This year the Arena summer event headlined Mark Fox, CEO of Bill’s Restaurants, along with a panel discussion around the importance of the supplier/operator relationship, chaired by Peter Martin VP of CGA. As a leading food and drink agency we were of course in attendance at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower to hear what everyone had to say. The panel discussion featured representatives from operator-side M&B and Gaucho, and supplier-side Reynolds and Brakes. M&B cited the challenge of Brexit as a key issue for the business having put a £12m hole in their forecasts back on June 24th when the referendum result was announced. Of course operators are keen to get the best commercials out of suppliers, but they also appreciate that if they want good reliable suppliers that the relationship needs to be a sustainable one, whether that is guaranteeing volumes or other reassurances of commitment. The frustration of suppliers coming to operators with ‘solutions in search of a problem’ was highlighted by Chris Hopkins of M&B who urged suppliers to focus on the right innovation, i.e. innovation that shows how they can meet the needs of their customers better than they do currently. This of course requires suppliers to understand the customer mind-set and need states, so with this in mind it would serve suppliers well to do research to identify issues or opportunities to focus their innovation (something Jellybean can of course help with! – plug over).

The impact of Brexit and the possibility of buying more British produce was discussed, although Reynolds pointed out that the supermarkets have managed to get the best deals with British suppliers, due to their volume requirements, and of course it would be a struggle for Gaucho (an Argentinian Steak house) to move to British beef! The impact of technology and streamlining the supply chain to drive down costs were also touched on in the context of trying to counter food inflation which is now at 6% according to CGA. Crucially, however, any cost cutting driven by operators should be mindful to stop short of stifling innovation, as this would be detrimental to the industry. After much discussion and debate it was time to get down to the serious business of drinks and networking where sponsor Tilda had supplied their delicious vegetable chips – Terra Chips. Then it was time for a delicious lunch featuring Tilda Fragrant Jasmine Rice and beautifully paired wines from Matthew Clark, along with the keynote speech of the day from Mark Fox.

From his early days in pizza delivery up in Aberdeen at university, Mark’s career including brands including Pizza Hut, KFC, Compass and Starbucks, featuring roles across Europe, before he took up the CEO position at Bill’s. After working for such corporate brands he was clearly inspired by the story behind Bill’s, which saw founder ‘Bill’ take his beautifully presented fruit and veg shop in a back street in Lewes to the high street giant it is today (with the help of restaurant industry backers including Richard Caring). The story saw Bill move from his original fruit and veg shop opened back in 1987, to a shop in Cliff in Lewes (which was flooded in 2000) to a convenience shop and café in 2001, launching in Brighton in 2005, then selling to investors which saw the brand explode between 2000 and 2015, culminating on over 60 news sites opening between 2013 and 2015. The warmth of the brand and its appeal to millennials has been key to its success with Bill, who retains a 10% share, still designing every unit to give it that unmistakeable Bill’s touch.

It was obvious that Bill is still very much an inspiration to all within the company as is his dedication to helping other people; as demonstrated by the heroic ferrying of fellow residents to dry land during the floods of 2000; inspires his staff, including Mark himself. But with their sights set on aggressive growth (circa 10%) Mark is clear about what it will take and what they need to focus on. His sage words were these…in order to succeed you need clarity of vision, the resources to get the job done, the right people to make it happen and the motivation to get those people onboard. He is also very clear about what works for the brand and that’s breakfast (which accounts for 25% of their sales), millennials and creating an experience. So whilst others focus on the delivery opportunity, Bill’s is happy to partner with Deliveroo, but is clear that this isn’t what the business is about. Bill’s unique appeal is based on the relaxed service, beautifully presented restaurants and brand story which creates a consumer experience. They are however happy to move into food to go with Little Bill’s, more sharing options (if they can keep the margin!) and are looking to dip their toe in the hotel shared space model later this year – all exciting stuff. So although Mark is realistic that the next two to three years will be tough on the casual dining market he is confident that with Bill’s clear market positioning it will come out the other end as one of the winners.

Having enjoyed a lovely meal from the team at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower and had some very interesting discussions around the table it was time to head for home (or in my colleague Nick’s case off to Bill’s for dinner that night – how on-brand can you get!). Well done to the team at Arena on another great event. We look forward to the Face to Face in September!

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