Most c-store retailers are aware of the growing importance of the food-to-go category, but the difficulty lies in reacting quickly enough to meet the ever-increasing consumer demand. And while a full-blown serve-over counter may not be the solution for all, it's also true that most shoppers expect to find more than a few token savouries.
Retailers who have taken the concept that bit further are reaping the benefits. This is particularly evident in Ireland, which many accept is a step ahead of mainland UK when it comes to food-to-go development.
Northern Ireland Spar retailer Hendersons, which expects to open its 60th store in April, has shown itself to be at the forefront of innovation in the category through a number of partnerships.
To date, 16 Subway franchises operate across the Hendersons portfolio. It has also teamed up with popular Irish fast food chain Supermac's and introduced a number of brands exclusive to Spar, including Kitsu noodles, Treehouse smoothies and Censa Fairtrade coffee. Add in ongoing partnerships with Cuisine de France as well as Spar's overall 'to go' offering and the importance of the category is clear to see.
Retail operations director Mark McCammond believes the growth of food to go is one of the most important developments in the c-store sector in recent years. "People want to be able to pop in and out of a store and find what they want, and that includes food to go. We've basically got about two and a half minutes to sell to them."
A recent development to the Henderson estate was a refit of its city centre store in Great Victoria Street, Belfast. The store reopened in September 2007 and is set up primarily for the food-to-go shopper. Designed with Spar's urban lifestyle format in mind, the store is a far cry from a typical grocery shop. In prominent positions at the front of the store you'll find a Kitsu noodle
counter, a Treehouse smoothie bar, a wide selection of sandwiches and baguettes, sweet and savoury snacks from Cuisine de France, a Tim Hortons coffee station and a cooked breakfast counter. Grocery definitely takes a back seat, although essentials - mainly targeted at office workers - can be found at the rear of the store.
McCammond is delighted with the way the store has performed and says: "The past few months have been really impressive. There's a Centra store just 50 yards away and a Tesco Express around the corner. We've tried to differentiate our
offering by majoring on food to go. It works really well because of the number of busy people in the middle of a city centre. Because of our location we've got high rent and business rates, so we need high margins, which food to go provides.
"You've got to think it through properly, though. I don't think noodles would work well in our forecourt stores, for example. At the moment, it's much more of a city thing."
Four or five staff work on the store's food-to-go section at the busiest hours, which after an early breakfast rush are typically 12am-1.30pm. An additional dedicated food-to-go only till takes the pressure off till staff and ensures a fast service for customers.
The company has also been busy in another of its city centre stores. Bradbury Place Spar opened in November and also boasts a Kitsu noodle bar, a self-serve Tim Hortons coffee and doughnuts kiosk, a hot food bar and takeaway sandwiches. The store focuses slightly more on grocery than Great Victoria Street, due to its proximity to Queens University and halls, but the emphasis on food to go remains.
The store also features a Joe Delicious ice cream serve-over unit. McCammond says that while sales will obviously increase in the summer months, it's popular all year round. He explains: "Tables outside the front of the store mean customers can buy an ice cream or a coffee and snack and sit outside. The food-to-go format works well for those who want to grab their food and leave, but also for those who have a bit more spare time but want something instant to eat."
Hendersons takes its food-to-go offering further when it combines the concepts of its redeveloped city centre stores with franchises such as Subway and Supermac's. At its Loughview forecourt store on the outskirts of Lurgan, both franchises sit side by side. And at its Carrick store, turnover has increased across the board since a major refit and introduction of a Subway.
McCammond explains: "Subway and Supermac's work well together as their offering is different. You can see both brands as soon as you enter the store, as well as all the other food to go.
"There are two very different halves of the store; feed me now and food for later. The same person can use the store in different ways. All the brands you see in the store are high profile and complement each other. Subway has more outlets in the UK and Ireland than McDonald's and the format is really flexible across all our formats. It's also a young people's brand. The Supermac's brand is very well known in Ireland and having the two options gives everyone more choice."
McCammond says he expects Hendersons to introduce a further 10 Subway franchises to its stores in the next two years, but he's quick to add that it could well be more than that.
"It's been a great fit and our customers love it. Subway also works really well for community stores. A good example is our store in Jordanstown, where we've a Subway alongside a c-store and post office. The secret lies in having all three brands."
McCammond's predictions are echoed by Subway bosses, who have set their sights on operating 2,010 franchises by 2010 - ambitious plans given that the current figure is 1,200. Development agent Neil Black says: "C-store franchises will play a big part in our development. We're expecting a big rollout across the UK. We're seeing real interest from c-store operators who don't want to miss the chance to partner with a large brand."
McCammond admits that food to go at this level is not for all. "It's not necessarily for everyone," he explains. "The blurring of the food service and retail channels, however, is the biggest driver of change in the industry at the moment. Retailers need to move with the times."