The chief executive of Whitbread Alison Brittain and chef-restaurateur Thomasina Miers headed the contingent of hospitality industry personalities to be featured in the New Year’s Honour List 2019.
Brittain has been appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to business, while Miers, the co-founder of the Wahaca chain of Mexican restaurants, was honoured with the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her work in the food industry.
Also on the list were five new Members of the Order of the British Empire (MBE): Henry Crawford, managing director of Get Fresh NI, for services to the Northern Ireland food and hospitality sectors; Judith Fish, owner of the Applecross Inn in Ross-shire for services to tourism in the Scottish Highlands and to the community in Applecross; Mark Hill, executive chef, House of Commons, for his work in parliament and the catering industry; Nisha Katona, founder and director, Mowgli Street Food Group, for services to the food industry; and Finlay Spratt, catering officer, Northern Ireland Prison Service, for public service and charity work.
Meanwhile, husband and wife team George and Jane Alison McAlpin were named as Medallists of the Order of the British Empire, for services to the tourism industry, having run their independent restaurant empire in Portrush, Antrim, for nearly 40 years. According to the most recent accounts lodged at Companies House, Owey Enterprises, the parent company of the McAlpin family business which started in 1980 with one restaurant and comprises sons Matthew and Fionn, achieved an annual turnover of £11.8m and pre-tax profit of just over £1m in the year to 31 March 2017.
Also named as Medallists of the Order of the British Empire were Eithne Begley, deputy catering manager, Youth Justice Agency, Northern Ireland Executive, for services to the youth justice system and young people in custody; and Sherley Forder, catering assistant, Cabinet Office, for public service.
Being made a CBE marked the end of a pivotal year for Brittain who has overseen the sale process of the Costa coffee chain by Whitbread to Coca-Cola for £3.9b, allowing the company to focus on Premier Inn, the UK’s largest hotel brand with nearly 800 properties. Approved just before Christmas by the European Union and expected to complete in January, the sale is a major boost for Whitbread shareholders, who will benefit from a £500m share buyback programme.
Brittain was new to the hospitality industry when she took over as chief executive of Whitbread from Andy Harrison in 2016. She same to the sector with a solid banking career behind her – Brittain was group director for retail of Lloyds Banking Group prior to joining Whitbread and has held senior roles at Santander and Barclays. Having graduated in business studies from University of Stirling business, Brittain climbed the career ladder to scoop the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year award in 2017.
Looking ahead, Brittain will now focus on continuing to grow Premier Inn, which is forecast to have 85,000 rooms open by 2020, up from more than 70,000 today. Next year Premier Inn will open what will be the UK’s tallest hotel in the UK: a 400-bedroom, proprty in Westferry, east London. The hotel will occupy 28 storeys of a 30-storey building.
Brittain described the award as “a very great honour”, adding that she was “both delighted and humbled to be recognised”. She continued: “I have had the privilege of working with many incredible teams and inspirational people during my career and my sincere thanks goes to them for their support. I also hope that this award might inspire more women and girls to consider pursuing a career in business and see the tremendous opportunities it can offer.”
Miers first came to prominence in 2005 as winner of BBC Two’s MasterChef competition, having earlier eschewed a career in VAT consultancy, digital strategy and marketing to study at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland and then spend time in Mexico to learn the indigenous cuisine.
After her MasterChef win, Miers spent six months at Petersham Nurseries Café, working for head chef Skye Gyngell, before forming a business partnership with Mark Selby to launch their first Wahaca restaurant in London’s Covent Garden in 2007.
The Mexican street food concept, which is proud of its strong environmental ethos, now numbers 25 outlets. The company has emerged stronger and more focused than ever following an outbreak of norovirus in 2016 during which 200 staff and 160 diners fell ill. The cause is believed to have stemmed from a supplier and, as a result, the business completely re-engineered its supply chain.
Wahaca has amassed numerous accolades, including the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Sustainable Restaurant Group of the Year three times and the Restaurateur of the Year – Group Catey in 2016.
In addition to running Wahaca, Miers has contributed food and recipe article for The Times, The Guardian and Country Life, including a long-running weekly column in The GuardianWeekend Magazine, and written seven cookery books. She has also presented television programmes for Channel 4 and Channel 5 and helped the ARK Franklin Primary Academy in Kensal Rise, London, to establish an open air classroom in its grounds.
Miers said: “I was both amazed and thrilled when I heard about the award – it really is the hugest honour. I couldn’t do any of it without the support of my team at Wahaca and a collection of amazing people that help and inspire me every day. I feel exceptionally lucky to be working with so many hard-working people in an industry where there is so much creativity and talent. I hope this will encourage more bright young sparks to get into this hugely rewarding sector.”
Mowgli Street Food Group Founder Nisha Katona said that being awarded an MBE was like receiving royal endorsement for her ancestral dishes.
She said: “Mowgli is just over four years old and has raised over £400k for charity but what was truly wonderful is that the recognition was for not for the charitable limb but for services to the food industry.
“I risked my all to leave a cherished legal career for the food industry and this was the ultimate endorsement of that gamble. I feel like my ancestral dishes are royally endorsed. I am thrilled that this is about the food, the product, about the very heart around which I build Mowgli, around those ancient recipes.”
A total of 1,148 people received awards in the New Year’s Honours 2019 list, 47% who were women.