Last year the big buzz in food to go surrounded the sandwich and how the c-store operator could compete with the high street chains. This year it seems that the story is the same - only the competition has changed. The new target is the high street coffee retailers that have taken over the nation's high streets.
By looking at what the Starbucks and Costa Coffees of the world do best and adding the strengths of convenience retailing, the potential for creating a real destination shop is massive.
Market analysts have argued that independents and convenience retailers have been guilty of surrendering the high street to the coffee empires all too easily, and that c-stores may even have missed the boat.
The first of these may be true, but this year there are signs that retailers aren't taking matters lying down any longer. The first evidence of this fight-back is supplied by Mohammed and Farhana Saleem, who own a Nisa Local store in Isleworth in London. In April the couple launched a new café concept in partnership with Nisa-Today's, called Café Nisa.
The 800sq ft café which is attached to the store has an upmarket high street look to rival any of the major players in the sector and, according to Farhana,
it needs to.
"For the café to be a success we knew from the start that it had to match the standards of the high street chains," she explains. "The quality has to be kept high because people have plenty of choice and if our offer is not good enough, they can quite easily go somewhere else."
In the six months that the café has been open the couple have learnt a number of key lessons about how the café element should relate to the c-store business. Those lessons are now being employed in a new site they are developing in London's Greenwich.
This time the store is new build, giving them the advantage of allowing them to integrate the concept exactly as they want. In this case the store and the café will merge at all the key impulse categories. Farhana says that the café will lead naturally into an
in-house bakery and speciality bread section, as well as direct customers to the newspaper and magazine fixture to pick up something to read while they enjoy their coffee.
Along with developing new sites themselves, Mohammed and Farhana are keen to franchise the concept and are talking to other retailers who are keen to take it on.
By a similar token, it's not just retailers who are keen on driving new food to go concepts, and suppliers and food to go specialists are all doing their bit to improve the service that retailers can provide.
Food to go specialists have recognised the impact of the coffee shops and then looked to see where they have the edge. For Country Choice, the obvious answer is food.
The company is currently trialling its first standalone Bake & Bite store in Southampton. Details of the concept are still scarce but a spokesman for Country Choice says that the idea is modelled on the coffee shop idea, only with a much greater emphasis on food.
The store is the next logical step for Country Choice, following its launch of the Bake & Bite Shop Within A Shop concept, which it describes as "the very latest in foodservice solutions for the retail sector".
Those retailers looking to incorporate some of the coffee house culture into their stores could look to recent developments in the Republic of Ireland for inspiration, and in particular the 'new convenience' strategy being employed by Spar operator BWG.
After 12 months of market research and product development, BWG - along with Spar International and convenience retailing consultants SRCG - developed a whole new store format that incorporates a juice bar, coffee shop and foodservice fixture. BWG is working with suppliers and in partnerships with coffee chains to develop an offer to perfectly suit the fast-changing lifestyles of Irish consumers, and is certainly something that would have a similar resonance in the UK.
According to Country Choice marketing manager Caroline Munch, food-to-go consumers are looking for a much wider selection of products to cater for any number of needs states, rather than simply something hot and filling.
"In its earliest stages the fresh food on the move sector was driven almost exclusively by the convenience aspect," she explains. "However, with all the publicity surrounding healthy eating, demand has switched to a balance between health, convenience and provenance."
She claims that this has prompted suppliers to look at introducing healthier alternatives. "Although traditional products such as pies and pasties continue to do well, our most successful launch in recent months has been a range of ready- made, restaurant-quality salad pots. Each pot comes with a branded Bake & Bite label and fork for easy eating - it's the perfect grab-and-go solution for consumers looking for a convenient, light snack."
Cuisine de France marketing manager Clare Hallam agrees that healthier products are becoming more of a priority for today's consumer, but they are still tempted by more indulgent products.
Hallam explains: "Cuisine de France has invested in consumer research to ensure that we understand what the consumer wants and meet and exceed all
their expectations. We have found that three in five adults in Great Britain are buying more healthy options compared with 12 months ago. However, 23% follow a debit/credit system, where they will eat healthily so that once in a while they can have something not so healthy."
According to Hallam, the food-to-go market in the UK is worth
£1.2bn and is enjoying double-digit growth. She says that tracking our changing lifestyles is key to maintaining this growth.
"We need to understand how lifestyles and eating habits are changing so that innovative product development and new and exciting food-to-go offers can be created."

Healthy profits

With health such a key driver across all categories, retailers looking to make money from consumers eating on the move have to offer more than just the traditional pies and pasties, according to Country Choice marketing manager Caroline Munch.
The health kick has not escaped the attention of suppliers, who are beginning to develop new lines and formats to take advantage of this need.
Del Monte Fresh Produce is set to launch fresh fruit and salads in new convenient formats this October. It will also add a new Del Monte Breakfast Fruit range, including Breakfast Fruit with Compote & Muesli, Breakfast Fruit with Bio Yogurt & Muesli and Breakfast Fruit with Greek Yogurt & Muesli.
On top of this, Del Monte is introducing a lunch box Fruit Snack Range and five new Snack Salads.
Del Monte fresh marketing manager Chris Tune comments: "Fresh prepared fruit is one of the fastest growing categories in produce with a phenomenal 35% growth in sales. With strong heritage as a supplier of high quality produce, we have drawn on these credentials to move into this category, with ranges designed to capture consumers throughout their busy day. We have so many exciting plans for this category and we will be developing more new products to see it grow even further."
Another supplier aiming to push into the food to go sector is Ryvita. It is currently rolling out its Toasted Sesame Rice Cakes in a snack pack design.
The format is already in use for its Multigrain Rice Cakes and Corn Cakes. The packaging will feature a table of Guideline Daily Amounts on the front to make it easy for consumers to assess the nutritional content.

Can't cook, won't cook

l The UK has the biggest food-to-go market in Europe, worth £1.2bn
l The average Brit leaves home 13 times a month without having eaten breakfast
eats lunch on the move 10 times per month;
eats an evening meal out four times per month
l 22% of consumers do not eat breakfast at home
l The average lunch hour has fallen from 27 minutes to 20 minutes
l Almost one-third of households are occupied by a single person
l Spend on take-away food has increased by 67% in the past 10 years
Source: Cuisine de France consumer research