Inside Track by Mark Stretton

Next month M&C Report is ten years old.

It hit executive desks in April 1996. The lead story was about the Beer Tie and the block exemption.

In that first issue, M&C needed a reality check. Was it really in tune with the pub group and restaurant chain market? Was M&C thinking what the industry’s leading operators were thinking?

So the founders Peter Martin and Peter Coulson conducted a straw poll among senior executives to discover what they thought were the most innovative venue and best, most admired, operator in the business.

The results were published in that first issue under the heading “Retailers’ Retailer”. It was the foundation for the Retailers’ Retailer of the Year Awards, which were formally launched two years later.

And the winners? Well, looking back at that first issue, the top site by some way was Waxy O’Connors - which is still going strong.

As for top operator - the Retailers’ Retailer of 1996 - joint third was Tom Cobleigh and Regent Inns. Second was JD Wetherspoon. But the top player, the most admired operator, was Yates Brothers.

It is worth noting just how innovative Yates was in those days. It was a real market leader. And much of the credit for that justly went to the late Peter Dickson who transformed a family business famous for old fashioned, spit and sawdust wine lodges into cutting edge, fashionable high street bars.

He led the high street revolution.

The industry has changed and evolved somewhat since then - as have the Retailers’ Retailer Awards, which were celebrated for the eighth time last week at London’s Dorchester Hotel, on Park Lane.

Ultimately the Awards, which now culminate with an awards dinner and networking evening, still exist to capture the industry’s view on the best concepts, companies and individuals in this market.

They also serve to identify future all-conquering brands.

There are no entry forms, no panels of experts and no judging. The winners are decided by the leading players in the UK licensed retail and restaurant industry.

Therefore the winners truly are what this industry believes are the very best it has to offer.

It will be interesting to look back in 10 years time to compare our winners of today - and also to recall the news events that were dominating the headlines.

In 1996, the industry was still emerging from the “big bang” of the Beer Orders. Today it faces another momentous challenge with new smoking laws.

Like most legislation, it will have an impact on how this industry evolves, although M&C Report believes the smoke-free future may offer a commercial opportunity for both restaurants AND pubs.

We are also still attempting to understand the impact of changes to UK licensing laws, and learning to operate in a more health-conscious world.

But in 10 years’ time these challenges will have been met, the industry will have evolved to face new ones.

And we can be certain that in this environment of permanent change, there will be no lack of flair, innovation and ingenuity separating the best from the rest.

Retailers’ winners and finalists

Best Individual: Tony Hughes, Mitchells & Butlers.
Finalists: Nick Basing, Paramount; Gerry Ford, Caffe Nero; Mark McQuater, Barracuda Group; Ian Neill, Wagamama; Steve Wilkins, Lewis & Clarke.

Best Emerging Concept: Project S (Orange), M&B.
Finalists: FishWorks, Giraffe, La Vina, Las Iguanas, Leon.

Best Concept: Strada and Wagamama (tied first).
Finalists: Carluccio’s, Frankie & Benny’s, Nando’s, Oceana.

Best Company: M&B
Finalists: Caffe Nero, Greene King, La Tasca, Wagamama, Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries.

Best Venue: Malmaison, Oxford.
Finalists: Coyote Wild, Derby; Est Est Est, Alderly Edge; Morton’s Kitchen, Bar and Deli, Dickens Heath; Ping Pong, Great Marlborough Street, London; The Sterling, St Mary Axe, London.

Turnaround Brand: Est Est Est.
Finalists: Chiquito, Pizza Express, Pret A Manger, Toby, Walkabout.

Deal of the Year: Wagamama refinancing
Finalists: Barracuda Group refinancing; Carluccio’s IPO; acquisition of Gales by Fuller’s; Gondola Holdings IPO; acquisition of Spirit Group by Punch Taverns.

Investor of the Year: Punch Taverns
Finalists: Admiral Taverns, GI Partners, Penta Capital, R20, Spirit Group.

Rising Star: John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, Leon Restaurants.