorting but by the reappearance of the vogue term concept, which I thought we had got rid of, along with situation. A kind friend of a friend with knowledge of the ‘hospitality sector’ confirmed that the word has swarmed, like ants on a muggy afternoon, all over the trade press. There is news of ‘an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet café concept’, ‘a music, nostalgia and chippie concept’ and ‘a raw and vegan dining concept’.
Concept had not died out entirely since its last efflorescence in the 1970s, when Simon Brett wrote of ‘Great Expectations, a concept restaurant, themed wittily around the works of Dickens’. But it had subsided enough for me to be puzzled by the name of a bar in the obscure Navarrese city of Tudela: the Straus Concept Café. At first I wondered if it was a mistake for ‘Strauss Concert’. But, no, the label was a tribute to the international power of marketing jargon.
The 1970s overuse of concept coincided with the notion of a concept album, such as The Dark Side of the Moon. But though concept had suddenly become the default description of shops or restaurants (such as Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop in the King’s Road called Sex), it had long been applied to the design of a product or advertisement. ‘The concept or idea is produced either by the advertiser, the printer, or the artist he employs,’ explained Clarence Moran, a barrister, not a barista, by profession, in his thoughtful exploration of mustard, soap and Mazawattee cocoa, The Business of Advertising, in 1905.
Today, I think concept answers to the question ‘Is it a thing?’ If someone asks, ‘Is music, nostalgia and chippie a thing?’ you can answer, ‘It’s more than a thing, it’s a concept, and it has just opened.’