Food for thought

The home-cooked family meal was, at one point, an evening staple of virtually every household in the UK. While talk of the demise of the family sit-down meal is entirely premature, the fact remains that we, as a nation in 2014, are living busier lives than ever before. This has resulted in an increasing demand for convenience food, be it in the form of restaurant meal, takeaways or lunch time sandwiches or snacks.

The sheer weight of the financial figures involved tells its own story, what with close to £30 billion being spent by the UK public on convenience food each year, with the ready-made sandwich market alone being worth in the region of £3.5 billion annually. These figures are backed up by numerous sources, including www.VoucherCodes.co.uk’s Annual Food Spend Study, which concluded that the typical Brit spends approximately £109 per month on convenience meals and that this food constitutes 34 per cent of a person’s monthly food budget.

Of course, with such a large amount of capital in play, the result is a hotly contested marketplace; one in which new challenges appear on a near weekly basis. Whether it is a mobile lunch delivery service to office buildings or a multi-national brand entering the fray, each has the same aim and that is to tickle the taste buds of consumers and build their own market share.

Meeting changing demands

“The simple truth is that people today are nearly always in a hurry, for one reason or another,” states Stuart Deeks, Executive Director of Business Development for Esquires Coffee International. “The result of this speed up in lifestyle has meant that offering convenience, when it comes to obtained food and drinks, has become almost as important as the quality of the product itself.”

This is an opinion shared by virtually the entire food and beverage sector in the UK and is one that is driving the directions taken by food and beverage businesses of all shapes, sizes and specialities. “All recent market research on the UK consumer foodservice industry invariably points to the importance of convenience, health-consciousness and the balance between quality and speed of service,” explains Paresh Pandya, UK Master franchise owner of the Francesca chain of Italian restaurants.

Similar responses regarding consumer demand today are also provided by Des Pheby, Managing Director of Wok&Go, and David Liveing, Franchise Development Manager of GO. As a matter of fact, it is even a theme that comes up in conversation with Bibi Morelli, Director of Morelli’s Gelato. “In general, people are today much more discerning about the food they eat, its fat and sugar content and, of course, the quality of the product that they are paying for,” she says.

Retaining Market Share

Today, coffee shops can be found on virtually every street of every city and town in the UK, and the boom in the market shows no signs of abating, with Costa Coffee alone looking to increase their number of outlets to 2,000 by the year’s end. What this does create, however, is a level of intense competition between brands to secure, retain and grow market share; a battle that is being waged on a daily basis.

“The onus is on us to establish conveniently located stores and outlets that provide the best environments for customers, whether they are simply looking to pick up food and drink on the go or having working lunches where they can answer emails and conduct business outside the office,” Stuart continues. “At the same time, we must always be conscious of the need to be relevant and to offer something unique that sets us apart from our competitors. In the case of Esquires, this comes in the form of the ambience our stores boast and our commitment to 100 per cent Fairtrade and organic produce.”

Equally thriving are national food chains, from long-standing industry players like McDonalds to the countless speciality outlets and kiosks countrywide that cater for various tastes from all over the world.

“As eating out and buying takeaway food becomes less of a treat and more of a regular event, consumers are continually seeking new and interesting options, tending to be more confident and adventurous in trying different products than ever before,” explains Jess Williams, Brand Manager of El Mexicana. “Our range of fresh, modern Mexican food ticks the boxes for many consumers in their quest for something new and different. Meanwhile, it is these very same customers who expect an eating experience that feels personal and made to measure.”

Of SUBWAY’s 1,800+ UK outlets, more than 400 are open, or in development, in what are described by the sandwich maker as ‘non-traditional’ locations. These locations include petrol forecourts, transportation hubs such as service stations, airports or railway stations, and within convenience stores, hospitals or the grounds of universities and colleges. From these, the brand is able to reach a whole new customer base seeking food on the go.

“The importance of location is like a mantra in the food and retail industries,” GO’s David Liveing states. “It is why brands like our own relentlessly engage with the real estate community in order to ensure that our franchise owners are given the best access to prime real estate opportunities, thus enabling them to grow brand presence, both in terms of the number of stores and value sales.”

Indeed, according to Paresh of Francesca, the most challenging aspect of any premises-based business, in this day and age, are the premises themselves. “By developing strong relationships with key landlords and shopping centre developers across the country, brands like our own are able to enjoy good access to some of the most sought-after real estate opportunities. These are then made available to franchise owners, providing them with the best possible head start towards managing a successful and profitable business.”

Returning to Stuart’s earlier comment about the need for brands to offer something unique and different in order to stay ahead of its competition in the marketplace, Paresh also agrees with this sentiment, stating that constant menu development is one of the keys to longevity in the food and beverage market.

“Invariably, the more successful brands are those that maintain the greatest level of control over their product,” she says. “Francesca, for example, produces all its own sauces and sources the vast majority of its other key ingredients from a list of world-famous suppliers. By having this degree of control over our product, we are able to ensure that our range is constantly being developed and adapted to meet new trends and seasonality.”

Why franchising works

Entering such a fast-paced market would appear to be a daunting prospective, especially for an individual with no prior experience of the food and drink industry. Fortunately, this is where the franchising model displays its considerable benefits. Franchising provides new owners with the detailed systems, branding and training that would otherwise not be available to them if they were starting up their own business.

“The support structure that exists within franchises like our own is utterly invaluable to new owners,” Stuart enthuses. “There are literally hundreds of lessons that someone new to this game has to learn when coming into this business and it is only through franchising that they have immediate access to all the answers.”

Like Esquires, SUBWAY prides itself on the level of training given to all its staff, from Sandwich Artists and store managers, up to development agents and, of course, franchise owners. Prior to opening a SUBWAY store, all franchise owners attend training, which consists of a two-week course at the brand’s UK office in Cambridge. During this time, approximately 60 hours are spent in a classroom environment and more than 30 hours are spent in store.

Alan Whitehead, corporate trainer for SUBWAY, comments: “It is important for anyone starting a new business that they start on the right foot, and this is especially true in the food and beverage sector. Here at SUBWAY, we have developed our training over the past 40 years to ensure our franchise owners get the best start possible. With simple operations and uncomplicated equipment, our training focuses on running a business, offering a great product and providing excellent customer service.”

Wok&Go, the food chain that has made a name for itself by creating a menu that fuses the various tastes of Asia, also stresses the invaluable role that training plays in preparing new franchise owners for the fast-paced world of the food and beverage market. The staff of each of its new stores participate in a comprehensive four-week training programme prior to the store opening and thereafter have access to continuous ongoing support. This support encompasses marketing, HR and recruitment, procuring the finest quality equipment and a tried-and-tested launch programme to get the business off to the best start.

“For new business owners,” Des Pheby explains, “one of the main challenges is to coordinate all the activities that lead to the opening of the store. This requires experience and the ability to coordinate different processes, like training, recruitment and marketing. By guaranteeing the support from a head office operations team, brands like Wok&Go are able to provide owners with the tools to ensure a smooth opening process and provide advice to franchise owners at all stages of their own personal development.”

Much like its peers in the marketplace, El Mexicana’s franchise model is simple and easy to replicate, however it never loses focus on the importance of providing its franchise owners with the support they need, every step of the way.

“As our brand has grown, we have put in place a team to support this expansion in all areas of the business, from in-store training and audits, to regular marketing reviews,” Jess says. Meanwhile, marketing activities such as coupon discounts and local media partnerships, along with a carefully controlled price tiering structure, work alongside the core brand values, allowing franchise owners to respond to local market requirements without compromising on brand identity.”

Conclusion

The food and beverage industry in the UK is today the source of untold value, providing employment for hundreds of thousands of people across the country and contributing million of pounds towards our economy on an annual basis. Right at the very heart of its continued growth is the franchise sector and, with no sign of consumer demand slowing down, the future has never looked so good for those ready to take a healthy bite out of the marketplace.