Food to go in convenience may be high reward, but it involves a lot of work. While the gains are decent margins and customer loyalty, all this doesn’t come without some effort. If you don’t put the work in, you’ll soon find that sales aren’t what they should be and your time is wasted. So it’s refreshing to talk to a management team that is dedicated to making their food to go offering the best it can be.

Nisa Local in Highams Park, London, part of the LA Foods UK group of stores, has a food-to-go set-up that’s been overhauled to take advantage of its high street location and meet demand from busy customers wanting food on the move. However, according to group director Haroon Hussain, the store wasn’t always hitting its potential for the category.

When the store was due to undergo a refurbishment last May, Haroon decided that the opportunity was there to increase the focus of food to go and make the most of the space available. “It was the perfect time, really, as we had the opportunity to work around the category - we wanted to create something that would be perfect for our customer base,” says Haroon.

Haroon reports that the store had suffered from having management that wasn’t focused on food to go. “Before the refit, the person managing the store wasn’t as keen on food to go and as a result the offering wasn’t as strong in this site as it was in our other stores,” says Haroon. “Once we put in place a new store manager who was willing to embrace food to go, it really started to take off.”

The decision proved a good one. Haroon says that food-to-go sales grew 400% in the first six months following the refit and now makes up just under 10% of the store’s overall turnover. With a footfall of more than 4,500 customers a week, food to go is an important category for this business and one the LA Foods team was keen to get right.

One of the first things for Haroon to do was to ensure that his customers were aware of the changes to the store’s food-to-go offer. As well as massive vinyl signs in the store’s windows, there’s also a Cuisine de France sign outside to ensure that passing customers can’t possibly miss what’s inside.

Another decision was to select the right person to oversee the section. Haroon’s focus on food to go meant a new direction for one member of the team. Majid Khan had been working at the store for three years and after the refit took ownership of the food-to-go area.

“Majid had always been a hard worker,” says Haroon, “and this helped to take him to the next level. At first, the new way of doing things was difficult for the entire team as they had been used to doing it one way under the old manager. But once we started involving Majid in the ordering process, giving him responsibility to manage the area himself, he really started to shine and is now one of the company’s star performers.”

Majid says he enjoys the challenge of a busy food-to-go offering. “It’s a challenge, but it’s very interesting,” he asserts. “You have to get the timings right for each time of day, or else you’re stuck with a load of wastage.”

The store is close to a school and a college so it’s kept busy in the morning and early afternoon with a constant flow of customers. Majid has the systems needed to meet that demand down to a fine art, knowing exactly the right time to start baking and merchandising the products. “The hot food has a four-hour shelf life so you need to make sure that there’s enough products ready to go for the lunchtime rush,” he explains. “Once they go past the four-hour mark the food has to be thrown out, so it’s about getting the balance right to minimise wasted food. Bread is easier - it has a 24-hour shelf life so there is more flexibility with that.”

Haroon and Majid took an interesting approach to stocking when they first revamped the store’s food-to-go offering. “For the first couple of weeks you have to overlook wastage and pile the products high,” says Haroon. “It’s no good running out of stock when you’re trying to engage customers with the offering. Nobody wants to take the last product from the display - customers think it’s the last one left for a reason!

“It’s better to have some products left over for the first couple of weeks so you can gauge the level of demand,” he says. “If it sells, then keep making it, but if it’s not selling out, stop stocking it and find something else. There’s no point in doing it halfheartedly - the offering needs to be managed properly.”

Although Majid knew how to bake bread before he took over the section, Cuisine de France provided training to help him perfect the process. “I knew how to work the ovens so it was more about training on merchandising the products to get them looking their best for the customers,” Majid says. “The training was very helpful as it makes the food look more appealing to the shoppers.”

Checking in

Majid says that Cuisine de France reps call in every week or so to make sure that everything is going okay, “but they seem happy with how I’m doing it,” adds Majid. “The reps don’t usually have to change a thing with our displays so we’re obviously doing something right.”

Cuisine de France doesn’t just offer training, says Haroon - the company provides continual support to the store. “They’ve really upped their game in the past year and the area reps have worked with us more to drive the category forward,” he says. “They want us to really grow our food-to-go offering as it obviously benefits everyone.”

He does, however, wish that Cuisine de France would think bigger. “There are other suppliers out there with a shop-within-a-shop concept that I think would be fantastic here,” says Haroon. “If Cuisine de France was to start offering this, it would do very well. People like the theatre of a counter and I think we would sell a lot of sandwiches that have been made in store.”

Haroon praises the company’s innovation in products, though. “Some of the recent products have been very popular, especially the Toblerone pasty - that sold really well,” he says. “The countertop unit with confectionery snacks is also great. We have a promotional deal running with that and our hot beverage machine, which is really popular with customers.”

The unit has been positioned beside the till and fits in perfectly with the store’s philosophy towards making food to go as prominent as possible. The counter, which stretches almost the length of the store, has three food-to-go displays, the confectionery snacking unit, a hot food display, and a top-of-the-range Nescafé hot beverage machine that wouldn’t look out of place in a barista’s coffee shop.

“So often customers will be queuing up with their groceries and they’ll pick up a treat on impulse,” says Haroon. “It’s a great way to grow basket spend without having to work too hard at it.”

As well as the Cuisine de France range of products, the store stocks a wide selection of Nisa Heritage sandwiches and snacks to tempt customers. The team has sited them alongside the soft drinks in order to attract additional impulse purchases. “We want people to pick up a sandwich or snack and then grab a soft drink in one go,” he says. “It’s important to make it as easy as possible for customers. If the products are there in front of them, they’ll buy them and it’ll grow your sales.”