Thanks to changing lifestyles post-pandemic, new innovations and premium offerings, the sector has shown consistent growth over the past few years, with industry think-tank IGD reporting it to be worth £18.9bn in 2022 – that’s 3% more than its pre-Covid value in 2019.

The c-store channel has been one of the main beneficiaries of this success, with about 14% of food-to-go bought in convenience outlets, ahead of supermarkets, which account for a 7% share. It is a growing opportunity for the channel, with food-to-go forecast to grow in value by 61% between now and 2026.

But along with this good news come higher consumer expectations, and the days of soggy sandwiches and stale baguettes are long gone. “The two most important factors for the consumer are quality and consistency,” says Gary Thacker, sales director at food-to-go equipment supplier Fri-Jado UK.

“There are some great opportunities for food-to-go innovation for store owners to use counters, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, where we believe we will see the greatest change.”

Hybrid working
MealTrak figures from data analyst TWC show forecourts (up 29%) and convenience stores (up 8%) are rebounding well post-pandemic, with an increase in food-to-go occasions compared with 2021.

With hybrid workers continuing to spend an average 46% of their time working remotely, there is a big opportunity for independent retailers to appeal to these consumers, as they are more likely to rely on local convenience stores to provide their lunchtime solutions.

They are also more likely to spend more money on the days that they are in the office on food-to-go, as they don’t do it so often and are therefore more likely to trade up to more-premium offerings.

Tasty options
Jason Manley, brand director at the Compleat Food Group, owner of Wall’s Pastry and Pork Farms, says: “Consumers are looking for food-to-go options that taste great, provide a treat factor, and are good value for money. This is why the chilled savoury pastry category is well placed for success in food-to-go for independents.

From croissants to sausage rolls and Scotch eggs, the category offers a wide range of choices to cover different eating occasions, as well as offering great value and a higher nutritional value than alternative options such as a packet of crisps.”

There is a significant need for breakfast options, as many consumers see breakfast as the most important meal of the day and they want it to be healthy and convenient. In its latest report, released in 2022, the IGD says breakfast is expected to return to its position of growth.

One brand responding to this growth is Ambrosia, which has ensured its HFSS-compliant porridge pots contain British wholegrain oats, real fruit and no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives. They are also said to provide a source of protein, fibre and calcium and contain less than 3% fat.

Breakfast choices
Ben Knop, food-to-go innovation marketing manager for brand owner Premier Foods, says: “For convenient breakfast choices, Ambrosia’s ready-to-eat porridge pots provide the perfect solution. They can be enjoyed ambient or hot, with no need to add hot water, making them ideal for shoppers seeking a convenient and healthy breakfast option.”

Flexible working has moved customers from their offices to their homes and with the slow but consistent growth of four-day working weeks, local convenience stores are as important as ever to provide people with their food-to-go needs, believes Mike Fitton, franchise business manager for Welcome and Southern Co-op.

He says: “One of the main trends we see is the growth in meal replacement drinks/shakes for busy people on the move and this will continue in 2023. Slush and its new sugar-free flavours continues to be a good sales and profit generator for our Welcome partners, with cash-strapped customers still happy to spend on treats.

We also need to remember there are a huge number of hard workers who have no choice but to work on-the-go, such as the building trade, so hot food options are important in the right locations.”

Meeting expectations
Weekday lunchtimes are the most popular time for eating on-the-go, with 62% of consumers saying they enjoy picking meal deal combinations.

Matt Collins, trading director at KP Snacks, says: “It’s key that retailers offer the right core range in the right formats to capitalise on mealtime occasions, boosted with the right promotions and in-store merchandising. Retailers should look to create value by understanding customer expectations, whether that be through premium or value offerings.

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