Arena Christmas Event 2019

with Alasdair Murdoch, CEO, Burger King

Alasdair Murdoch provided the finale to the 2019 calendar of Arena events. Drawing on his wealth of experience and success in influential positions within the restaurant industry – including Pizza Hut, KFC, Pizza Express and GBK – the Burger King CEO discussed important business-shaping topics, including brand turnaround and resurgence, reputation management, supplier partnerships, sustainability, team development and consumer engagement. Industry commentator Peter Backman and Biff’s Kitchen’s Andrew Allen also presented a review of the year and took a look forward to what the future may bring, with the help of special guests.

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Attendee List


Take a look at the attendee list for this event.

Event Review

The Arena 2019 calendar finished with the popular Christmas event.  Hosted at the beautiful Mandarin Oriental Hotel, attendees heard from guest speakers, engaged with panel debates and caught up with peers and colleagues whilst enjoying a few festive drinks and some exceptional food. The perfect way to finish the year!

The day began with coffee and pastries, courtesy of Nescafé and Délifrance, before guests took their seats for “2020: A Vision” – the annual review of the year by industry commentator Peter Backman and a panel discussion hosted by Andrew Allen, Commercial Director & Partner, Biff’s Kitchen.

Peter summarised the marketplace over the last year, which included the rise of veganism or plant-based diets, consumer awareness of impact on the environment, the sustained and expanding popularity of street food and the changing shape of the delivery market, which, he said, will look very different in a few years’ time.

Peter also highlighted that we could be seeing the first signs of recovery in the casual dining market.  His recently published bi-annual ‘Ones to Watch’ report revealed an increase in brands for the first time in three years, with Crosstown Donuts and Tim Horton’s taking centre stage.

Echoing some of the topics that Peter raised, Andrew Allen led a lively panel debate with industry ‘disruptors’ – Maxim Gelmann, founder of Stroodles – a pasta alternative to soggy paper drinking straws, Sasha Celestial-One, co-founder of Olio, which helps businesses become zero food waste and Nadia El Hadery, Founder & CEO of YFood, which drives food tech innovation to solve global food issues.

Product innovation to meet consumer demand in relation to sustainability and delivery were discussed, as was using technology to create a digital footprint for consumers with allergens, to help operators minimise risk.

Knowing what the consumer wants and engaging with them in the right way was also raised, ranging from the exponential growth of Stroodles through to a sushi restaurant in Tokyo that tells its customers what they should be eating, in terms of allergens and optimum nutrition, based on a personally built health ID on a technology platform.

Guests then enjoyed Via Vai prosecco, courtesy of Unity wines, festive cocktails courtesy of The London Essence Company and J2O Glitterberry courtesy of Britvic Soft Drinks, coffee cocktails courtesy of Nestlé Professional,  canapés in Délifrance à la folie tartlet shells and cones before taking their seats in the ballroom for a three course lunch.  A main course of salmon fillet, yellow carrot, quinoa, broccoli florets and keta caviar beurre blanc followed a ham hock terrine starter and guests finished the meal with a decadent chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream.

Unity Wines also challenged guests to a blind tasting competition where each table had to nominate a ‘waiter’ who poured a red, a white and a rose for each person to taste and name the correct wine from the Taste Test list on each table.  This certainly got the conversation flowing over lunch

After lunch, Alasdair Murdoch, CEO of Burger King took to the stage.  With an impressive CV that includes brands such as Pizza Hut, KFC, Pizza Hut France and Barcelona, Pizza Express, GBK and Clapham House Group, he shared his vision for the Burger King brand and the challenges it, and to some extent, the wider industry faces.

He explained that the single biggest challenge for the brand is managing stakeholders.  From getting the reporting pack right for private equity firm, Bridgepoint, to the day-to-day contact with the franchisees, has involved some difficult conversation and different ways of working. But now, the brand is in a good place and ready to move forward.  It’s now about investment in the right places.

Experience and engagement

That investment is being channelled into refurbishing the restaurants (Alasdair freely admits they don’t look as good as they should) and the right people and teams.  Engagement is crucial for turning the business around and for the first time in 10 years, all fanchisees will gather for an annual conference which will champion reward and recognition.  Alasdair recognises that saying ‘well done’ is one of the simplest things they can do and they need to do more of it.


By targeting a younger demographic, with slightly tongue-in-cheek, lighter messaging and non-traditional media, the focus is not on innovative new products that push boundaries, but championing the core products, with the recent Whopper campaign being a prime example.  Consequently, the brand is being repositioned as fun, rather than a ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’ reputation.   More people want to eat for under £5, than they do over £5 but they still want quality and engagement.  It’s a case of doing what they do and doing it well. And, it’s working.  Two years ago there were 70 stores, now there’s 100 and 2020 will see another 20-25 open.

The challenges

Business rates, Brexit and environmental impact all remain challenges, but are all part of the long-term strategy.  Sites are being reviewed and supply is being bought into the UK where possible. The company is now only 20% European supply base, when it was previously 70%. 100% of the beef is from the UK & Ireland.  And, from January, 100% of the fries will be too.  There is a big drive on reducing plastic and by 2025, everything will be recyclable or re-suable.  Food groups and nutrition are also a key focus, ensuring there is a sustainable story around them.  Soy is the current biggest challenge to overcome.  Whilst there is an intrinsic responsibility to act responsibly, Alasdair said, “It’s not always easy to do the right thing.”   There are no quick fix solutions, so the brand is working hard to find the right solutions that have longevity. Being sustainable is complex.

Alasdair wrapped up his speech by explaining that it’s easy to see what’s needed for the brand; better restaurants; better food; better customer service.  The challenge now is to deliver.

Questions from the floor were on the topics of delivery and plant-based foods. Alasdair believes that consumers are prepared to compromise on quality in their march for convenience (“everyone knows that French fries will not taste as good 30 minutes after they’ve been cooked”) but thinks there will be innovation that’s bespoke for the delivery market.  Vegetarian and vegan products will be a core part of the offer once supply challenges have been overcome.

The day’s event finished with the winning table of Unity Wines’ Blind Tasting Competition announced where each guest on the table won a bottle of champagne.    The charity prize was also drawn which raised over £1000 for Hospitality Action and Springboard.  Congratulations to Katy Moses from KAM Media who won a meal for two with wine at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.

From all of us here at Arena, we’d like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!