As the grocery market rapidly adapts to changing consumer habits, Waitrose has served up plenty of food for thought with its latest hire.

When foodservice and wholesale are seemingly the order of the day, the retailer has sat somewhat patiently in the shadows as its grocery rivals dealt their trump cards.

Tesco has agreed a £3.7bn deal to acquire wholesale giant Booker, which supplies eateries such as Byron, Prezzo and Wagamama, while Sainsbury’s is pursuing Nisa.

Rather than buying a wholesale business, Morrisons is leveraging its own vertically integrated model to supply Amazon with fresh, frozen and ambient produce.

But having opted against acquiring Eat under the stewardship of former boss Mark Price, Waitrose has now shown its hand.

The upmarket grocer appears keen to broaden its horizons under its own steam, drafting in its first ever director of foodservice as it seeks to grow its in-store dining formats, the Wine Bar and The Kitchen.

Having tentatively launched the concepts at a clutch of stores, Waitrose has poached Simon Burdess from InterContinental Hotels to lead the next phase in their development.

And he appears, on paper at least, to be tailor made for that challenge.

Luxury grocery

After graduating from Southampton University in 1993 with a degree in modern history and politics with philosophy, Burdess joined Marks & Spencer as a graduate management trainee.

In 12 years with the high street stalwart, Burdess held various roles including those of senior food buyer and category manager of in-store hospitality.

Burdess switched to Fortnum & Mason in August 2005 to lead its commercial team and helped transform the business into the multichannel retailer it is today.

The father of three became a member of the board as trading director, with responsibility for ecommerce, marketing, visual presentation, customer service and corporate sales.

So highly regarded was Burdess by the luxury food business that he is understood to have only narrowly missed out on the top job to his former M&S colleague Ewan Venters in 2012.

Hospitality training

The following year, Burdess moved on to InterContinental Hotels as vice-president of food and beverages, a role spanning its 675 European hotels across seven brands including Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and Hotel Indigo as well as the eponymous chain.

“He’s going to take experiences from M&S, which appeal to a Waitrose consumer, he’ll take the best of the luxury, high-end model at Fortnum’s and he’s got foodservice nous from his InterContinental Hotels background,” headhunter Tony Gregg, who knows Burdess but did not place him in the role, tells Retail Week.

“The combination of all three makes him a good hire when you think about Waitrose’s target consumer.

“If you were saying ‘this is my ideal person to lead foodservice for Waitrose’, your CV doesn’t get much better than Simon’s.”

‘Genuine chap’

Burdess is described by one former colleague as “an incredibly personable” and “really genuine chap”.

An avid rower and rugby player during his university days, Burdess has the innate competitive edge required to brave the scrum of the fiercely contested grocery market.

His hobbies of golf and fly fishing hint at a focused, patient and tactical mind that will help Waitrose drive its fledgling foodservice operations and help them become a prize catch. 

“Waitrose has always been about the experience as well as products”

Tony Gregg, headhunter

And his love of gardening and the guitar – which he is learning to play in what little time he has to himself at his Buckinghamshire home – hint at a creative tune that retailers are increasingly playing in their bid to be unique.

Those close to Waitrose suggest the grocer may have struck a chord in its efforts to do exactly that.

Although it is still relatively early days, the retailer’s Wine Bar and Kitchen formats are “absolutely flying”, sources say.

While a wider roll-out of the two concepts is almost certainly on Burdess’s menu, Gregg believes his top priority will be to inform more consumers about Waitrose’s popular new foodservice proposition.

“Waitrose has always been about the experience as well as products,” Gregg says.

“You look at stores like Worcester and King’s Cross with successful wine and foodservice offerings, but it’s still not getting out to the masses.

“Simon’s role will be about getting in there with the consumer and making them aware that, when you go shopping, you can arrange an extra hour to have a glass of wine and something to eat beforehand.”

If he can achieve that, it won’t just be Waitrose’s customers who are raising their glasses.