Foodservice Marketing Agency - Arena Christmas EventThe Arena Christmas Event is the official start to the Christmas festivities for the foodservice industry and as the leading foodservice agency we make a point of attending every year. This year there was a double bill, featuring a review of the year from Horizons and a key note speech from Wendy Bartlett of Bartlett Mitchell, not to mention a fabulous meal at the Mandarin Oriental. The day kicked-off with coffee and complimentary porridge, courtesy of our client Ferrero, who’s nutella hazelnut spread added a much needed sweet addition to the hand-held porridge pots, and was especially appreciated by those attendees who had an early start to make it into Knightsbridge for the Horizons briefing.

Then it was time for Peter Backman and his team to take us on a romp through 2015 and a look ahead at what might be in store for 2016. Taking each month at a time we enjoyed a summary of the highs and lows, winners (Costa, Byron, Leon, Wahacca) and losers (soft drinks companies) of the year. From the raft of acquisitions over the year to the somewhat disappointing Rugby World Cup, the review took in everything from ‘ones to watch’ high street brands on the up (Cau, Turtle Bay and WrapChic to name but a few), to examples of casual dining and QSR operators venturing outside their comfort zones in order to attract consumers in an increasingly competitive market place (Subway in a car showroom, McDonald’s table service, alcohol in Burger King and breakfast at Five Guys). With all day dining and ‘what you want when you want’ driving menus, hand-held options seems to be the future with ‘wellbeing’ rather than ‘healthy’ firmly established, along with American and Mexican influenced dishes still going strong. From Jamie’s sugar tax to the rise of technology in all its forms impacting on foodservice, be it payment apps or online ordering hubs like Hungry House and Just Eat, not to mention social media, the face of foodservice is ever changing. The good news though, things are pretty positive and although consumer confidence is fragile the ratio of new opening restaurants to closures hasn’t looked this good in years (although mainly driven by group casual dining operators as independents continue to struggle).

Then it was onto the year ahead and what might be on the Horizon (so to speak!). With the terror threat ever present, a likely referendum in the offing over Europe and continued austerity, as well as the impact of the national living wage, there is a backdrop of uncertainty both with business and consumers. Whilst on the positive side we have Rio 2016 and Euro 2016 to look forward to next summer. The secret to success in the year ahead? Peter Backman would urge operators to innovate and move outside of their comfort zones to stand out from the crowd – sound advice at any time. So after a morning of food for thought it was then on to the actual food of the day, with a stunning lunch prepared by the team at the Mandarin Oriental and having had an elegant sufficiency, it was then time to hear from Wendy Bartlett…

First off she took the opportunity to set the record straight and make clear that Ian Mitchell is her friend, not her husband, a widely held misconception in the industry. As Founder and CEO of Bartlett Mitchell, the hugely successful boutique contract caterer, with 87 locations, 800 staff and over £30 million turnover, Wendy knows a thing or two about contract catering. She, like many other achievers in her field came from a Sutcliff Catering background which spawned so many contract catering companies. She took the brave move fifteen years ago when she and Ian left their stable careers in contract catering to set-up their own business from Wendy’s back bedroom with two phones (after Ian resigned on her behalf, would you believe, after leaving an incriminating document on the photocopier at their current work – oops!). With no salary for two years (but a holiday booked as soon as they set-up oddly enough!) the company started off with a £20,000 budget from each founder and a tight hold on overheads (despite Ian’s allowance for dry cleaning his shirts – a top priority).

Having started out with their first ever contract with a Swedish TV company, now Wendy is one of the top 100 influential people in hospitality, has an MBE and Bartlett Mitchell is counted amongst the ‘Sunday Times Top 100 Companies to Work for’ and is accredited by the Sustainable Restaurant Association. All in all it’s safe to say things have gone pretty well. Indeed, Wendy never found being a woman in foodservice a barrier, as without the worry of a wife and kids to support she feels she had the freedom to take risks her male counterparts might have shied away from, and loves the business as much as ever, especially the food and the people side. She welcomes the national living wage and to date 50-60% of their clients have taken this on and will always put forward sustainable options to clients, but accepts that they are spending other people’s money so often the decision is out of her hands. Her words of wisdom to the room included – working with friends, not using a lower case font for a logo as it causes a nightmare with autocorrect and to mentor and nurture the next generation of leaders to ensure the industry has the right talent coming through. Her Christmas wishes included…the end of demitasse cups, easier Wi-Fi codes, a simple qualification for chefs – so we’ll have to see what Santa brings.

Then it was time for the charity draw, with Wendy doing the honours, and the great news that the event had raised £1,540 for Hospitality Action. As the day drew to a close and the bar called, there was a little more time to catch-up with contacts old and new and toast the imminent festivities. Well done to Lorraine and the team at Arena, as well as Peter and the team at Horizons and Wendy Bartlett on a great event, as well as the sponsors that make it all possible. Roll on 2016 and what will doubtless be an excellent line-up of events. To find out more about Arena visit their website.