To be the best at something often means taking a step into the unknown and this year's Convenience Retail Award winner in the food to go category took a massive leap.

Today food to go accounts for just under 9% of store turnover at Jenny Wynne-Jones' Spar store in Connah's Quay, Deeside, Clwyd. But she admits she had doubts about it at the start. "Before we began selling food to go we were petrified of it," says Jenny. "We weren't sure if customers were going to go for it and whether we would end up losing money. The store had a bad name in the community when we took it over two years ago. In fact, people used to call it the 'last resort' as they'd rather shop anywhere but here."

Despite these concerns, Jenny decided that she had to invest in the store if she wanted it to succeed, and food to go was to be her primary focus.

"It was a big move," she says. "I knew that we'd have to create a preparation area and that would cost money, and that there would have to be a member of staff dedicated to that section. I didn't want to hire someone and then three months later let them go because food to go wasn't a success. That would have been unfair."

Jenny started off slowly with a small selection of snacks and sandwiches. She managed to save money when fitting out her preparation area by buying in the counters herself after shopping around. "I got a great bargain on the tables; they were a fraction of what I could have paid for them," she says. Cost-saving measures like this helped Jenny get the project off the ground and gave her the confidence to proceed.

She also made the decision to give the section a personal touch by preparing all of the sandwiches in-store. "We got rid of all of our old suppliers and made them ourselves," says Jenny, "and the homemade sandwiches proved to be a real hit."

Customers soon began making a beeline for the 'last resort' store to snap up the food-to-go offer. "At first we were selling £500-worth of food to go a week and within a year it moved up to about £1,500," she adds. "However, we had no experience of food to go and really relied on Country Choice and Spar to support us in the early days."

This strong start gave Jenny the resolve to stick with it and she hasn't looked back since. "We now sell £3,200-worth of food to go a week and I'm aiming to increase that to £4,000 over the next few months."

Reaching this new target is crucial for Jenny as her store could be facing a challenging year. "In September a shopping centre will be opening a couple of miles down the road and it will have a supermarket, off licence and Gregg's bakery," she explains. "It will be the first time in several years that we will have some competition. I'm confident that we will be able to prosper in spite of this, but we'll have to work harder to reach our goals."

To help her do this, Jenny is considering her next expansion. "We have a couple of options," she says. "We could do with another display for hot food, but we would have to rearrange the store slightly. Our other option is to open out our current kitchen and preparation area and have it as a counter-style operation. It's tucked away at the back of the store and during busy times customers will queue up outside the door of the room and the food is handed out as it's made," she adds. "If we had an open-plan counter, we could really drive sales that bit further as it would be something hard to miss."

Jenny advises any retailer looking to expand into food to go to employ a dedicated member of staff and not be tempted to have someone drift between it and the shop floor. "It's such a vital area to the store that we need someone to concentrate on it," she says. "There's no point in having someone jump on food to go when the store isn't busy as it won't receive the attention it requires and the quality will suffer.

"We have someone who comes in early and prepares all of our homemade sandwiches," she adds. "This takes several hours so she's finished just in time for the lunchtime rush. She focuses solely on food to go and I would never ask her to jump on the tills or stack shelves; there's too much to do."

As well as developing her own offering, Jenny has been helping other retailers learn how to provide a top-class food-to-go area. She and her staff have been asked by the AF Blakemore Guild Academy to host 'look and learn' sessions for other retailers. "We've held them twice now in the store and it's a good opportunity to show fellow store owners the potential that can be unlocked from food to go," she says. "We got some great feedback from the retailers who attended and they've already started to put into practice the advice we gave them."

Although there is competition on the way, Jenny currently has no major rivals nearby and with two schools and a college just down the road, there is plenty of opportunity for sales. "During lunchtime we have so many customers that we have to make them queue up outside the store," says Jenny. "We only let a few in at a time or otherwise there would be bedlam in the shop."

Jenny has recently added a £1 bakery display, designed by her supplier Country Choice. It offers a range of bagged donuts, brownies, rolls and baguettes. She says that it has been successful since its debut. "It's amazing how well people have responded to this new display," says Jenny. "They seem to be drawn to the £1 price tag. Even the baguettes which were 99p before have been selling better as people think they are getting a bargain."

As well as having a wide range of food to go, Jenny makes sure that her customers have something to wash it all down with. "We have a hot drinks machine opposite the till and sell about 25 cups from it a day," she says. "We have a deal running for a hot drink and a muffin for £1.50, which means the customers get the muffin for only 30p rather than the usual price. This has worked out well. We also have the Country Choice Boston donut display close to the machine so that people can just pick up a pastry with their coffee while they're on their way to the counter."

One area that Jenny is keen to focus on is waste. "We make sure to use everything we can to avoid wasting food," she says. "We'll make our toppings from short-dated cans of food and use bread that hasn't been sold for pizza bread. We're always on the lookout for ways of reducing waste as it can really add to our costs.".
Best food to go retailer
Stephen Clifford, Country Choice marketing controller, was on the judging panel for the food-to-go category at the Convenience Retail Awards and outlines a few of the points that impressed him about Jenny Wynne-Jones' store. 

"The way that Jenny and her team have really embraced the concept of food to go stands out a mile," he says. "The commitment to staff training is obvious and it is easy to see why the store has hosted Spar AF Blakemore Guild Academy 'look and learn' sessions. "There are a number of key indicators to a successfully run food-to-go operation and one of the most important is the level of wastage. We have done a lot of research into this subject over the years and, in our opinion, at just 7%, the store is right on the money when it comes to wastage. 

"Communication with the consumer is excellent, especially in relation to promotions. These have clearly been well thought out and make good use of the available merchandising material such as shelf talkers and posters to communicate offers like the recently introduced £1 deals. "And, of course, you cannot ignore the evidence at the tills. 

The store's commercial and operational approach along with its commitment and enthusiasm for food to go have seen turnover increase significantly over the past 12 months, with plans in place to boost sales further in the near future."