As one of Britain’s leading roadside service area operators, we speak with Mark Fox, CEO at Roadchef, to uncover how the company has responded to the reality of serving a nation in lockdown
Writer: Sean Galea-Pace
Roadchef stands as one of the UK’s most renowned roadside service area operators, welcoming more than 52 million customers every year.
The organisation is active in 30 different locations on the motorway and major trunk roads across the length and breadth of the country. Roadchef strives to provide its visitors with an array of on-the-go and dine-in options as well as offering a range of popular UK brands, such as McDonald’s, Costa, LEON, WH Smith, SPAR, Chozen Noodle and Days Inn, among many more.
Mark Fox is the CEO at Roadchef. Having worked in the retail and hospitality industry for more than 30 years, Fox stepped into his leadership position at Roadchef in 2018. Today, his role encompasses a mixture of strategy and commercial decision-making.
In our exclusive Q&A, we speak with Fox and discover the impact of COVID-19 on his business, the company’s sustainability initiatives and find out what sets Roadchef apart from its competitors.
EME Outlook: What is your take on the industry in general at the moment? How challenging has it been?
Mark Fox (MF): It’s been an incredibly tough time for the hospitality industry in the UK over the past year, and indeed across the whole EME region. While motorways have remained open for essential travel, we have continued to provide a safe space for travellers to stop and take a break. However, this hasn’t been without its challenges. During the pandemic, we kept a selection of outlets open and – most importantly – provided a COVID-secure place for essential road users to rest during their long journeys. Now that we have the UK government’s roadmap out of lockdown, we look forward to playing a key part in the nation’s recovery. We fully expect more people to be staycationing this summer, with motorway traffic increasing particularly to the south west, and we will be ready to delight our visitors with our multitude of offers and provide all road users with a safe place to de-stress on their long-awaited summer journeys.
EME Outlook: What, for you, differentiates Roadchef from other companies operating within the same industries as yourselves?
MF: For me, it’s our values: caring, uncomplicated and positively obsessive. These are at the heart of everything we do and manifest themselves in our high operating standards and the warmth of the service you receive from our employees.
Over the years, Roadchef has been a pioneer in terms of bringing new brands to the motorway network. For example, we were McDonald’s first (and only) corporate partner in the UK, and the first to bring LEON’s healthy fast-food concept to motorists. We pride ourselves on delivering the best choice and convenience to our customers, and our passion for working with exciting new brands will never cease.
Each year, we also hold our internal Heroes of the Year awards, which demonstrate the lengths that our staff go to ensure customers have a positive experience at our sites. Over the two years that I have been at Roadchef, I have heard some incredible stories and it’s our people that really help set us apart.
EME Outlook: Obviously COVID-19 meant that people weren’t travelling around as much, how challenging has the pandemic been? What has your response been like? I understand you’ve managed to remain open to support key workers?
MF: Like many companies in the leisure sector, we have been impacted during lockdown. We were fortunate enough to experience an uplift over the summer of 2020 with the strength of UK staycations, and we hope to see this again in 2021.
Throughout the pandemic, teams at all Roadchef locations worked around the clock to ensure essential workers had a vital place to rest and recharge themselves regardless of the restrictions in force at the time. We have proudly supported HGV drivers by doubling the free parking period to four hours, significantly reducing the 24-hour HGV parking charge and delighting them with free coffees.
We are now looking forward to welcoming all customers back safely – when it is legal to do so – with social distancing markings, one-way systems, contact surface cleaning procedures and shield guards introduced to protect customers and employees across our sites. This includes 1.2 miles of chains for walkways and 600 customer umbrellas if outdoor queuing is necessary on rainy days.
Of course, the safety of our colleagues is also paramount, and we’re protecting our teams with enhanced safety procedures and investment in PPE, including over 40,000 face masks and 900 visors. We also implemented a COVID-19 hardship loan – allowing team members who need it to apply for a loan up to the value of two weeks’ pay as well as offering the Wagestream service enabling employees to access earned wages ahead of payday if they need to.
EME Outlook: Are there any past projects that you’re particularly proud of which you’d like to highlight in the article?
MF: As a business, one of our top priorities is to offer the UK’s travelling public a wide variety of retail and dining options; it would be our dream to create a motorway service area that mirrored the diversity of the high street, and last year we came one step closer to this. We were delighted to partner with online gift specialist Prezzybox, a 20-year-old UK based business, to open its first bricks and mortar store at Strensham, bringing convenient, exciting gifting options to the motorway network.
2020 also saw the launch of our own range of ‘Garden Square Deli’ sandwiches and snacks. Combining the fresh ingredients of an English garden with the vibrancy of a New York deli, the brand delivers bold flavours and generous portions, all prepared fresh on site daily.
Finally, our partnership with LEON Restaurants in 2018 to bring healthy, fresh, on-the-go food options to the motorway was a particularly proud moment for the business. We have since opened six LEON outlets across our sites, including two new one’s last year.
EME Outlook: Projects aside, are there any other things you’re working on that you’d like to pay special mention to? What have these meant?
MF: Roadchef is proud to support Cancer Research UK – since 2018 we have raised over £2.8 million to help the charity continue with its lifesaving and life changing work for patients and families. Earlier this year, Cancer Research UK kindly named us ‘Corporate Fundraising Team of the Year’ as part of its Flame of Hope annual awards ceremony which celebrates volunteers and fundraisers across the UK.
The charity also selected Mike Jackson, our Director of Supply Chain Management and Head of Charity, as ‘Corporate Charity Champion of the Year 2020’, for his outstanding fundraising achievements. Incredibly, he has raised over £230,000 for the cause – another example of the amazing people we have within our business.
EME Outlook: Can you talk to us about any sustainability initiatives?
MF: We take our responsibilities towards reducing our impact on the environment very seriously, and we’re delighted to have made real progress in recent years.
Last year we launched our ‘Talking Rubbish’ campaign, implementing a host of eco-friendly measures including a ground-breaking closed loop PET recycling solution. We also use 100 percent renewable energy, including energy produced from our own solar panels.
Earlier this year we were proud to announce that Roadchef officially became a zero to landfill company. We made carbon savings equivalent to approximately 250,000 miles driven by an average car in 2019-2020.
We also make it simple for our customers to recycle at Roadchef, and I believe this has helped us achieved our zero to landfill status. Working with key partners, our work to look after the environment will continue well into the future. Roadchef was the first company in the UK to introduce reverse vending machines for coffee cups, as well as plastic bottles in 2019, alongside Coca Cola and Costa Coffee.
In addition, mixed recycling is processed in an on-site compactor before being turned into energy at a waste recycling plant. These various activities are supported in partnership with operators including UKWSL, Unisan and Creed Foodservice.
We’re looking forward to making even bigger strides in the years ahead, through water and energy efficiencies, electrification of our vehicle fleet and continuing to leverage technical innovation to reduce our impact on the planet.
EME Outlook: In terms of talent management, can you talk to us about the importance of recruiting and retaining the right employees?
MF: We’re incredibly proud of our people-focused approach and our outstanding employee retention record. In 2020, thanks to the outstanding work of all our colleagues, we were once again able to achieve the Investors in People Gold accreditation for the support and development of the team, making us one of fewer than 100 companies in the UK hospitality industry to have achieved this accolade.
In fact, last year, we also achieved a silver award for Best Employee Support Strategy During a Crisis in the Engage Awards 2020, as well as being shortlisted for awards including Progression Programme of the Year in the UK Social Mobility Awards and Best Alignment of Benefits to Business Strategy in the Employer Benefits Awards. Over 60 percent of vacancies are filled with internal candidates and, unsurprisingly, our employee turnover is amongst the lowest in the hospitality industry.
EME Outlook: Looking ahead, what are your key priorities for the coming year?
MF: The reopening of travel and leisure will be a key period for us as a business. We are very excited about reconnecting with the public as the restrictions ease and we look forward to sharing all the great facilities our sites have to offer once again and helping to enhance everyone’s enjoyment of the return of our freedom to travel and socialise.
In order to provide the best experience possible for customers, we’ve spent time understanding where we’ve benefitted from doing things differently over the last year due to COVID. We’re in the process of implementing transformational polices as well strengthening our team bench and operational practices in readiness for a strong summer trading period. We’re working closely with our brand partners, in particular McDonald’s, Costa, and LEON to evolve our customer offer and experience execution.
Additionally, we recently launched our carbon zero commitment to help tackle the climate challenge, so we’ll be ensuring that our practices and facilities reflect this promise in the year ahead.