About 25 years ago, a revolution took place in convenience stores. Microwaves started to appear on cluttered shelves, offering customers the chance to whack in a pie, turn the dial up to a minute and emerge with a paper bag containing a soggy lump of pastry filled with molten minced beef and onion.
Surprisingly, given the way the UK has developed as a foodie nation over the years, not a great deal has changed. Perhaps the microwave is branded, or the pies and savoury slices have been joined by a Rustlers cheeseburger. Yet a handful of c-stores are proving there is an opportunity to reap the rewards if you go the extra mile and offer premium quality.
Not that such a move comes without risk. The rise of the coffee shop over the past 25 years, along with the more recent trend for street food vendors selling lunchtime-friendly ethnic treats, combined with the familiar sandwich shops, fast food joints and Greggs, means the food-to-go market has never been more competitive.
On the other hand, research from him! shows that when it comes to food-to-go, punters prefer good quality over cheap prices, meaning most people would rather pay £6 for a freshly rolled burrito than £2 for a microwave burger. So how should indie retailers go about creating their own high-quality food-to-go offer and take advantage?
They could do a lot worse than take a trip to the new Spar store in Homerton, East London, otherwise known as Eat 17, where the ping of a microwave is replaced by the gentle sizzle of deep-fried tempura broccoli, pomegranate and soy, or the satisfying crunch of a buttermilk-fried chicken burger topped with spicy slaw, aioli, tomato chutney and jalapeños.
“We use the best chefs and the best ingredients. That doesn’t come cheap, but you’ve got to do it properly”
It’s a radical departure from a piping hot Ginsters, yes, but that burger is “London’s finest,” according to the Evening Standard’s acerbic restaurant critic Grace Dent, who also described Eat 17’s tempura broccoli as her “new death row request” for her last meal. All this, remember, from a Spar c-store. And although Dent was dining at Eat 17’s restaurant, which sits above the sales floor, both those items, and many more, are available from the counter downstairs.
“I don’t know any other independent shops that do it like this, which is a shame because there’s a big opportunity,” says Eat 17 co-founder James Brundle. “The way to do it successfully is to approach it as you would a proper restaurant. You have to treat it like it’s its own business. We use the best chefs and the best ingredients to make sure the food we produce is the best. Obviously that doesn’t come cheap, but you’ve got to do it properly or there’s no point doing it at all.”
The numbers suggest he has a point. Two months after opening, Brundle revealed sales were more than £32,000 a week (he predicts they will hit £50,000 before the year is out) while average basket spend is £10, compared with the average Spar basket of £6.
“We’re up 60% on what our initial estimated sales would have been for the first two months,” he adds.
That’s clearly not just down to the fact it offers a mean burger (with paprika fries) - the store is a foodie mecca, stuffed with artisan treats, so perhaps its clientele is ripe for fancy food to go anyhow.
It’s not just in London that premium food can work, either. Another Spar retailer to grasp the nettle is Manchester-based operator Paul Stone. Named best chilled retailer by Convenience Store magazine in 2013, the food isn’t as adventurous as the Eat 17 model, but the food-to-go offer in his 24-hour store on Oxford Road is hand prepared in The Cheeky Coffee Co outlet he owns across the road, and features an extensive range of good quality wraps, salads, pastries, hot food and sandwiches.
During a normal week the store shifts around £2,000 worth of sandwiches, but thanks to the local student population this figure soars during term times.
Stone has clearly cottoned on to the fact that though the average age of a food-to-go shopper is 38, the 18 to 24-year-old age group is vitally important in this category as they typically have higher frequency of visits and higher spend. The research from him!, based on a survey of more than 2,000 shoppers in May this year, also found quality is more important than price for food-to-go shoppers .
It’s not just Spar retailers that are grasping the nettle. Andrew Thornton, who runs a Budgens store in Belsize Park, offers a mini shop on the street including freshly made fruit and vegetable juices, sandwiches, ice cream from Riley’s Ice Cream parlour in Crouch End and other treats. It also runs a barbecue every weekend over the summer, selling homemade burgers made with prime cuts supplied by the Rare Breed meat Company.
Blake Gladman, senior research manager at him!, believes the proliferation of food-to-go operators that have popped up on the high street over the last decade or so, and the subsequent “plethora of choice for the consumer,” means that offering good quality food to go is no longer a choice, it’s a prerequisite.
“Fresh, well made with quality ingredients, and served well, stores [such as Eat 17, Andrew Thornton’s Budgens and Paul Stone’s Spar outlets in Manchester] are the standard bearers for what outlets need to deliver in order to survive, let alone succeed in the fervent competitive space of food to go.”
The 80% of indie shop keepers who intend to significantly increase their food-to-go offer in the future, would do well to heed these words of advice.
The average food-to-go spend at lunchtime is £4.55 per visit and the most popular item is sandwiches (him!), so ensure you have a well stocked range on display.
Consumers love a good deal -him! research shows one in four consumers bought food-to-go items they hadn’t intended to purchase because of a special offer.
Don’t forget healthy options. For one in two shoppers health is very important and 15% of shoppers try to choose healthier options at the start of the week.