They don't pay us to write travel guides on Convenience Store, so here's a couple of free observations from a first-time visitor to Dublin. Irish girls are every bit as pretty as they are made out to be, that widdly-widdly music they play in every bar gets very irritating very quickly, and Ireland's convenience stores could tell their UK counterparts a thing or two about food to go.
Wander into any of the city's
c-stores and you'll find a significant area of the floorspace given over to a hot food counter, pâtisserie, coffee machine or smoothie bar. Unlike in the UK, it's become a national expectation to be able to pick up a good hot meal or instant snack from any of the stores bearing a convenience symbol group fascia. And the reason for that might just be because they do food to go exceedingly well.
Peter Kealy, managing director of BWG, which operates the Spar brand in Ireland, says that the rise of fresh food takeaway started about 10 years ago. "We started to move the deli sections of our store to the front, and at about the same time we were introducing bake-off, so from there it was a short step to making sandwiches on site, and hot food was the next logical step," he says.
Ireland has a predominantly young population, and in recent years the booming economy has provided money to spend and the aspirations to go with it. They have caught on to the idea of 'fresh food', as they call food to go, in a convenience setting. "We don't have the same domination of the multiples that you have," says Kealy. "I think maybe people in the UK can't see past the big supermarkets and haven't seized onto what the convenience sector is offering. Retailers here are younger, too; many of them come from a management position in the multiples and they have the vision to invest in their business.
"That may be why the Irish market is ahead of the UK in making food to go such a feature of the convenience mix. But you can do it, too - you have one huge advantage which we don't, which is dense concentrations of people."
Since 2005 Spar has taken the food-to-go offering to another level. Retail development director Declan Ralph explains how BWG's management team locked themselves a way in a Dublin hotel for a few days and lived only on the food they could buy from local c-stores. Unimpressed, they came up with the concept of Enjoy Now, one of five shopping missions they identified which now dictate the layout of refitted Spar stores.
One example is at Merrion Row in the city centre. Enjoy Now is clearly the mission of choice for most customers in this business district, and half of the 3,200sq ft floorspace is given over to food to go. With good reason; that 50% of the floorspace contributes 45% of turnover and has led to a significant growth in sales throughout the store. There's an Insomnia branded coffee bar, Spar's own Treehouse smoothie bar, a salad bar and a deli with hot food and sandwiches made to order. Together these fill the front half of the store, with an off licence and general groceries tucked away behind - in fact, from the entrance it's hard to spot a product that hasn't been produced fresh in the store that day. There are central tills, but customers can also pay for all their shopping at any of the food bars, so even at busy times the queues never look too daunting.
Ralph explains that if you are promoting the concept of Enjoy Now you have to provide space for customers to do just that, and at Merrion Row there is a counter with high stools at the window as well as a chill zone, with sofas, tables, toilets and TVs tucked away in the quiet recesses of the store.
What's immediately apparent is that Dubliners like a good choice of healthy foods to eat on the go, and their choices aren't always the most obvious. Construction workers lining up at the smoothie bar is something you don't expect to see, and retailer Thomas Ennis says Merrion Row did more business in smoothies in the last week of July than in beer.
Thomas employs 18 staff on the section and at busy times there can be up to 10 pairs of hands at work behind the deli counter.
Dublin's stores have got where they are through constant innovation and a close eye on the market. Lil Courtney's Centra store near Fairview Park, five minutes' drive from the city centre, is a case in point. Although it only opened in 2005, it has just undergone a E100,000 refit, including the complete overhaul of a deli section which provides takeaway meals for the 23,000 customers of the affluent, white-collar residential area.
The store has two entrances but the deli is its centrepiece. Customers are first lured by fresh bread rolls - one particular line of which is the store's second biggest-selling individual item - and a gondola salad bar. This self-serve unit is stocked high with pasta pesto, Moroccan couscous, chicken noodles and salsa potatoes, and is kept that way by a dedicated member of staff. Salads are sold by weight rather than container size.
The deli itself extends through the centre of the store, with a mountain of fresh muffins forming a gateway between coffee, pâtisserie and doughnuts to the right, and hot food, made-to-order sandwiches and baguettes and a selection of fresh cream cakes off to the left. Above the counter, digital displays screens show menus and sales messages.
Lil says the intention was to create an impression of luxury and she's certainly achieved it. She credits Musgrave's central distribution system for keeping the fresh food flowing but, as she points out, the real challenge is keeping the offer up to the mark at all times. "You have to get it right every day," says Lil, "because the day you don't will be the one customers remember."
The section has its own manager and seven dedicated staff who are are all skilled and specialised. But the trick, Lil reveals, is for them to work to a rigid schedule. From the moment they come in at 7am, there are strict times for refreshing and changing the displays.
For breakfast, from 8.30am, there's scope for sales beyond the usual sausage and bacon - chicken fillets sell surprisingly well, as do pastries and sausage rolls. By 10.30am, however, it's all change, with shepherd's pie and pizza hitting the ovens to be ready for lunch.
Sandwiches and hot baguettes dominate at lunchtime, with up to five staff making up to order and baking the baguettes and paninis in less than a minute in the Turbo oven. These hot sandwiches have made huge progress in recent months, thanks in part to the speed at which they can now be turned around. Evenings are comparatively quiet, although Lil is considering made-to-order pizzas for the home-time crowd.
Such a thorough refit of a two-year-old store may seem excessive, but Lil has no regrets, and with weekly turnover nearing E180,000, she's not likely to look back. "I think some owners are scared of food to go," she says. "It's a shame - there are huge margins to be made if you throw yourself into it."
Parnell Street in Dublin city centre is a typical bustling thoroughfare, and within a single block you can spot Londis, Lidl and Aldi fascias, not to mention McDonald's and Burger King. It's a testament to Noel Dunne's Centra, then, that so many people are by-passing all of these, and some sandwich bars in between, to join the queue at his deli counter.
This 1,200sq ft store is dominated by its food-to-go section, which is also at the front of the store, next to a vinyl-free window, so passers-by can see what's going on inside.
What's going on is a very good sandwich and hot baguette service, with three staff beavering away, but more than that there's an element of theatre in the glass-fronted ovens and TV screens above the counter. Even more impressive is the wok station in the window, which offers noodle stir fries and fills the store with enticing smells. It's still under probation, though, as a single dish can take up to five minutes to prepare and it needs the full-time attention of a member of staff.
Three standing posts in the window encourage customers to eat in the store, in full view of envious pedestrians. Noel is currently seeking planning permission to put seats on the pavement outside, as he feels that café culture, even late in the evening, is the next big thing - a side-effect of the smoking ban and a general disenchantment with pubs.
Interestingly, the Musgrave retailers have rejected the idea of seating within the store, on the grounds that every inch of floor space needs to earn its keep. Spar, on the other hand, has embraced the concept. At Barrow Street, the Eurospar store is strictly too large to be considered a c-store, but with its food-to-go area at the front it feels more like a café than a supermarket, and there's a row of tables in the window which is much appreciated by the lunchtime crowd of office and construction workers.
Here they've also cracked the noodle conundrum - meals are made up in the morning and put into individual containers, then reheated in the wok.
Peter Kealy emphasises that while the Irish may be well ahead of us in food to go, they are not done yet. "Spar has a roadmap for its food strategy," he says. "We've been through the invention stage, introducing new ideas like noodle and smoothie bars, and now we're evaluating how it's all going. A year from now we'll be refining the concept again. There are areas to explore; clearly there's a focus on healthy options, and we want to attract more women into the stores. The trick is to anticipate demand and in some cases create that demand yourself.
"The way we look at it is this: we used to be convenience grocery stores which served food. Now we're in the foodservice business. Seating is almost as important as shelving."