Subway has opened its first eat-in concession in Northern Ireland. Ronan Hegarty reports

A convenience store may not be top of most people’s list of favourite places to enjoy a nice meal, but that is exactly what Northern Ireland symbol operator Henderson Group is encouraging its customers to do.
Last month, US sandwich chain Subway opened its first eat-in concession in the Henderson-owned Spar store in Newtownabbey, just outside Belfast. This is the next stage of a relationship that has led to the opening of three Subway Express concessions in Spar stores in the province.
Both agree that the relationship has been win-win so far, but for Henderson, in particular, creating a sit-in restaurant was not an easy decision to make. No c-store operator wants people taking up valuable parking spaces for longer than is absolutely necessary.
Operations director of Henderson Retail, Mark McCammond, said that this site was chosen carefully to avoid such issues and that all future ventures would face similar scrutiny.
“This is not a format that will suit all our stores, so we will still be looking at rolling out both eat-in and takeaway concessions in the future. It is very much horses for courses. There is plenty of parking here, so those customers looking to sit down and take their time over a Subway will not prevent other shoppers finding a space or put them off coming into the store,” he explains.
Both Henderson and Subway believe that the new concession will help the store become a genuine destination shop, not just for workers in the surrounding business parks but also for people in nearby residential areas.
Paul Heyes, Subway development director for Ireland, says: “The huge signage on either side of the building, as well as on the forecourt sign on the roadside, seems to be attracting plenty of interest. A lot of customers have been telling us that they decided to come in for the first time because they saw that Subway was here.”
For Jonathan Mitchell, manager of the Spar store, there has been an immediate impact. “We have had to put in an extra till, going up from three to four, which has proved necessary in making sure we avoid queues. The biggest difference, however, has been in the evenings. Because of our location in an industrial area, the store used to get pretty quiet after five o’clock. We used to be able to get by with just one person on the till, but now we have had to keep two open in the evenings,” he says.
As customers walk through the doors, they are immediately hit by the smell of fresh bread being prepared in the Subway kitchen, which is particularly appealing early in the morning and is clearly helping to encourage a steady breakfast trade.
The 200 sq ft, 12-seater Subway concession is directly opposite the entrance, with strong signage inviting shoppers to sample its wares. Shoppers have to walk through a significant section of the store on their way to and from the Subway. McCammond says that this has resulted in a significant boost for sales of newspapers and chilled drinks.
The most interesting aspect of the store, which took up much of the discussions between the two parties, was the fact that Henderson has retained its own hot food-to-go counter. It no longer sells fresh sandwiches, but remains busy and an important source of income for the store. In the three other joint ventures, the Subway concession has replaced the existing hot food counter.
Heyes understands Henderson’s need to retain its hot food offer in order to provide a complete range of food to go. He says: “The two operations still fit well together, and this shows the flexibility of the relationship we have with Henderson. We can tailor a quality solution to any particular location.”
Henderson and Subway are currently in negotiations regarding future projects. Heyes says that they will not necessarily be restricted to Henderson’s company-owned stores and that Henderson’s franchisees could in turn become the franchisee for the Subway concession in their stores.
McCammond says: “We are looking at developing two or three more projects this year. The sit-in format is likely to be the exception to the rule, mainly down to the parking issue. However, this initial success has shown us that it is a format that can work.”