Busy Britons are said to be Europe’s biggest spenders on meals on the go - racking up an average bill of £120 per person a year, according to research company Datamonitor.
And if you include the extra snacks that many of us manage to fit in around set meal times that figure would be much higher.
Fortunately for forecourts, much of this eating on the move occurs when we’re driving - hence marketers have coined the phrase ’dashboard dining’. Not surprisingly, the market has been quick to respond and the provision of foodservice in forecourt stores has dramatically increased over the past few years as both oil companies and dealers seek to move away from the traditional image of petrol retailing.
IGD research has found that 54% of company-managed sites now offer a hot beverage dispenser, compared to just 26% in 2002, while 42% now offer a microwave facility and 14% an in-store bakery. Even the availability of pre-prepared sandwiches has increased, with 100% of the stores sampled now offering them.
Analysts say the food-to-go market will continue to grow as we increasingly try to juggle work, family and leisure commitments. For forecourt retailers looking to take a share of the profits there are many different solutions on offer, from individual pieces of equipment, to a full-scale bakery installation, as well as franchise options.
"Forecourts are the fastest-growing channel for food to go. They lend themselves well because of the mind-set of the consumers who visit them - many are simply looking for quick, tasty, hot food," says Raj Tugnait, managing director, at Country Choice.
Companies like Country Choice and Cuisine de France aim to make foodservice easy by offering a one-stop-shop service. Both have a wide range of equipment solutions available to fit any store size and budget and supply a seemingly ever-increasing range of products. They can also provide important extras like marketing support, staff training and branded uniforms.
Country Choice has recently launched the Bake & Bite-branded ’shop within a shop’ concept.
This package is said to offer a complete foodservice solution, with everything needed to prepare and merchandise a wide range of hot and cold products. The equipment is designed to fit a space of 5m x 3m, and costs around £30,000. It includes a 2x4-tray oven on a stand, hot preparation unit, refrigerated prep unit, double bowl stainless sink and drainer with hand wash, microwave, hot display unit, serving counter, chilled unit and bread stand.
Country Choice says the package can be bought off-the-shelf and delivered within 36 hours. The modular nature of the equipment means it can be pre-built off site, but in-store fitting can also be arranged if required.
Recently fitted at Bradbury Services near Darlington (see case study), ’shop within a shop’ is soon to be installed at a second forecourt in Jersey, operated by the Le Riche group, which owns forecourts and c-stores throughout the Channel Islands.
On the product side of things, there have also been some new additions. "As well as matching the expectations of the traditional ’pie and pasty’ consumer we are actively pursuing new groups, such as females and higher income professionals, by communicating with them on their level and engaging them with a range of high quality salads and freshly filled baguettes," says Tugnait.
To this end, the company’s new ready-made salad pots offer an easy solution for retailers and are said to be made with restaurant-quality ingredients.
Meanwhile, the new Hot Box solution allows retailers to provide hot meals to take away - the box can hold many different types of food, including hot sauces and gravy, without leaking. Ian Lindsey, bakery manager at Westacre Service Station near Salisbury - winner of the food to go category in last year’s Forecourt Trader Awards - has been selling a popular full English breakfast in his. For £2.40 customers can enjoy sausage, bacon, egg, hash browns, beans and toast, all in a takeaway box.
Rival Cuisine de France has also been busy. There has been a TV advertising campaign and a new panini grilled sandwich concept launched. There are seven pre-filled paninis available to simply grill and serve and also panini breads for retailers to create their own ranges. To get the operation up and running Cuisine de France is also offering special grills, which hold two, three or four paninis.
Hot dog supplier Rollover has been targeting forecourt retailers with a simple counter-top solution, which takes up about the space of an A3 piece of paper.
Its hot dogs require no cooking - the retailer just heats them in the unit, which Rollover will loan out free of charge, provided a certain volume of product is ordered on a regular basis.
Miles Harvey, operational director for the Park Garage Group, has introduced the concept at several sites, to complement the Bake & Bite offer. He says: "Forecourts have been selling sandwiches for years, and they still account for a high percentage of our food sales, followed closely by pies and pasties.
"But customers now expect to see more variety. This is a quick food service item which is perfect as customers often leave their car at the pump and don’t want to be kept waiting."
At the group’s Feltham site around 50 hot dogs are sold a week, retailing at £1.99 each.
Sandwich chain Subway is also looking to make partnerships with forecourts as part of an ambitious expansion scheme.
Paul Heyes, Subway development agent, says: "In the US around 20% of the Subway business is in the forecourt and c-store sector. We’re aiming to have 2,000 stores in the UK and Ireland by 2010, so therefore around 400 of these should be within forecourts."
There are currently 13 Subway franchises open on forecourts in the UK and Ireland and a further 27 planned. The bulk of these are on sites owned by Hendersons Retail in Northern Ireland, although development has also started through the north west of England and the Midlands.
So far these are all being run by independent franchisees, with the forecourt operator receiving rent for the space being used - a floor area of 300-1,000 sq ft. This means the site owner hands over the day-to-day running of the business to someone else, while enjoying the benefits of the extra trade and dual branding opportunities the Subway name aims to bring to their site.
The company will also consider the option of the retailer taking on the franchise themselves, something that is an equally common set-up in their mature business in the US.
"We’re seeing an acceleration in our development as we gain brand identity. That’s what we have to offer forecourt operators - a high quality, branded offer which people recognise. We now have a strong market presence, with over 700 stores open, and regular national TV advertising scheduled. If you’d put Subway on the pole sign three years ago few people would have known what it was. Now it pulls in traffic," says Heyes.
As part of the foodservice package, a good coffee offer is seen as being important for attracting repeat visits.
Self-serve coffee offers an easy option for retailers but hasn’t always had a reputation for quality. Coffee Nation, however, believes its ’gourmet’ machines can compete with the big coffee shop brands. The self-serve coffee bars require just a metre of space and have now been installed in around 350 forecourts.
The machines use freshly ground beans and fresh milk, and are operated on a revenue share basis. They can currently be found on sites operated by Esso, Welcome Break and Tesco Express, as well as Malthurst, Pace and Petrol Express.
Director Carl Jackson says: "We’re working with multiple-site operators rather than those with individual sites. We’re looking for some scale because of the investment we put in."
But whatever the scale of your business, there are foodservice options available to suit it. According to a survey by Shell, Brits spend an average 3.4 years of their lives driving, clocking up 640,286 miles. That means there are a lot of tired and hungry drivers out there looking for a pit stop.
CASE STUDY - BRADBURY SERVICES
Bradbury Services, in County Durham, recently became the first forecourt to install the Bake & Bite ’shop within a shop’ concept.
Part of the nine-site independent dealer group Phil Wilks & Sons, the BP-branded forecourt is located just off junction 60 of the A1 and is on the main route to Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. The site has good parking facilities and aims to offer a quicker, more convenient and friendlier alternative to the motorway services on the A1. There is also some inside seating and even an attractive patio area outside for sunny days.
Group manager Tim Wilks says: "We previously had an in-store bakery, but it was something that we’d put together ourselves. It did the job, but it was looking dated. We wanted something a bit sharper that would give us the right image. It now looks especially good at night, when it’s all lit up.
"Food to go is becoming the monster part of our shop’s business, especially when you include everything in the chillers like cold drinks. Sandwiches and savoury snacks have seen huge growth over the past 10 years."
While the ’shop within a shop’ concept is designed to be bought off the shelf, with modular units that fit into a straight space, the Wilks’ decided to invest in a more bespoke fitting, designed specifically to accommodate their store. This also included a separate branded fascia, although the overall fitting is part of the forecourt shop.
The operation was up and running within one working week.
The new bakery sells a wide range of products including hot savouries, sandwiches, baguettes, wrap and salads, all made on site. Staff also make sandwiches for five of the group’s other sites, which are then delivered in a refrigerated van. The bakery is manned from 6am to 6pm, while self-service sandwiches and hot drinks are available 24 hours.
Wilks says: "We’ve definitely picked up a lot more trade from reps and people who do long hours in their cars.
"Things like the new fresh coffee to cup appeals more to this type of customer, while HGV drivers have always been a big part of the business.
"We’ve increased our sales by between 70-80% since the refit and we know there’s plenty more in the market. After the summer we’re going to really try and push afternoon sales by offering hot soups and rolls and maybe doing some promotions."
CASE STUDY - PETROL EXPRESS
Petrol Express has recently made its first foray into freshly prepared food, developing two café formats. Grill Express is aimed at HGV drivers and is bring trialled on a site in the Midlands, while the first Café Express has opened at Stanwell, close to Heathrow.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Petrol Express director Ron Haacke chose to develop the site on the airport perimeter after a large Esso site nearby closed, leaving the regular taxi drivers and chauffeurs looking for somewhere else to eat.
"None of us have got great fuel margins, so we have to generate income from other areas. It’s all about grabbing chances when they arise. We’re always looking for ways to give the business added value," says Haacke. "To make it profitable we need to do a couple of thousand pounds a week, which won’t be a problem," he adds.
The café is managed by Ellen Oakes, (pictured on the left with assistant Fay Montgomery) who has more than 25 years catering experience, and offers a range of hot and cold food, including cooked breakfasts, freshly baked baguettes, pies, pasties, jacket potatoes and burgers. Some of the equipment and products are supplied by Cuisine de France, although the café has its own identity: "You’ve got to personalise it," says Haacke. Food can be pre-ordered by phone and trade is steadily rising every week, supported by flyers and local press advertising. Word of mouth has also spread among the airport drivers, who now use it as a meeting point. There is a seating area and a screen is being installed to display flight times on teletext.
Haacke is keen to see the format extended to other sites, particularly those on holiday routes. Around half a dozen are earmarked for development within the next 18 months.