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An introduction to food-to-go in New York

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

Here’s our primer to help you understand the New York food-to-go landscape.

First of all, start talking about food-to-go in New York and you’ll get blank looks in response. But while it doesn’t exist by name, it most definitely exists by nature, with a thriving food-to-go sector and abundant food-for-now options available to consumers, with specialists, food halls and retailers alike targeting hungry and thirsty on the move consumers. And visitors from Europe will be surprised at how effectively some of these operators meet the evening mission, whether for eat in or delivery. In case you're planning a food-to-go or retail safari, here's our overview of the key channels and context.

1. Traditionally, the deli dominates

Your first step in understanding how people eat in New York is understanding the role of the deli. The historic positioning would be somewhere between a café and a convenience store, and many delis still conform to this positioning. But what we’ve seen on recent visits is that a growing number are modernising and updating their appeal, expanding their offer and, in fact, becoming mini food halls. Critical to this is an upgrade and expansion of the food-to-go proposition, covering an array of counters and cuisines. Reference points from a chain perspective are Essen and Café Metro, but arguably the better innovation or specialism comes from single site operators – such as Hudson Market, Jerusalem Café and Bread & Butter.

2. There are some fantastic food-to-go specialists

What you’ll choose to see here will inevitably depend on how much exposure you’ve had to food-to-go across other major US cities. But our advice is don’t leave without a good appreciation of what Sweetgreen, Just Salad and Cava are up to. Sweetgreen is a key global reference point when it comes to salad-led food-to-go specialists (its inspiration can be seen in many concepts across Europe), while Just Salad has similar credentials around sustainability. We're still seeing strong growth opportunities around Levantine cuisine (aka Mediterranean in North America). Cava's proposition is built around this, with the cuisine itself providing strong meat-free and meat based options. If you’re looking for more, then two differentiated concepts are Playa Bowls and Dr Smood. Healthier snacking and indulgence is at the heart of Playa Bowls appeal, with a fruit bowl based menu that fits for breakfast and snacking. Dr Smood meanwhile, has a healthier eating and drinking menu curated around distinct ‘moods’ (aka needs or wider dietary missions).

3. Retailers have varying levels of commitment to food-to-go

A walk around grocery stores in Manhattan in particularly can easily underwhelm. But it need not, there are some hugely impressive propositions. Our number one pick is Whole Foods Market Manhattan West. Simply put, this is the best Whole Foods Market store we’ve visited, with impressive levels of commitment to fresh food and food-for-now propositions.

Meanwhile, Wegmans now has a store within touching distance of (or rather a 10 minute cab ride from) Manhattan, on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. On recent visits, we’ve also been impressed by Morton Williams and Brooklyn Fare, though more from a premium food retailing perspective rather than specifically around food-to-go. And on any visit to the US, you’ll always take learnings from a visit to Trader Joe’s, more likely around snacking, merchandising, healthier eating and wider food range innovation rather than around food-to-go.

4. Food halls are important reference points, and development continues

New York is, alongside London, one of the best global cities to experience the development of food halls. Urban Space are prevalent across the city, but if you’re already familiar with their sites, among recent developments we’d call out the Tin Building by Jean-Georges and the Time Out Market in Brooklyn. Our advice is don’t leave New York without visiting both. The Tin Building offers a more premium experience, including a high end retail proposition within the concept as well as fuller restaurants and food-for-now, while the Time Out Building delivers scale of choice alongside intimacy around individual counters, credit to an excellent design.

5. Vending...

Maybe not what you expected to see covered here, but if you get chance, Farmer’s Fridge is well worth a look. New York is a relatively new market – its HQ is in Chicago – but the vended model of fresh salads and wraps is finding receptive locations across a range of US cities, whether in residential blocks, hospitals, shopping malls or transport hubs (you may well see one or two at JFK airport for example).

Lots going on and lots to learn from and be inspired by

If you want us to support your business with a New York food-to-go safari, ensuring you get the most out of your time in the city, get in touch. And if you need broader help or inspiration with your food-to-go or food-for-later strategy, we can help with that too. Email us to find out more about our services and our 2023 safari programme.


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