I think we would all agree that Pot Noodle would taste terrible without the addition of hot water (and I’m not going to make any cheap jibes here even though their press office didn’t ever get back to me despite their voicemail promises and me leaving three messages).
The Pot Noodle subject arose out of a phone call from Joe Brough, sales director for the north-west chain Manor Service Stations. He had been having chats with colleagues on the subject of hot food.
“A big group of forecourt operators in the south said they were taking out their microwave ovens because of the VAT,” says Joe. “We talked to the VAT people and they said if it is designed to be eaten hot, then VAT applies. Then the Pot Noodle rep came in and said there is no VAT unless the food is eaten on the premises. You can still heat it up and sell it untaxed. He was adamant.”
It would appear he was also wrong. The reason he was adamant was that Unilever Bestfoods was having a push on its dedicated little heater-upper. “It’s like a glorified kettle,” says Joe, “but it’s been revamped lately so it’s badged and decked out with bright lights.”
I rang Customs & Excise and they were categorical on the subject of microwaves. “If a microwave oven is available, either before or after the paypoint, then it is considered hot food, even if eaten elsewhere.”
The spokeswoman helpfully added: “You know a lot of garages have microwave ovens these days – that’s why the wording is now so precise.” (You see, they have you fingered – I didn’t mention that I was calling on behalf of Forecourt Trader.) And she said the same principle would apply to a glorified kettle.
Joe has decided not to opt for the Pot Noodle kettle for his 13 forecourt stations. The rrp through wholesaler Palmer & Harvey for a pot of the noodles is 84p. The addition of VAT would take it perilously close to the quid mark which could read ‘rip-off’ to some.
The initial phone call had sent me delving into my ‘Hot Food’ file, which is quite entertaining, full of little debates, including VAT. For example, hot food can be zero rated if it only happens to be hot because it has just been cooked and couldn’t be eaten without being cooked. I give you the baguette, or even a pie.
Here’s another: the bagel. Hot, toasted and tasty, but does not qualify as a hot takeaway. In a curious test case between Customs & Excise and the Great American Bagel Factory it was ruled that a toasted bagel did not count as a hot takeaway and no VAT should apply. To toast is not to heat apparently, it is to change the texture. So, next time your customers come seeking sustenance in the form of Pot Noodle, let them eat bagels!