M&B tucks in during hard times

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The Independent Online

The pubs and restaurants firm Mitchells & Butlers today said buoyant food sales were helping the group weather tougher trading conditions this year.

The Harvester and Toby Carvery owner - which serves around 110 million meals a year - saw a 4.8 per cent increase in like-for-like food sales in the 27 weeks to 5 April.

This offset lower beer sales and kept Birmingham-based M&B's overall sales in positive territory - up 0.6 per cent over the period.

The company, facing the twin challenges of smoking bans and a consumer slowdown, has become a takeover target after racking up huge losses on an abandoned property deal last year.

But M&B hailed a "resilient" sales performance and added: "This has been achieved amidst challenging trading conditions for beer sales but increased eating out demand in pubs following the smoking ban."

M&B said its food offering, which now accounts for 38 per cent of sales, was appealing

to a new brand of pub-goer previously put off from eating out by tobacco fumes.

The group said: "The quality and value of our food offers together with our high standards of amenity have enabled us to gain a disproportionate share of this growth."

Although the group faces pressure from soaring food inflation this year, it is also set to make purchasing gains from higher sales volumes.

The All Bar One and O'Neill's owner said like-for-like drinks sales fell 1.4 per cent, despite growth in wine and soft drinks accompanying food.

But M&B said this represented increased market share in a beer market which slipped 9 per cent in the four months to February.

Beer makes up 25 per cent of the group's sales but the market is likely to remain depressed and hit further by Chancellor Alistair Darling's duty hikes in last month's Budget, the group added.

M&B will reveal the outcome of a strategic review of the business by May. This followed a merger approach by rival Punch Taverns - since abandoned - and reported interest from private equity firms in buying a minority stake.

The takeover speculation was sparked by the collapse of a debt-financed property joint venture it planned with entrepreneur and major investor Robert Tchenguiz.

The deal - a move to return cash to shareholders - involved approximately 1,300 of its pubs. But banks pulled the plug on the scheme following the credit crunch and left M&B with £274 million in losses from a wrong-way bet on interest rates as borrowing costs began to come down.

The issues hit the group's share price and it was relegated from the FTSE 100 Index in December.

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