Retailers may have breakfast, lunch and snacking sorted, but as competition builds for all these occasions, is it time to build on the dinnertime offer?

Dinner is generally the biggest meal of the day and, therefore, surely, has the potential to offer the biggest sales. Yet it seems many c-store retailers are leaving these sales for the supermarkets and eateries. Perhaps it’s time for retailers to get a serving of that dinnertime occasion.

There are a few routes retailers can go down  if they want to be the destination store for an evening meal, and some inspirational retailers have managed to develop just the right solutions for their shoppers.

Gregory Cochrane, who runs Eurospar Binnian Fresh Foods and Fresh Food Centre in Kilkeel, County Down, says his meal-for-tonight offering is becoming the most important part of both stores’ business.

He points out that evening category is now a crucial part of the business, and sells a range of meals made in store, called Kitchen, plus those prepared by the in-store butcher. “An in-store master butcher has his own premises in the town, but he also has a counter in our stores. People trust him and know he uses good-quality locally-sourced ingredients.

Top 5

The UK’s favourite home-cooked meals

HIM Research and Consulting asked which meals are made at home in a typical week

Roast dinner 48%

Spaghetti Bolognese 37%

Sausage and mash 33%

Curry 32%

Stir fry 31%

“We’ve also launched a range of 20-odd lines of extra-lean meals including chicken curry and basmati rice, Asian noodles, Thai noodles, butternut squash chips and so on.

“We also have a range of ‘In the Bag’ items, which are basically meals that can easily be put in a bag and cooked at home.”

The Kitchen range desserts retail at £2.99. Two sides and a main retail at £6.99, or two sides on their own retail at £3.50. The stores also have big family-size tubs at £5.

“People don’t want to go home and spend an hour cooking dinner, but they also want to know that the food they’re eating is high quality and fresh.”

Chris Ward, who owns Spar in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, has created such an impressive food-to-go offering that whole families will get their Sunday Roast from him – in fact, his store was voted as the best Sunday lunch provider in a local newspaper competition.

His store used to provide a basic ‘baker’s corner’ with pies and pasties until a Greggs opened nearby about five years ago and he realised he needed to differentiate his offering. He already did chicken curry and chips so he simply started to expand that offering.

“We now do a selection of six dishes a day – we always have a veggie option, then we have pasta, sausage and mash, curry, chilli and stew. It’s seasonal to a degree, but mostly it’s hearty, warming food. We have separate salads and sandwiches for those who want something lighter.”

The residents who live in Milford Haven are not affluent, so Chris ensures to keep the price points low and all his meals are priced at less than £3 each. He says this appeals to a huge range of shoppers, from office workers to families, to the elderly. He says some people even rely on his store for their one hot meal of the day.

Chris’ Sunday roast lunch offer is so popular now that he sells more than 120 of these in a day. His next project is to invest in a bigger and better kitchen for his food-to-go manageress Rayanne.

He also points out that offering these hot meals is a great way of making use of packaged meat and veg which are reaching their sell-by date.

David Sands, who runs two David’s Kitchen outlets, in Falkirk and Glenrothes, knows how to get great food-to-go sales at lunchtime and create fresh and appealing dinner-time meal solutions. The stores sell a range of meals which are made fresh that day and can be microwaved or oven cooked at home.

The margins are higher on this food – and they need to be in order to cover the labour costs. David says that given the recently-introduced National Living Wage,  maintaining margins has become a bigger challenge and he constantly reviews costs. Currently, a lasagne meal large enough for two sells for £3.49. About 30% of the cost is to cover wages.

“Hot dinner-to-go is an area we would like to develop. The problem with convenience retailing is there are so many aspects to the business – you’re selling hot food, lottery tickets, you’ve got PayPoint transactions, maybe a post office. If you’re going into the fast food market you’re going up against chains who are getting better and better at what they do so you can’t be half-hearted.”

David says he has done “numerous experiments” over the years and none have worked particularly well. “The sorts of things we’re looking at now are pizza, but then you get onto the question of whether to do deliveries and online ordering, because that’s what the competitors are doing, and that’s a big step. Online ordering apps could be a great opportunity for retailers.”

David adds that another important aspect retailers need to consider, is customer parking, as shoppers would want to get hot food home quickly. He currently has a good parking provision at his store, which he is sure helps with his meal-for-tonight trade as shoppers know they can park and pop in quickly without any hassle.

Currently, David concentrates on making his meal-for-tonight selection as good as possible by ensuring they have a choice of branded and store-made meals with plenty of complementary side dishes, drinks and desserts. He says his store’s main USP is that customers can get everything they need for their dinner in one convenient location.

“We have a unique proposition in that we have a kitchen where we make food in-store so customers know when they buy meals they’ve been made that day. We do a range of soups, macaroni cheese, pasta dishes, curries, the menu evolves all the time. Generally, though, we make sure we are selling the top 10 most popular meals. We make sure we always have mince and chicken because we know these make up the basis of most of the popular meals.”

Awardwinning retailer Scott Graham, of McLeish Inverurie, has also tried introducing dinner food-to-go options, but points out some key difficulties he encountered.

“I trialled the idea when we first opened. We kept our hot plate open until 8pm, but at around 4pm it just died a death, not ideal when you look at the manpower you’ve got to put into that offering.

“Also, you are only allowed to have products sitting on the hot plate for a maximum of four hours, which means you have to be putting fresh stock out at 3pm and hoping it will sell by 7pm.”

He believes success in evening food to go depends a lot on where your site is. “We’re in a village setting with several other food outlets nearby; perhaps for people in busy city centres with a higher footfall, it could work well.”

But Scott has managed to create an evening hot meal solution which works just right for his customers. “We’ve found the best thing to do is to offer ready meals, made by us in store on the day, which customers can either take home to warm up, or heat up and eat in store.

“A lot of taxi drivers will come in and eat those with a coffee. It’s predominantly evening workers who use that service so we might also get a couple of the nurses who work in the nursing home nearby. We have tables and chairs where people can sit and relax.”

Craig Crossey Truesdale, of Chalet Costcutter, Portadown, has faced many of the same issues as Scott.

“Last year, we thought we’d do an evening food-to-go service with a chicken and burger bar. We let it run for four months, but decided to stop it as it wasn’t making enough money. We spent money publicising it in leaflets, on local radio and in local papers, but customers just didn’t care.”

But Craig has found that chilled meals are a winner. “When I arrived in-store, there were pies from County Fermanagh and Londonderry, but I knew from other stores I’d been in that customers preferred staff-made in-house meals, so in the past year I developed the Chalet Cuisine range of meals.

“Every day the girls make fresh meals – lasagnes, cottage pies, mince, steak and so on – to be sold as chilled meals [as well as over the deli counter].”

The store also sells local meat and veg that staff package in-house.

“All meat sold is from the local butcher. Our customers have confidence in the butcher and so they’ll have confidence in our produce. At times, the product might be more expensive, but the quality is there. We sell cuts of meat and rip off the back of the fillet and use it in our meals.

“We wrap 40% of the veg on the shopfloor. We have a back shift from 2.30pm till 6.30pm making pies and lasagne and so on four nights a week. In-house chilled meals account for 35% of department sales, equating to £1,500 a week. Nothing goes on the shopfloor unless it’s 50% margin.”

He says his best-sellers in chilled meals are lasagne, cottage pie, chicken & broccoli bake, mince and potatoes.

David Charman, who owns Spar Parkfoot in Kent, offers a vast array of fresh fish and meat, which makes his store a great place to stop off for an evening meal solution. To 
take it a step further, though, and really make dinner easier to make and more interesting for his shoppers, the in-store butcher marinades the meats and creates burgers and sausages. The store also has a large range of fresh produce to go alongside these to create fresh and nutritious meals.

David’s store is in an affluent area with residents who don’t work and have time to browse and speak to the butcher, while retired residents appreciate the store’s full range of Cook frozen ready meals across five freezers. “We do the largest sales of Cook foods of all the forecourts in the country, which I’m proud of,” says David.

Many c-store retailers have proven they have an excellent grasp of the importance of the dinnertime opportunity and are 
providing full meal solution within their stores. But many have found their shoppers are not yet buying into the dinner food-to-go idea.

But Chris Ward has proven this can be a huge success and he says others can too. 

He explains: “Everyone’s selling sandwiches and crisps these days. C-store retailers have to differentiate themselves. No new product will sell straight away, it requires marketing and a lot of attention. The same tricks that make successful retailers make a successful food-to-go area: drive and passion.”

Own label

Spar invests in meal for tonight

Spar UK has expanded and revamped its evening meals range and is now working to inspire shoppers with its evening meal campaign.

The brand’s ‘7 Deliciously Easy Meals’ campaign uses existing Spar products to show shoppers that they can get everything they need for dinner with Spar, including beef brisket, spinach & ricotta tortelloni to piri piri chicken.

In October, Spar introduced three new ready meals: Malaysian butternut squash curry; piri piri chicken & spicy rice; and meatball pasta bake (pricemarked at two for £5).

Spar also introduced two jacket potato ready meals, with either cheese & beans or chilli (both rrp £2) which are microwaveable in seven minutes.

Spar UK brand director Susan Darbyshire says: “We know that meal-for-tonight shoppers have bigger baskets, spend more and shop more often, and we also know they want to spend as little time as possible preparing and cooking. So it’s vital we can offer them a complete meal solution with tasty recipes that take under 30 minutes to cook.”

Spar also has products to make roast dinners easy including a roast in the bag British chicken 1.5kg, pricemarked at £5, and a slow-cooked lamb shank in mint gravy (rrp £4).

Customer perception

Investment for the future with evening food to go

Colin Smith, of Nisa Pinkie Farm, Musselburgh, East Lothian, says c-stores can struggle with offering food to go in the evening because shoppers perceive c-stores as good for alcohol and chilled meals, not hot dinners. But Colin is hoping to change his shoppers’ perceptions next year and boost his dinner trade in the same way he’s boosted lunch trade.

“It’s about whether you are willing to invest for the future. We’ve just increased our food-to-go offering for lunchtime and evenings and we’re going to really push the evening offer next year.

“We’re using a local company, PK Foods, to supply chicken and veg pakoras, chicken fillet burgers, pizza, beef burgers, and pasta.

“The Barn - our food-to-go area - is currently open until 7pm and although I wouldn’t say the uptake on our evening meal offer has been great yet, we’ve increased lunchtime trade by 18% and I think there is an opportunity for food to go in the evening.”