Matt Cundrick: It won’t be long until we see vending machines selling hot food at scale in forecourt stores 

From removing under-performing legacy franchise brands to introducing hot Indian street food from vending machines, consultant Matt Cundrick shares his thoughts on staying ahead of the food to go opportunity.

Food to go has always been an unruly beast. Comparatively capital heavy in many cases, operationally intense, and expensive, but with significantly stronger margin and EBITDA upsides when executed right. A short-term winning strategy for food to go can sometimes quickly become cumbersome and draining of funds. I’m sure we all have examples of buying into the latest exciting concepts only for them to become brief flashes in the pan, taking up premium shopfloor space, and offering little in return other than a home for dust and litter. So how do we get the balance right?

Tough! That’s what I see and hear out on the roads. Customer expectations are rising, the heavier weight of that precious pound in their pocket the driving force behind expecting more for less. Combine that with operational challenges in rising energy, labour, and ingredient costs, and we have a rather tricky playing field. This is starting to make many turn away from solutions which require labour to produce, display and serve. Customer self-heat solutions are on the rise, with some incredible innovation. It is also why many brands are turning to the latest generations of semi- and fully-automated solutions.

Vending machines are no longer of the ilk of the old school canteen. Nowadays they offer healthy, hot, and tasty solutions for those wanting to deliver a great product without labour or waste. These are scaling quickly through the NHS with some mind-blowing innovation, and as we see them popping up in railway stations and airports, it won’t be long until these arrive in forecourts at scale.

Vended hot food is a huge area of opportunity and provides quick wins; the development here is incredible in terms of quality. From perfectly cooked hot chips, to Indian street food, and including perfectly cooked pasties and pies, there is a great deal that can be achieved in only a few weeks to bring about change in your forecourt, without needing to invest hugely in labour or refits.

The outlook is incredibly bright for food to go within forecourts, with huge potential upsides and scope for growth awaiting those who can set themselves up for success. As EV charging expands, with greater demand for the service in more corners of the country, we see a step change in potential dwell time. This dwell time offers the connected opportunities of greater basket spend, through up-selling, and on-selling. However, this will put demands on space, both inside and out.

Those who embrace the additions of seating areas, mobile phone and laptop charging points, and customer wifi will win sway with the EV crowd and become favoured charging stops. Inspiration is not far away, and should be sought from the Nordics. Norway, Denmark and Sweden have been at the cutting edge of policy changes to convert drivers over to EV and it is working. In particular, 80% of Norway’s new car sales in 2023 were fully electric.

The knock on of the arrival of electric vehicles to the traditional forecourt has been seismic in these countries, with a number of trends taking hold. Many operators have invested in expansive seating areas, and they have added charging points for laptops and phones, and free wifi, as a mainstay. Some have even gone as far as to introduce office pods like those recently seen at Moto Rugby M6 services.

Alongside this, they have matched this with an increase in non-portable meal solutions. Gone are the single-handed sandwiches, and in are open bowls, cutlery and complexity. The massive benefits here are increased spend, and improved margins. Getting ahead of the curve here in the UK is vital. First movers in the Nordics have reaped great rewards for doing so.

Modern skyscrapers located near earthquake hot spots are designed in a way that allows them to sway with any motion. This is a great way to think about your business now, and how you grow it. How strong and flexible are your foundations?

Do you have the right team in place both at site level and above, who really understand the meaning of great customer experience? Are your logistics, margins, property and supply chain all suitable for growth, extra pressure, and any added complexity? Do you have the right systems, working practices and rhythm and routines? The ability to adjust and adapt your food to go offer over time will be easier with these strong groundings.

Focus on what outcomes you are looking for. It may be gaining confidence in the next trend being right for you and your site/s, or knowing more about your customers and their expectations. Always be looking to source more data to support your decision, rather than acting on hunches: being active here pays dividends later on.

Space in our sector is always a considerable challenge. Therefore, it is critical to think in agile and adaptable ways when planning food to go execution. Consider equipment that can double up as microwave and convection oven at the same time. Combination speed ovens offer versatility and efficiency, cutting down on valuable staff time. Digital menus and shelf edge tickets can also offer you great medium and long-term flexibility, whilst making your brand really stand out in the short term.

However, my critical advice is to think modular. Allow yourself the freedom to change and rework layouts simply and cheaply. In the early days of convenience food to go, many operators installed purpose built wall fixtures encasing their fridges, hot holds and coffee vending. This rendered the operators unable to react to changes in trends. Shifting layouts between hot and cold product was impossible, thus capping sales and customer experience.

Whilst not everyone who reads this can throw money at the solution, there will be a number who can, and with critical levels of planning and insight, it can be very lucrative to do so. I have visited a couple of great success stories recently. Stand-out operators have removed large, under-performing, legacy brand franchises and concepts, replacing them with bright innovative new thinking. From own-brand burger bars, to the latest in sweet treats and desserts, the opportunities in the market are many. With the right thinking and vision, sales have grown to multiples of the old concept, and return on investments can be measured in weeks not months.

The key wins, when speaking to the operators, have been simple; giving local customers something they want and need, providing great, new dishes, served in warm and comfortable environments, with simple touches to support their mission. Whether that be as basic as charging points at the table, or somewhere to meet colleagues. The bold approach, when marketed right, can also have huge upsides. Go on TikTok and it’s hard to miss those who will happily drive 200 miles to try a burger or buy some new slush flavours.

Throughout your thinking, it is vital to not forget the core of the food to go mission in roadside locations. Predominantly the customer wants a great tasting, filling eat, whether hot or cold, and presented in a considerable, portable format for eating on the go. Combine that with a top-notch coffee and cold drink selection, and a sugary boost, and you have a strong baseline. Focusing on this great product, with strong, well-managed availability and supplied through reputable, and great value suppliers needs a lot of consideration and focus, but pays off superbly when executed well.

Matt Cundrick, of MKMC Food Business Support, has over 20 years’ experience in food to go operations across forecourt and convenience retail, with stints at McColl’s and Rontec. He now works as a freelance consultant in the industry, helping forecourt operators “optimise their food to go propositions”, and working with a number of prestigious clients including Applegreen and Sainsbury’s. In 2019, he was named a Top New Talent by The Grocer. He will be taking part in the ‘Making the most of the forecourt opportunity’ panel at the Forecourt Show on Tuesday April 30 at the NEC, at 12.15-12.45pm.