Yesterday, it was revealed that EAT has appointed advisory firm Spayne Lindsay to review its options. On the back of this, James Wallin speaks to chief executive Andrew Walker about the turnaround of the business, its international ambitions and why any sale process is 12 to 18 months away.

MCA reported yesterday on the progress EAT is making in the turnaround of the business, led by former Pret managing director, Andrew Walker. Later that day came a Sky News report revealed that backers Horizon (formerly Lyceum) had appointed Spayne Lindsay to review its options.

The news isn’t really a surprise, despite the breathless tone of the Sky piece. EAT is one of a number of operators across the sector seeking advice on its options as part of a long-term play. Speaking to MCA yesterday, Walker was clear that nothing will happen in the short term and the likelihood is Horizon will continue to back the group into next year.

A sale in the current climate would make very little sense. Brexit concerns and the inevitable nervousness this is inspiring in potential investors aside, there is also the distraction of the Patisserie Valerie firesale.

What does makes sense in Horizon looking towards an exit of an investment it has held since 2011. The firm rebranded in October at the same time as announcing a new £200m push into the technology and services sector. Sandwiches and software perhaps don’t make the best bed fellows.

Walker told MCA: “The turnaround is going well and that is what we are focussed on at the moment. The business has appointed advisors but this is very early days and certainly nothing is going to happen imminently.”

Speculation around EAT is nothing new. The brand has already worked with KPMG on a restructure which saw c10% of its estate disposed of. The estate now numbers c95 sites, with c75% of those in London.

The focus on the back of that restructure has been around what Walker terms the three pillars of consumer demand – service, food quality and ambience.

As reported yesterday, significant progress has been made on the first two, with the introduction of hot cabinets speeding up service – impacting on both hot and cold food sales - while the counters have been redesigned to incorporate coffee into the main ordering process.

Executive chef, Arnaud Kaziewicz, has led an overhaul of the menu, which has seen all product lines relaunched over the past 15 months across the estate. This has been across both millennial-friendly healthy eating options, such as its protein bowls and quinoa salads as well as more indulgent treats, such as a Yorkshire pudding wrap filled with mashed potatoes and sausage.

The new-look stores are continuing to deliver year-on-year sales uplfits of 20% and investment in technology has allowed to EAT to better use the data it gets from customers to further improve the experience.

Walker is very honest about his frustration that the third pillar, ambiance, has yet to be brought in line with the other two. A focus on re-designing the store for the modern consumer is the next focus and will be a crucial one in the beauty parade for potential investors.

Evidence of international reach will also add to the value of the company and this journey is very much at the beginning. While the group has operated a unit at Madrid Airport since 2017, this year will see a flurry of international openings, which began with at Gare du Nord station in Paris at the start of this month and will go on to encompass a further two openings in France, four more in Spain and the group’s debut in the Middle East, at Bahrain Airport.

Speaking at MCA’s Food To Go Conference last week, Walker struck a confident note, saying: “This is EAT’s time. It’s been around for 20 years but it’s always been about health, about variety and real food. It was a bit early but we’re ready to capitalise on all that now.”

He went on to say: “When I worked at Pret I would look at EAT coming out with all these new innovations and I was quite jealous. But somehow they often wouldn’t land right. Pret, on the other hand, was much better at getting those launches right.

“We still have that innovation but now we are much better at launching those things.”

He added: “There is still a lot of work to do on the look of the stores. But once we get that ambience right then I think we will be able to take on anyone.”