Pub company Mitchells & Butlers (M&B) enjoyed strong trading during the Christmas period as its strategy of focusing on food paid off. Like-for-like sales from the crucial 23 December to 3 January period, showed growth of 6.7%. For the 17 weeks to 22 January overall sales across the pub/restaurant estate increased 3.9% or 3.1% on a like-for-like basis. Food sales were the clear driver, increasing 6.1% compared with drinks, which edged up 0.9% in the period. In the nine-week period affected by the snow that paralysed large parts of the UK, sales were 2.5% ahead of last year. Adam Fowle, chief executive of M&B, said: "This is a very good start to the year with like-for-like food sales up 6% helped by a strong Christmas performance. These trading results, together with the encouraging performance from the two new Harvester retail park sites and the improving new openings pipeline, show that we are on track to implement our growth strategy and indicate the future potential within the business." The company, which is on the hunt for a new chairman after current incumbent John Lovering announced he would be stepping down from the role earlier this week, has reduced its net debt to £2bn after the acquisition of 22 Ha Ha Bar & Grill sites in October and the sale of 333 pubs to Stonegate Pub Company in November. It added that it was in the process of appointing additional non-executive directors to the board. M&B plans 50 new sites in its current financial year, as well as 70 conversions.