Forecourt operators are raising the stakes in fast food like never before. Take BP Connect, for example; its Wild Bean Café is going from strength to strength, and the oil company is supporting it with so much gusto that it has even invested in a radio and billboard ad campaign to raise its profile. And let’s face it, it’s a fantastic offer, with everything from traditional bacon rolls to more upmarket paninis.

But it’s not just company-owned sites that can operate a convincing

fast food offer. Independents are realising the opportunity hot food presents – and with fantastic results.

A Jet-branded Fuelforce site in Swanley, Kent, for example, has one of the most comprehensive Bake ‘n’ Bite packages in the UK. As part of a recent refurbishment, and in line with a deal between Fuelforce and Country Choice, the site now features an impressive food-to-go section.

Site manager Kirpal Panesar has worked closely with Country Choice throughout the refit and is delighted with the results. “We have been Country Choice customers for some time buying a range of bake-off products from them,” he says. “But when the refit became imminent and I saw everything that was available as part of the Bake ‘n’ Bite brand I just knew I had to have it.

“What they have done is very clever. By creating a store within a store and adding fully branded imagery such as light boxes and uniforms they have managed to make an already profitable bake-off operation even more so.

“Believe it or not, the new bake-off area takes up less space than its predecessor, but because of the impact of the new set-up we have managed to increase sales without increasing the range or raising prices,” he adds.

Great effort has been made to attract customers to the store with the use of external posters, an in-store bakery ad on the pole sign, a menu board steering customers from the entrance to the bake-off section, plus a range of meal deals.

Currently operational between 6am and 4pm, the bake-off section offers everything from bread, confectionery and savouries, to chicken wings and spicy wedges. Add to that a range of freshly filled baguettes and the store has just about everything the hungry motorist could want.

Panesar estimates that 70 per cent of his business comes from regular locals. “It became obvious to me at a very early stage that with so much potential repeat business on offer, all I had to do was find the right offering and people would just keep on coming back, and that is exactly what has happened,” he says.

Shop sales are up 10 per cent since the site’s refit, and although he cannot attribute the whole of that rise to the bake-off operation, he is in no doubt that it has been a massive influence in improving shop turnover.

Now Panesar is eager to extend the range of products he offers to include pizzas and other home meal replacement products. When he tells you that he is already turning over £400 per day in the bake-off section at margins of 50 per cent, you can understand why.

For forecourts wanting to transform their shop into traditional c-stores, Cuisine de France says introducing hot food is a good place to start.

“In-store bakeries have already been proven to drive footfall into stores and to increase basket spend,” says Louise Eagle, trade marketing manager at Cuisine de France. “This is a great starting point for forecourts wishing to get more convenience focused, especially as people buying hot food and bread are also more likely to browse the store for meal accompaniments.”

Cuisine de France’s package is tailored to each site, depending on footfall and space available. Professional ovens and display equipment are supplied, and the product is delivered part-baked and frozen up to six times per week and can then be baked off as required. Cuisine de France has a national training team which visits stores to pass on its expertise about oven use, finishing, display and hygiene controls. The team can also tailor training manuals for stores to ensure that all procedures are carefully followed.

According to Cuisine de France, there are key products that will literally fly out of the door if you get the quality and price right – bacon baps and sausage rolls, for example.

“We are firm believers in starting with a simple range,” says Paul Taylor, hot food development executive at Cuisine de France. “Not only does this make it easier to manage but it makes the choice easier for the customer. Cuisine de France has a range of over 100 hot food lines but we’d never suggest you try to stock even a quarter of that unless you’re a large operation. Of course, a range needs to be interesting but you’ll find a huge proportion of your business is done on just a few products.”

He adds: “Retailers can choose products to introduce as special or new lines on a regular basis and that will keep customers interested in the offer.”

Savoury pies and pasties are still firm favourites in any hot food-to-go range, as are products that are easy to eat on the move such as potato wedges and savoury slices.

Cuisine de France has just come up with a new range of savoury slices in seven different flavours: Steak, Minced Beef & Onion, Chicken & Mushroom, Meat & Potato, Cheese & Onion, Chicken Curry and Vegetable.

The company has also recently launched a Hot Sandwich range made up of five varieties: Bacon & Cheese, Sausage & Bacon, Mushroom Omelette & Cheese, Beef & Onion, and Philly Beef (beef, onion & cheese).

Hot food offers are becoming more sophisticated and varied all the time, with suppliers developing different products to keep the category interesting.

Earlier this year, for example, Country Choice launched a range of pizzas and a hot soup concept. And Bakehouse has just redeveloped its range of vegetarian savouries with improved fillings and new toppings. The three new variants – Triple Cheese Lattice, Roasted Vegetable Plait and Spinach & Ricotta Plait – are now available through Country Choice.

Equipment manufacturers are also making it much easier for retailers to enter the foodservice market. Everything from chip-making machines to baked potato ovens are now available to the forecourt sector.

But while hot food-to-go is fast becoming an expected category on

the forecourt, a fast-food operation requires commitment from the retailer, and this is unfortunately where many fall down, says Cuisine

de France. While suppliers offer support in category management, retailers are ultimately responsible for the day-to-day running, cleanliness, availability, and freshness of their operation. And with margins of around 50 per cent, it’s a category worth working hard for.