The food-to-go market in London has undoubtedly shifted. As more employees have returned to the office, the differing ways in which they’ve done so has meant London’s food-to-go operators find themselves trading in an environment that contrasts considerably from the one they knew before covid.
The pattern of heading into the office only from Tuesdays to Thursdays may not be universal, but it’s common enough to have had a major impact on trading performance for many players. And locational footfall has shifted too. Some streets simply haven’t witnessed the return to previous footfall levels at any time of the week, and some operators have made tough calls to close sites on the basis that footfall levels won’t be sufficient.
So what does this mean for food-to-go in London? A long time hotbed of food-to-go innovation, has that innovation been squeezed out the market? In our view, far from it, and in fact, we’re running a safari on Wednesday November 23rd designed to showcase recent innovation across the market, focusing on smaller and expanding operators within the UK’s capital and the trends they are taking advantage of.
Here are some of the trends we see in play right now:
1. A focus on greater choice rather than leaning too heavily towards plant-based/ vegan. At the start of the year, and the start of last year in particular, this trend would have been a greater focus on plant-based options, but what’s impressed us most on recent visits have been operators prioritising breadth of menu choice to appeal to different diets and preferences, over specifically plant-based acceleration. Farmer J’s, with a focus on carefully sourced, fresh ingredients delivered in its field tray, is a great example of this, while this is now well-established at the likes of Pret and Pure. At each, there’s good selection of vegan and vegetarian options alongside various meat options, modestly but effectively communicated.
2. Newer operators prioritising healthier choices and bowls. The UK is following rather than leading in this space, the US for example boast numerous operators specialising in the healthy for now space, not least the likes of Sweetgreen and Just Salad. But there’s growing momentum here. Ireland’s impressive Sprout & Co, which sources from its own farm in Co.Kildare, is targeting a UK market entry, while the likes of atis and The Salad Project are already in place in London, and eyeing expansion. Crucial here is the offering of bowls alongside salads, something successfully developed by Sweetgreen to expand appeal and being used by many other US chains to stretch appeal beyond lunch into evening missions, something which we’d expect to see more of in the UK.
3. A bigger call out for signature products. Some are focused on offering affordable lunchtime options – and we think Tossed in particular is doing a great job here with its daily specials, with three dishes offered at a reduced price, starting at £4. But more broadly, the key trend is more around calling out favourite menu items rather than discounting. Some operators have certainly seen rising average ticket prices, albeit offset against lower overall transaction levels, with those working in London perhaps more inclined to treat and trade up on those occasions when they are in the office. But more broadly there’s a focus on promoting the quality, freshness and taste of the product, as well as the experience.
4. Food hall evolution and expansion. This continues at pace, opening consumers’ eyes to new cuisines and solutions. Repeat visits to Borough Market, Mercato Metropolitano (main site as well as its smaller MMy Wood Wharf offshoot) and Seven Dials have all impressed, for the range of cuisines on offer, the inspirational concepts and the quality of product. Food hall momentum continues to gather pace, and will have a growing influence on consumers’ preferences when they eat away from the home. We're seeing growing ripples of this affect across a variety of food businesses now - understanding this trend is therefore important.
5. Newer and reinvented cuisines. Food halls have been a key enabler to this, but by no means the only one. One trend that strikes us is how a range of operators are seeking to open up traditionally pigeon-holed cuisines in the UK, such as kebabs and Indian food, to new missions and new audiences. This has been under way a while now – the likes of Dishoom and Mowgli for example doing a great job in foodservice around this. There’s a broader opportunity here, and the likes of Zabardast for example are keen to apply this same thinking to food-to-go. From a wider cuisine perspective, a key recent takeout from our US safaris has been the strength and diversity of Latin American food-to-go – whether it’s arepas, empañadas or pão de queijo, there are a range of products and flavours with potential to fit neatly into food-to-go propositions.
So what guidance would we give to operators in this space?
Heroing products, cuisines and positioning is more important than ever. There’s a lot going on, which in some locations can make it difficult for consumers to evaluate their options. There’s a balance to be had here however, as going too narrow can limit scope to diversify. And in smaller cities, being famous – or least known for - more menu items becomes more important, given the need to have broader appeal to achieve scale.
Don’t be afraid to ramp up and down menus to reflect different trading levels at different times of the day or week. Communication to customers here is however key to avoid missing consumer expectations. Done well, this can be turned into a positive, as, on a slightly different level, the likes of Sweetgreen do with seasonal lines. There’s also a consideration around the customer experience reflecting your brand values at the quietest times as well as at the busiest times. Clearly being clear across the business of what these are is therefore critical.
There’s a definite opportunity in evenings, but not necessarily in the centre of London. For locations that do fit, then considering what makes an evening dining occasion is an important starting point, set against your ability as an operator to deliver that. There are many great environments and menus, but relatively few in the UK have successfully made the shift to meet evening missions. We’d call out markets such as the US and Sweden as providing strong pointers in this space.
Want to find out more about how our food-to-go insights can help you to grow? Get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org.
Need to understand the latest London concepts and their evolution to accelerate innovation in your business? Then join us on Wednesday November 23rd for our safari focused on new & emerging concepts. Further details and sign up here.