Food sales are fuelling overall growth at the Co-operative Group as it makes headway on its three-year “rebuild” plan.

The group’s core food convenience business delivered a like-for-like sales increase of 3.3% in the 26 weeks to 4 July and a solid performance across the total food business of 0.8%.

Total pre-tax profits were £36m compared with a £9m loss in the first half of 2014.

It also opened 35 new convenience stores and announced the recruitment of 1,000 new staff members to provide stronger customer service at peak periods over the period.

A further 116 stores were refurbished, delivering an average 6% sales uplift.

Chief executive Richard Pennycook said: “We’ve made a good start on the three year journey to rebuild The Co-operative Group. These early days are about fixing the basics – putting in place new leadership teams and providing the investment to deliver the strategies for our businesses. Our customers and members are beginning to see the difference.”

The group’s pay award of 8.5% for 47,000 front line store colleagues, which was announced prior to the Budget, would also ensure that it achieved the government’s national living wage threshold for the vast majority of group employees “well ahead of schedule”, Pennycook added.

The rest of the year was likely to see it generate further like-for-like sales growth in food with a further 60 new stores set to open.

Work to refresh ranges to reflect local customer needs will also continue and a further 150 store refurbishments are expected to be carried out.