Think fresh: Innovations in food-to-go

Lunch today. A quick stop at your fridge, to grab something familiar? There was a time when the ritual was different. At least, the fridges were bigger and more open to the general public.

As work patterns shift and people spend more time out-of-home, we consider the fresh strategies of food-to-go operators to adapt and connect with consumers.

The UK is a global leader in this space. Proud inventors of the sandwich, dining ‘al desco’, and not generally partaking in the lengthy lunch breaks of some of our European neighbours. The food-to-go format has thrived in the UK. However, the pandemic has reduced our motives for grabbing a bite and left our city centres with a fraction of previous footfall.

This has led to unforeseen disruption and subsequent innovation in the sector, with new ideas implemented at pace.

New age economics

One of the most radical experiments has been the launch of subscription models. Pret made headlines with its £20 a month ‘unlimited’ drinks subscription launched in September 2020. Leon soon followed suit with a £15 a month (coffee only) subscription.

For brands with a more commuter focused customer base, the move makes sense. Subscriptions create dependable revenue in uncertain times and generate additional food purchases. However, how these subscriptions will stack-up as people spend more days in the office remains to be seen. But the model may stick around, even if the price point changes.

(Re)finding the customer

Pre-pandemic, locating in the path of the customer had driven many players towards busy transport hubs and city centres, the very places most exposed during the crisis. The need for new paths to purchase was acute. A flurry of deals have been done over the past year to forge those paths.

Most restaurant brands have now expanded their presence across multiple platforms, maximising their touchpoints by securing storefronts on all digital high streets. Delivery typically serves dinner occasions, but for food-to-go, which rests largely on the lunch daypart, operators have had to think out the box. The fact Pret recently scaled back the number of stores offering its new ‘Dinners by Pret’ menu from 30 to only 13 suggests this can be a tricky transition.

We’ve also seen a concerted move into grocery, both with launches of more shelf-friendly product ranges (see Greggs sausage rolls in Iceland, Pret granola in Tesco) and shops-in-shops (with Pret concessions coming soon Tesco). The key risks here are of degrading brand perceptions and cannibalising store sales. But properly executed, retail presence can increase brand salience and reach new customers and geographies.

The future of food-to-go

There are reasons to be positive about the future of the sector. In May, Greggs’s announced an impressive trading bounce-back and stated it could hit 2019 profits in 2021; showing how consumers are keen to be reunited with their on-the-go favourites.

For those players with particular London or commuter focus, things look more challenging. Working from home is likely to continue to reduce their visitor numbers in the medium to long-term.

The innovative strategies which have been adopted so far will help increase their resilience; and may even contain the ingredients to deliver future growth beyond pre-pandemic projections.

Our Strategy practice supports the fundamental decisions on how to grow and where to invest. Get in touch to find out how we can help.