The Arena Christmas lunch is quite frankly the official start of Christmas in the world of foodservice and this year was no exception. Held at the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone, the event kicked-off mid-morning with a talk from Peter Backman on the highs and lows of 2017 and what we might expect in the coming year. Taking us on a whistle-stop tour through the four quarters of 2017 some clear trends emerged…

  • Foremost – the tough trading 2017 has seen with the uncertainty & exchange rate issues Brexit has created
  • The rise of delivery (valued at £5.3bn and predicted to reach £7.5bn in 2018)
  • The increase in tourism with the weak pound – London is now the 24th most expensive city down from the 6th!
  • The challenges of recruitment
  • Winners such as Box Park and Greggs (the keynote speaker for the day)
  • Food inflation and margin squeeze
  • An increase in vouchers (although not across the board)
  • Groups holding back investment in the current climate
  • The growth of online shopping which has stolen footfall from the high street

As for 2018 it looks decidedly like another tough year ahead but, as ever, those who are prudent and innovate inline with consumer demand will be best placed to succeed.

We then had a welcome change from the standard de-brief format with guest spots from two entrepreneurs introduced by Peter. The first was from SUPPER – a more premium delivery service focused on quality of service and the second from Crust Bros – a customisable Neapolitan pizza concept which has moved from street food to bricks and mortar. Both speakers gave an eloquent overview of their business and background and then took questions from the floor. Peter Georgiou of SUPPER highlighted the issue of Tier 2 Visa’s, which a large number of the more high end restaurants which he deals with, e.g. Nobu and Hakkasan, find a huge barrier to growing their business as they can’t bring in the specialised chefs they need. However, both brought a new dimension to the day and helped bring the key trends of delivery, street food and customisation to life for the assembled audience.

Then it was onto lunch prepared by the team at the Landmark Hotel which was superb and the main event of the day, the talk from Greggs CEO, Roger Whiteside. A legend in his own lunchtime (to coin a rather apt phrase) he started off straight out of University with M&S, where he spent twenty years working his way up the business to Head of Foodservice (indeed to this day he says if you cut him in half it will still say Marks and Spencer through him as he learnt so much in these years). He then left to become one of the founders of Ocado (a risky move at the time), followed by a move to Threshers Group, an interesting time at Punch Taverns and then on to his current role at Greggs as CEO (having previously been a Non-Exec Director).

With a career spanning nearly four decades and an enviable track record it’s fair to say he’s learnt a thing or two. Below are some of his pearls of wisdom and general observations…

  • Most CEO roles come up when a business hits a wall
  • The success story that is Greggs over the past five years was not a ‘turn around’ it was a change of focus, delivered in a matter of weeks (moving completely away from take home bakery to food-to-go based on consumer demand & lifestyle trends)
  • He is not an entrepreneur at heart – he prefers to risk other peoples’ money not his own
  • Exit strategies are crucial
  • Coffee is Latin for margin!
  • Some people don’t want a three part meal deal so we do a two part one (and very successfully)
  • If you want to keep a good culture you need to be flexible enough to allow people to be nice to each other
  • Digital customers are easier to understand than store shoppers, as you can study their behaviour through data far more easily
  • Only the right customer is king – what some customers want may not be right for your business (in his case those who continued to want take home bakery)
  • With our current obesity crisis I don’t want people eating more indulgent food, but when they treat themselves I want them eating Greggs (which sounds fair to me)
  • The future – 100 new shops a year, 2,000 in 2018, online ordering and maybe even delivery (following the current trial in Newcastle)

Once questions were over and the total raised for Hospitality Action and Springboard was announced as £1,100 it was time to head for a Christmas drink and discuss the merits of a Greggs steak bake over a sausage roll. Well done to Lorraine and her team for another great event and a lovely start to the festive season. For pictures, interviews and more search #ArenaXmas17 on Twitter

Keep reading? Why not read our blog on Arena Savoy Lecture: The B Word