Inside Track by Mark Stretton
In these darker days, it is important that we still talk about all the good work being undertaken in the sector, which has always faced challenges. A look at the winners and short-listed companies at this year’s Retailers’ Retailer of the Year Awards is a timely reminder that there are still plenty of people taking their businesses forward. As I have written here before, many people subscribe to the view that the current market conditions will herald a wealth of opportunities – for those that can. As for our winners, which are a true consensus of market opinion as they are selected by the industry itself, I must confess that at first I did not see Robin Rowland as a ‘shoe-in’ for best individual – the top prize – only for the competition he faced. But on reflection the YO! Sushi boss has achieved as much as anyone on that list, if not more. When Rowland took the helm, the fast casual fledgling chain was nothing short of a basket case, but he had the vision to take the plunge. Having conquered the immediate battle of wresting the business out of special lending, in the ensuing decade he established a very profitable operation with international reach, creating enormous shareholder value. He has made founder Simon Woodroffe a wealthy man and realised fantastic returns for Primary Capital. Now, backed by Quilvest, Rowland has his sights on building a 100-strong business, through a combination of company-operated sites and international franchises. While plans to launch a venture in the States are understandably on hold, there is little doubt that the US remains the ultimate prize for Rowland. Whether YO makes it to the States any time soon remains to be seen. Still, it’s not bad for a basket case. Elsewhere, the contenders for emerging brand speak of a market not too short of innovation and creativity: Bill’s Produce, Busaba Eathai, Byron, Cote, Gusto, Jamie’s Italian, Taybarns, and Wahaca. These shortlisted concepts all point to a thriving UK market, and each has bought something new to it. Although significant, the triumph of Jamie’s Italian last Wednesday evening at Park lane's Dorchester, was not just about the amazing brand that is Jamie Oliver (he has a significant presence in 46 countries, has sold over 17 million books worldwide and his television programmes have been shown across 100 different networks). It is about the care, thought and day-to-day management that has laid the foundations for what could be the industry’s next ‘big thing’. At a time when other so-called celebrity chefs are not exactly covering themselves in glory, Jamie Oliver has recognised the importance of recruiting talent and expertise – people who know about the business of running multiple-site operations. If you haven’t been yet, go see (and order the truffle tagliatelle, sausage pappardelle, the tuna steak salad or the feather steak). The concept celebrated a brace on the night – in addition to scooping best concept, managing director Simon Blagden, a former Mitchells & Butlers executive, also collected the Rising Star prize. It is also remarkable to see JD Wetherspoon – 30 years after Tim Martin opened a pub in North London – recognised as best company. Love or loathe its market positioning, most people in pub retailing recognise the group as a fierce competitor and fantastic operator – the McDonald’s of the pub world. Nando’s has established itself as one of the killer brands in the fast-casual space and was rightly named best concept. It has been described as the Mini of the restaurant world – fun cool, affordable and classless. It was no surprise to see stories emerge this weekend suggesting the concept has attracted potential bid interest of some US restaurant giants including Yum! Brands and Brinker International. For full details of the awards, visit, for if ever there was a time to celebrate the industry’s best, to remind ourselves of the good stuff, surely it is now? A big thank you to all our event partners at the Retailers’ Retailer of the Year Awards. They are BDO Stoy Hayward, Brakes Group, Brulines Group, Coca-Cola Enterprises and Zenith Hygiene Group.