UK food-to-go market in rude health

While other foodservice segments struggle, the UK’s food-to-go market is on the rise, as Chris Evans reports

Shrinking lunch hours, longer commutes and tightened purse strings are all contributing factors in the food-to-go market seeing a dramatic growth of £2.5bn since 2015, compared with a decline in on-premise spend.

For the year ending July 2018, there were 4.4 billion on-premise visits, a drop of -3.5%, versus 5.1 billion food-to-go visits, an increase of 2%. That’s the change in just one year.

This is according to latest figures from The NPD Group, which analyses the foodservice market gathering data on where customers go, what they consume, how they order, who they’re with and at what time of day.

Low barrier to entry

The food-to-go market is proving easier and more beneficial for both operators and customers. The former have a relatively low barrier to entry – they don’t need expensive kitchens or large premises, which has also encouraged competition and innovation in the area.

Meanwhile, for customers it is about getting something cheap, ideally healthy, and easy to grab when they are out. The added attraction is the meal deals that save money, so people can justify multiple food-to-go purchases.

“Customers are also savvy to the extra 20% VAT placed on eating in,” says Dominic Allport, insights director at The NPD Group. “They either take the food off premises or tell the counter staff they’re taking away then eat in the restaurant.”

Additionally there has been a rapid rise in the amount of click and collect food service, particularly for breakfast and lunch – a lot of that is driven by the chains.

Shifting schedules

Interestingly, the group’s findings also show that consumers’ eating habits have changed from the standard three or four meals a day to more like five or six, including in the morning, a mid-afternoon snack and something before dinner. So it’s moving away from the traditional food times.

Perhaps most surprising is that 22% of all food-to-go visits have occurred at dinner time in the latest 12 months. This has traditionally been the reserve of the sit down meal. But times are changing, and it is the coffee houses leading the charge.

“Coffee house operators are staying open longer to attract the evening crowd in the cities,” says Allport. “They’re not just serving pastries, coffee and sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, but also offering different blends of coffee and appropriate bites to eat for people on their way back from work or going to the cinema or theatre.”

Casual dining restaurants have yet to catch up on this trend, although some are using delivery to try and extend their reach. But Allport believes this could change as the high street chains continue to struggle with higher costs, lack of diversity in their menus and customer demands for convenience.

“We’re already seeing retailers in the US and Canada offering hot counters, spaces for people who want to get in and out quickly, and a greater variety of choice, such as rotating specials,” he says.

“This also extends to the service. We’re seeing more restaurants offering front of house staff who talk through different meal options, especially healthy ones, and provide upselling.”

This trend doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon. “Hotels, schools, colleges, airports and private companies are increasingly offering food to go options to in-house customers and clients. Those who fail to adapt to demand will struggle,” concludes Bill Dawes, hospitality area manager at recruitment firm Reed.

Chris Evans

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