Food to go is a great way to grab good margins and increase footfall. Here’s how our C-Store Champions ensure they pile on the pounds.

Harris Aslam, director of Eros Retail, which owns five stores in Scotland

Harris wants to make his food-to-go as social-media worthy as Prêt or Starbucks

Austin Kelly, store manager of Springisland Supermarket, in Coalisland, Northern Ireland

For Austin, quality is the most important factor within the category

Sandeep Bains, Simply Fresh, Faversham, Kent

The key is to keep it simple, says Sandeep, as he finds the basic lines are always the most popular

Jerry Tweney, Budgens Prestbury Village Stores, Cheltenham

Food to go has become a large focus for the store Jerry opened a few months ago

How has your food-to-go offer changed over the past few years?

Harris: The store in Markinch has only been open for 18 months so it hasn’t changed a lot in that time, but we are constantly developing new food-to-go ideas as it is now our focus store for testing new products and ideas before rolling them out to other stores. We try to be pro-active in coming up with new ideas all the time. Some work and some don’t, but you never know until you try. The seating area is something we’ve created since the store opened.

Jerry: The store opened at the beginning of August. The store that was here before was very mixed and all the categories were quite jumbled throughout the store. When I was setting up the shop I made sure to keep the three different sections of the store distinct from one another. The food-to-go section is all on black shelving, which makes it look high quality. Since opening we have been slowly expanding the range. The food-to-go category has become more and more important as people have got into the habit of buying little and often. I will often see one shopper come in the morning for their breakfast and lunch and then return to get their food for dinner later that day. People don’t plan ahead and stock up on food for the week like they used to, and this has been great for food to go.

Sandeep: The store opened four-and-a-half years ago and we brought food to go in three years ago. We have brought in a bigger hot food cabinet and added an extra Costa coffee machine, so we now have one with Subway and one with the hot food cabinet. I wouldn’t say the food to go has changed greatly; I think the standard favourites have remained: the sausage rolls and bacon & cheese turnovers. Generally, it’s the same people who come in day after day looking for the same thing.

Austin: We have had the food-to-go offer since the store opened 20 years ago, but it has grown since we opened. We started with a small range and one hot food cabinet, whereas now we have two. We’ve noticed that the older generation who used to cook all their meals are now finding it’s easier to come in to buy their meals prepared. We also provide a delivery service for those customers who find it hard to get out of the house, and we also deliver to the local factories.

What are some of your top-selling food-to-go products? Any surprises?

Harris: The top-selling products are all from the bakery counter, because the baker is so well-known locally. His products are premium and everybody loves him and everybody loves a cake! This is great for us because they deliver daily and we put the cake straight into our counter and all we have to do is bag or box it up.

Jerry: It’s a very traditional area here and the steak bake is definitely the most popular seller. If I run out of steak bakes and a builder comes in looking for their breakfast or lunch, they won’t be happy. Sausage rolls are also essential. They are easy to grab on a napkin, with a coffee to go, and jump back in the van.

Sandeep: In Subway the top three sandwiches are the BMT (big, meaty, tasty), chicken tikka and meat balls. In the hot food cabinet it’s the bacon & cheese turnover and the sausage rolls that are most popular.

Austin: The top-selling meals are the stews, curries and lasagnes; the simple, hearty meals.

How much profit do you make from it?

Harris: We aim for about 60-70%, but in reality this is hard to reach because we are always trying to ensure we provide high quality, as well as getting good margins and volume. Also, we want to make sure we appeal to the workmen as well as to the affluent locals of the area and so it’s important to get that 
balance right.

Jerry: From the hot food to go we always aim for 40% margin. But it’s also a great offer to have because it creates lots of nice smells throughout the store and makes shoppers hungry!

Sandeep: It’s hard to say because Subway and Costa both take their cut and the amount you sell varies at different times of the year.

Austin: We make a profit of about 40-50% from the hot food counter.

What are the biggest challenges that come with offering FTG?

Harris: We do hot rolls, sausage rolls and bacon rolls, but we can’t do raw meat products on site because we would have to apply to the Environmental Health Board and to the council, so this is a bit of a hindrance. Another challenge for us is that there’s a café right next door which is like a bakery, but it also does jacket potatoes and items like that. It’s been there longer than we have on that site so locals know it and like it, and so we have to try not to compete directly with them.

Jerry: There is always an element of waste as you can never get the offer exact. This is especially the case when you’re first setting up and you don’t know what will sell the best. When we first opened we barely got any sales from our breakfast offer as there’s a pub just over the road which opens at 8am for breakfast. It was getting to the point where I was feeling quite disheartened. But after a few weeks the builders started to come in and it’s steadily built since. Now we have a good base of regulars.

Sandeep: Definitely keeping the quality high and consistent. People come in looking to get the same product day after day and they won’t be happy if one day the quality isn’t as high as usual. It’s essential to ensure the staff know how important it is to be consistent.

Austin: Waste control is the biggest challenge. The main way we keep control of this is by keeping a close record of our sales each week and adjusting what we are ordering and preparing. We will also box up food into meals and sell them at a lower price when they come toward the end of their shelf life.

What have you learnt about staffing for food to go?

Harris: We ensure that all staff can do everything across the store as we feel this helps us run the business more efficiently. Therefore we don’t have dedicated staff for the food-to-go counter.

Jerry: Short shifts are essential. I’m lucky that I have a few members of staff who live right on the doorstep so they are happy to come in to do a short shift and maybe come back later in the day. This is very helpful when you get very clear rushes of footfall: 9am to 11.30am is probably our strongest couple of hours, then we have the lunch rush and then the 3.30pm sugar rush.

Sandeep: Training is so important. They need to know what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they should do it. They have to understand what we are trying to achieve and why it’s important that they do things correctly.

Austin: It’s important to hire high-quality staff who have experience. We have had some of our counter staff for as long as 10 years so they are extremely good at their jobs and care about providing high-quality products and service.

How do you vary your offer during seasonal events?

Harris: We get in lots of seasonal cakes for Christmas, such as chocolate snowmen and other quirky treats. When it comes to sandwich fillings, we won’t change these greatly, but we will have a turkey and sage & onion stuffing filling at Christmas.

Jerry: I’m looking forward to vary-ing the offer for Halloween and Christmas. I’ve already seen there’s a lot of nice-looking Halloween cakes, and at Christmas there’ll be lots of special sweet treats and festive flavours.

Sandeep: We might add the odd line here and there but we certainly would never change the core offering.

Austin: We provide a Christmas lunch meal throughout the month of December.

What advice do you have for other retailers just starting up a food-to-go offer?

Harris: I’d say don’t expect it to take off immediately. They should have a bakery counter as that’s where the sales volumes are for us, and definitely have a coffee-to-go offer as everybody is looking for coffee.

Jerry: I’d say don’t do too much too soon. There will be an element of waste and you want to keep that under control. Country Choice has been very helpful and provided us with great advice. They’ve provided some sampling stock and that’s helped. Also, we just recently brought in the Urban Eat range and I’ve been quite impressed.

Sandeep: Start basic with one hot food cabinet on the counter and offer bacon & cheese turnovers and sausage rolls and a couple of other options. A lot of suppliers will offer sale or return to start with. Also, be smart about what your shoppers are going to buy. If you are an off licence then you can’t start offering sausage rolls early in the morning, because you don’t have the shopper base. Don’t be afraid to put strong offers on your products to start with, either, just to help build up your customer base.

Austin: When starting out it is important to concentrate on a small range of high-quality products. Our USP is our quality and we have won awards for the quality of our meat, pies and other meals.

The products

What does your food-to-go offer include? Where is it located and how much space does it take up?

Harris: The offer in each store is different, but our store in Markinch has been created with a focus on food to go. We have rolls, sandwiches, paninis, wraps and baguettes which are made to order, as well as some ready made. Then we have the local premium bakery which provides pastries and cakes. There’s also a Costa coffee machine and seating area.

Jerry: I’ve split my store into three categories and the first third is the food-to-go section. We have our hot food such as sausage baps, pasties, bacon & cheese turnovers, sausage rolls and steak bakes. There’s a sandwich range from a local supplier, which delivers to us six days a week, so we’ve given them a whole shelf. We also have an Urban Eat range of sandwiches, wraps, salad and pasta bowls. We have coffee to go and a seating area at the back. We also bake-off a range of sweet treats throughout the day.

Sandeep: We have a very strong Subway offer. We have a hot food cabinet and a Costa coffee machine next to each other. The cabinet holds all the bake-off slices. We also have sandwiches which we make in store, plus samosas, chicken bites, Fridge Raiders and other chilled snacks of that sort.

Austin: When the customer first walks in the store they are greeted by the coffee to go machine and cakes, plus a wide range of packaged sandwiches, soft drinks, sweets, protein snacks, crisps and other grab-and-go items. The back wall of the store is devoted to our butchery and deli counters. We offer a wide range of meals including prepared chicken, peppered beef, chicken curries and stews. Everything is weighed so the customer can choose exactly the amount they want and pay accordingly.

Future developments

Do you have any plans to extend or change the offer?

Harris: We are trying to create a brand and relaunch the packaging for our store-made lunch items. We are working to create our own Greens branding to go on packs. We want to get to a place where Greens is just as trendy as Starbucks or Prêt. You see people snapping pics of their sandwich from cafés all the time, but you never see someone Instagramming a picture of a sandwich they get from their local convenience store. We want to make Greens Snapchat and Instagram worthy. We also want to increase the amount of pre-packed sandwiches we’re selling and reduce the amount of made-to-order, just because it’s much more efficient to sell this way. We are also looking to create our own coffee-to-go brand so we aren’t just relying on Costa.

Jerry: We will continue to slowly expand the range, but ensuring to do this as the customer base grows.

Sandeep: We are always looking to expand and improve the offer but these things have to be decided in conjunction with our suppliers and we take advice on what products will sell.

Austin: Yes, we have plans to improve our food-to-go counters for the butchery and deli in the next month. We are going to get in top-of-the-range new equipment which will help to present the food better.