Food-to-go is often regarded as the ’holy grail’ of food categories - a real footfall driver that brings in lots of sales and profits. However for this to happen you have to do your homework and get it right. Get it wrong and it could be a costly mistake.

To help you, whether you are new to food-to-go or thinking of expanding, we asked Stephen Clifford, marketing controller at Country Choice, to answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

== How big should my range be? ==

We recommend starting with a tight core range. For example with our smallest concept - called the Hot Spot - we would suggest having: sausage rolls; bacon & cheese turnovers; steak bakes; potato dogs; Cornish pasties; cheese & smoked ham bakes; chicken tikka masala bake; and cheese & onion roll. We recommend pricing based on margins of around 50% to 60% - but you need to bear in mind your local competition.

== Should I stock hot food and snacks or just sandwiches? ==

Once you are comfortable with your initial set-up there is a natural progression into hot breakfasts and thereafter into sandwiches. Providing you have the capacity to do so and demand exists among your customers, then you should offer hot food and sandwiches to maximise sales opportunities.

== Should the food be prepared in-house or delivered? ==

Most consumers prefer the idea of their food being freshly prepared in store and we see this and the associated theatre as a genuine selling point for in-store food-to-go. Furthermore preparing it in store gives you the flexibility to offer a much wider range and tailor your food to your customers’ requirements.

== Should I stick to savoury snacks or stock sweet snacks as well? ==

If demand exists then you should stock both. Many sweet snacks such as donuts and muffins are ’thaw and serve’ which means they need little preparation.

== Do I need a coffee machine? ==

Coffee is a great profit maker and footfall driver and ties in very well with meal deals such as a coffee and a bacon bap for a price. Machines can be configured as self-serve or serve-assisted depending on your particular store set-up. We have an entry level machine that can produce up to 60 cups per day as well as a bigger machine for larger volumes. These days, consumers are far more discerning in their appreciation of coffee so quality is paramount. You should look to offer a range of coffees, using a bean-to-cup machine to ensure the coffee is freshly ground, and use fresh milk.

== How do I weigh up availability versus wastage? ==

One of the golden rules to bake-off is to bake little and often as this reduces wastage significantly. There is no point in baking too much product in one batch if you then have to throw a large amount of it away at the end of the day. At Country Choice we supply our customers with a production schedule based on their offer as well as tips on how to reduce wastage still further such as using French bread as a pizza base, or turning baps into mini pizzas.

== Where is the best place to put my food-to-go installation? ==

From an operational point of view you might think that the back of the store is the best place to site it, or even in a convenient alcove somewhere.

However, in reality, the best place for it is where it is most visible to your customers. There is an element of impulse to food-to-go purchases so your offer needs to be in clear view.

If possible it is also advantageous to site it near the till as this will mean you don’t necessarily need to have a staff member dedicated to the food-to-go section.


== f this spot is already taken, where can it be put? ==

No two sites are ever alike so we are always happy to advise on the best location. If the ideal spot is already taken then it depends on what is already occupying it. Food-to-go profit margins are between 50% and 60% and the category can contribute as much as 15% to the total turnover of some stores so you need to compare this with the return you are getting from whatever already occupies the space and make an informed decision.

== Would it be better to have one big section or split it up into different sections throughout the store? ==

It is much better to have your offer all in one place both from a logistical perspective and also from the customer’s standpoint. However, if you are offering bread then it is acceptable to site your bread stand away from the food-to-go area, possibly in the vicinity of your pre-packaged bread. You might also want to consider remotely-sited dumpbins for impulse multibuy products such as muffins, cookies and donuts.

== What’s the best way to inform my customers about my food- to-go range? ==

Using window vinyls and A-boards externally, and over-sized shelf talkers and posters internally. If you are near a busy office or factory area then consider a leaflet drop or a coffee loyalty card that offers every sixth cup free, for example.

== What training should I undertake when installing a food-to-go section in my store? ==

Country Choice provides free on-site training to all its customers from day one. This includes everything related to running a successful food-to-go operation including food preparation and handling, baking, hygiene, and all aspects of food safety.

== How long does training take? ==

It depends on the range of products being offered and the number of staff who need to be trained.

For a small site it will probably only take a day whereas at a larger site it might take up to a week.

== Will this training allow me to train my own store staff to work on the section? ==

We wouldn’t recommend this. It’s much better (and safer) to have the job done by a qualified professional, especially as this is a free service from Country Choice. And, if necessary, repeat visits can also be made for refresher training, again free of charge.

== What about offering customers value for money? ==

Meal deals are a good idea because the discount doesn’t have to be that great. Make sure you have shelf talkers situated near all the host products in the meal deal.

For example. if there is a sandwich, packet of crisps and a soft drink involved then make sure the deal is promoted in all those areas.

Another area of significant recent growth has been multibuys on confectionery items such as mini doughnuts or cookies in a bag.

These work really well for outlets near offices or on school run routes.

These tend to be impulse purchases so far and away the best tip here is to site the relevant dumpbin near the till.


=== Ginsters: Fresh, hot and ready to go ===

Hot pasty counter

Spotted at the M20 Junction Eight services at Maidstone in Kent - an invitation to enjoy a hot Ginsters pasty.

Signs on the road to the petrol forecourt and toppers on the pumps tell customers about the new hot pie service.

Inside the shop, there is a Ginsters branded area with a Merrychef oven and a hot pie display unit. Pasties, paninis and toasted sandwiches are all baked to order. Unfortunately the counter was not manned when Forecourt Trader visited!


=== Case Study: pasty presto ===

Bath-based bakery café chain Pasty Presto, which operates from 24 locations across the South West, has opened a new outlet at the Extra motorway services on the M40 near Beaconsfield.

The company was launched in 1994 when Steve Grocutt opened his first shop in Mevagissey in Cornwall with just two members of staff. Now the company employs more than 300 people and is recording year-on-year growth of 6.5% even in the current economic climate.

Grocutt says: "The current economic climate is creating tough trading conditions for many businesses but it is a very exciting time for us. Families that would have gone out for a pricey meal at a restaurant are trading down to Cornish pasties, baguettes and coffee at our outlets. Our customers like the fact that we make all of our bakery goods in our stores, fresh every day."

Pasty Presto has also just opened a new store at Gloucester Quays Factory Outlet Centre and is set to open three more outlets in the Channel Islands under a franchise agreement. The company says it is committed to further expansion on the motorway network.


=== offering a really Big bite ===

The Fridge Raiders brand is being extended with the launch of Mighty Bite. The 75g 100% chicken-on-a-stick product is being positioned as a "satisfying substitute for pasties and sandwiches".

Fridge Raiders’ senior brand manager, Anthony Wilkinson, says: "Mighty Bite will offer Fridge Raiders’ core 25-34 male consumers a more substantial alternative to the existing Bites range, which is more of a light snack - it’s a real hunger buster for those with the serious munchies."

Fridge Raiders Bites is performing really well in convenience outlets and, according to AC Nielsen figures, it is the fastest-growing meat snack in multiple forecourts.

The brand is supported by a £4m package this year including national TV advertising and a major sampling campaign.

Wilkinson says Fridge Raiders Bites and Mighty Bite should be merchandised in the chilled food-on-the-go fixture ideally next to sandwiches and soft drinks. "We believe Raiders should be involved in meal deals as they are great on the go with a drink or a meal - a bag of Fridge Raiders Bites would make an interesting and tasty replacement for the ubiquitous crisps bag in a meal deal."

The range now comprises 65g bags of southern fried, roast, Chinese spare rib, tikka, BBQ and limited-edition hot and spicy chicken bites as well as the new Mighty Bite.


=== Case Study: A&A Chapman ===

Billie and Clive Chapman have two forecourts including the BP site with Premier store at Duddery Hill, Haverhill. Earlier this year they doubled the size of the store there to 1,500sq ft. "We increased every single category," says Billie, "And we added fruit and veg and fresh meat." The store had previously bought in sandwiches from a local supplier but with the refit came a Country Choice unit where they now offer freshly-filled baguettes, sandwiches and salad bowls as well as hot food.

The Chapmans’ daughter Lisa Marie Norman runs the food-to-go department. "It’s hard work but worth the effort," says Billie. "Our meal deal is extremely popular. We offer a sandwich, which would usually retail at £1.99, a Coke which would usually sell at £1.09 and a packet of crisps - usual price 46p - all for £2.49.

"The muffins and doughnuts also sell well, in fact we often struggle to keep up with demand and there is never any wastage on them." Another popular item is coffee - at just 65p a cup. Billie says even at that price they are making a really good margin on it.