Gone are the days when a c-store’s food-to-go offer was restricted to sandwiches or pasties. Now, operators are much more specialist, and Henderson Group is the epitome of that evolution, with a host of concessions.

The ultimate expression of innovative food-to-go at the Northern Irish business is its company-owned Spar store in Mallusk, which is used as a “test bed” to trial new concepts under its Delish brand. Since opening in 2022, the store has become a “food-to-go emporium”, that blends over-the-counter options alongside a strong fresh and grocery range.

“Food to go acts as a magnet between Monday and Friday, while the convenience offer, such as our butchery, pulls in the weekend trade from the local residents,” says retail director Mark McCammond. “That’s why the hybrid nature of the store works so well.”

From a breakfast bar to burritos, fried chicken and its newest addition, a pizza bar, McCammond says the food-to-go selection “caters to different tastes for all parts of the day”.

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Even a coffee drive-through is available, under its Barista Bar banner, with an average service time of 2.5 minutes. “That matches McDonald’s,” McCammond adds. Henderson is “taking the competition to the international quick-service restaurants as a local operator”.

The next step is selling the Delish concepts to its independents. “We’re looking for a retailer who already has a good reputation in food to go, because there’s a certain level of expertise you need,” says McCammond. Ideally, stores also need to be at least 2,000 sq ft so retailers can comfortably fulfil their convenience offer too.

Of course, a sizeable investment is needed to roll out a concept like this. McCammond says a Subway counter could cost around £100,000 for example. But retailers shouldn’t be daunted. Food to go traditionally runs off higher margins, meaning better returns. And those profits can go towards rising energy bills and staff wages.

Up to 12 members of staff run the food-to-go operation at Spar Mallusk, with shifts between 7am to 7pm. McCammond says you don’t need a brand new team to prepare and cook the food, but a specialist to train existing staff to become “experts in food to go”.

There is a selling point beyond food to go, too. As per Spar Mallusk, stores can become a “one-store destination”, offering services such as the Post Office and cash machines, alongside their grocery and food to go offer. “You only have to stop once,” he says.