Latest data from IGD says the UK’s food-to-go sector is in ’rude health’ and is on schedule to be worth £23.5bn by 2022 up from this year’s expected £17.4bn.

IGD’s research splits the food-to-go market into five segments: food-to-go specialists; quick service restaurants; coffee specialists; convenience, forecourt and other retailers; supermarkets and hypermarkets.

Gavin Rothwell, senior insight manager at IGD, says that across all five market segments there’s some highly innovative product and menu development, but it’s the food-to-go specialists (Greggs, Subway, Pret etc) who are really setting the pace on product innovation and range development, which is why IGD is forecasting that they will become the biggest part of the food-to-go market by the end of 2022.

As for convenience and forecourt retailers, Rothwell says: "They have spotted a great opportunity in the food-to-go market and are now becoming increasingly active in this area, either through their own ranges or by teaming up with well-known brand names to add credibility. Younger shoppers are particularly likely to drive growth in these stores, with 18-25-year-olds twice as likely to buy food-to-go in convenience stores compared to their older counterparts."

All this means that there’s plenty to play for, and it will be the forecourts that can provide a consistently good food-to-go offer that’s agile enough to change in line with consumer demand that will be the winners.

There’s no doubting Subway’s success in the forecourt and convenience sector but its operation is not right for everyone. And that’s why Country Choice is currently trialling its Substop sandwich shop concept in a busy forecourt in the South East. Consumers can choose their sandwich, sub or salad and see it being made up in front of them.

There are three prices: £2.90 for Salad Feast, Cheese, Ham or BLT; £3.60 for fillings including Spicy Italian, Italian Meatball and Reggae Reggae BBQ Jerk Chicken; and £3.80 for things like Meat Feast, BBQ Pulled Pork and Quorn Patty. To turn a traditional sandwich into a triple-decker or a medium sub to a large one, customers pay an extra £2. Then there’s a meal deal comprising a medium sandwich, sub or salad with any drink plus crisps or cookie or a bottle of water and a fruit salad for an extra £1.50.

You might question why it’s necessary to bother offering sandwiches when most of us are now used to the concept of a ’sub’, but sandwiches are still very popular and account for 20% of sales on site, so there’s definitely a call for them.

Country Choice say investment on the retailer’s part is a lot less than other players in the market they don’t take franchise or royalty fees and the margins are more transparent.

Retailers do buy the equipment outright and it will be made to measure to suit each site. The trial site has a 4m footprint, for example.

The carriers (subs and bread for sandwiches) are thaw and serve products, meaning minimal waste plus savings on labour.

Subs and sandwiches are complemented by post-mix carbonated drinks, coffee, Yorkshire tea and Seabrook crisps. Breakfast is also available including sandwiches and carb-free options such as poached eggs with ham or bacon, as well as porridge.

The first Substop has only been in place for a few months, but the forecourt operator reports that it’s going well. They say they received excellent training from Country Choice and that the concept is easy to operate.

Busiest times are breakfast (7am to 9.30am) and lunch (11am to 2pm). The bacon roll with coffee deal for just £2.50, is particularly popular.

Customer feedback is good too, with people saying they love the quality of the products and the value for money they offer. And for the operator, profit margins are excellent typically 54% but the operator gets a compliance visit every month and can earn an additional 6% for that, taking the margin to 60%.

Choice is key

Variety is vital in food-to-go as regular customers will want to be able to choose different items for different times of the week.

Certas Energy’s investment in Stone Willy’s means customers can choose from pizza, wraps and melts.

Carronvale Service Station in Larbert, Falkirk, was the first Scottish forecourt to launch the Stone Willy’s concept earlier this year. The decision to trial it was taken after a 12-month review of the food-to-go market and the offers of the leading franchise operators.

"We were attracted by the company’s business model and its understanding of our marketplace," says Colin Levy, retail operations manager at Certas Energy.

"Stone Willy’s has a fresh and visually impressive look and feel that complements the Gulf brand, and the products are extremely appetising, competitively priced and with very good margins."

He says that during negotiations, they also took into account their Gulf dealer network. "The forecourt food-to-go market is currently the fastest-growing sector within our industry, the revenue potential is excellent and it is important not to be left behind. The set-up costs are almost half those of some franchises and the terms more flexible. We were mindful that some dealers will be restricted by floor area and capital outlay and that made it important for us to find a solution that could work for the majority, not the minority."

Certas Energy made a significant investment to ensure that the Stone Willy’s trial had the best possible chance of success. Staff underwent an intensive two-day training course and Stone Willy’s was heavily promoted on-site as well as through social media and in the local press. Levy continues: "Since the initial launch, we’ve changed some of the product flavours and shaped the range to suit customer tastes with Stone Willy’s proving to be a very supportive partner. We are currently looking to introduce it on other Gulf forecourts."

Certas Energy also has two Subway franchises in Glasgow and Levy says these are both performing well, particularly on the forecourt near Hampden Park which benefits from football and concert goers.

"Food-to-go is an intensely competitive market and we are always ready to consider fresh and interesting opportunities that offer new revenue potential for our company estate and Gulf dealers," says Levy. "In some areas Subway and Domino’s Pizza appear to be at saturation point and this trend is a concern as it will ultimately impact upon the long term profit potential for franchisees."

Catering for all

Most dealers tailor their food-to-go offering around their fuel customers at various points of the day, but for those who are based in the heart of local communities or industrial estates, walk-on shoppers present a huge commercial opportunity. One such dealer is Margo Paterson, owner of Jet’s Parkhouse Garage in Ardrossan, North Ayrshire. The Jet forecourt is located opposite a secondary school so pupils pop into the forecourt shop on their way to and from school for drinks and snacks, but it’s during the school lunchtime ’rush-hour’ that Parkhouse’s food-to-go offering really comes into its own. In a 55-minute period every Monday to Friday, over 200 school children aged 11-17 buy their lunches at the forecourt shop.

The store’s food-to-go offering has been tailored to match pupils’ lunchtime choices. A Rollover machine provides a constant supply of hot and fresh hot dogs, burgers and chicken baguettes. The machine has proved a great hit, with high sales and positive feedback. A hot water dispensing tap is located next to a range of instant noodle pots so pupils can prepare them with hot water on site ready to eat. A microwave is also available to heat up chilled food-to-go items or ready meals.

New chillers offer a wide range of chilled food-to-go products including sandwiches, savoury snacks and drinks. Crisps and confectionery are also displayed prominently and there’s a range of cakes, pastries, sausage rolls and pies from a local supplier.

Managing this volume of customers, while still serving the usual lunch-hour fuel and shop customers, is no mean feat. All 200 children arrive at the same time as the lunch hour isn’t staggered. Pupils know to form an orderly queue along the front of the shop, avoiding the forecourt area for safety reasons.

As well as three staff behind the tills (two operating the tills and a third operating the Rollover unit), two back office staff come on to the shop floor to ensure everything runs smoothly. One staff member stands at the entrance to the store, counting pupils in and out as only an agreed number of pupils are allowed in store at a time. This staff member also checks all receipts on the way out to minimise the risk of shoplifting.

Fuel and other shop customers are able to jump to the front of the till queues, which are normally around 10 deep. Margo says that the pupils are used to this and just accept it and it means that other customers aren’t delayed in paying for their purchases.

Margo says: "It is a bit of a military operation and we do have to manage our stock well to meet demand, but overall it works really well. The pupils are very well behaved and know the routine and rules so we rarely have any problems.

"Food-to-go is a key category for us and we will continue to gather feedback and adapt our ranges to keep up with customer preferences and new trends."

Sausages on a roll

Rollover has recently partnered with Wall’s to offer an All Day Breakfast Sausage Baguette. It’s described as "a succulent and mouth-watering pre-cooked meaty Lincolnshire pork sausage with sage, parsley and thyme", served in a baguette with either brown sauce or tomato ketchup.
Rollover hot dogs can now be found in over 3,500 locations throughout the UK, including many forecourt sites. One such site is Witham Co-op where manager Matt Camp, says: "We have been really successful with Rollover. We average about 300 units per week; and in our best weeks we sell over 500. What we love most about Rollover is the simplicity of getting the products out for display. We really appreciate all the support Rollover has given us."

Heating up sales with an easy microwaveable solution

Ali Bootwala is using Rustlers to drive food-to-go sales at the Jet forecourt and Londis convenience store in Coltishall, just outside Norwich.
The store, owned and managed by VAS Group, is located on a high street, attracting both regular customers and passing trade travelling to and from Norwich, many of whom are looking for a quick snack.
"Rustlers is a big part of our food-to-go offer," says VAS Group senior manager Ali.
"We’ve sited the Rustlers food-to-go unit next to the Costa self-serve coffee machine, and close to a hot food cabinet, as a hot snack and hot drink go so well together."
The forecourt has only had the Rustlers unit for a few months, but customers are already making good use of it.
"The fact that it’s pre-programmed for all Rustlers best-selling products, but can also be used to heat other food as well, is a real bonus," adds Ali. "I’m also expecting that as the weather turns colder, even more people will be on the lookout for hot snacks."
Ali is also using Rustlers alongside sandwiches and pies to position his forecourt shop as a ’proper convenience store’, not just a shop selling daily essentials. "Stocking major, well-known brands such as Rustlers makes a bit of a statement and, more importantly, ensures we can meet demand for easy-to-heat snacks that can be eaten on the go.".
He is also planning to signpost Rustlers on the forecourt as well, to help boost awareness as people approach the shop.

Aryzta deal: a sweet success

Earlier this year Top 50 Indie Park Garage Group signed an exclusive deal with Aryzta Food Solutions to introduce Seattle’s Best Coffee, Cuisine de France and a hot food-to-go offering to its forecourt stores.
Hemant Tandon, operations director at Park Garage Group, says the impact of the deal has been incredible: "Stores that didn’t have a food-to-go offering before have gone from nothing to taking £1,000 extra per week on food-to-go.
"Overall our shop sales have increased between 5-10% since we started working with Aryzta, depending on the different food-to-go offering we provide in each forecourt.
"Stocking both Otis Spunkmeyer (sweet treats) and Cuisine de France (breads and pastries) alongside Seattle’s Best Coffee allows us to offer day part deals in the morning shoppers will pick up a pastry and in the afternoon they’ll pick up a doughnut or cookie while they wait for their coffee to pour.
"Food-to-go provides retailers with a huge opportunity to make more money but it has to be done right to reap the rewards.
"My advice to retailers is to do your research on both the options available to you and importantly what your customers want. Ultimately retailers need to take responsibility for its success in-store but if you find the right partner it can make the process much easier.
"We can’t fault Aryzta’s range and customer service. Weekly visits, daily calls and communication have ensured this project is a success and working with one partner to provide a full food-to-go solution has proved invaluable."