We recently attended the annual MCA Food to Go Conference at Ham Yard Hotel, London. With the MCA forecasting that the Food to Go market is set to reach a value of £21.2bn in 2019 and continue outperforming growth from the wider eating out market, it therefore represents a vital area of growth for operators. We heard from an array of fantastic speakers including Welcome Break, Sustainable Restaurant Association, LEON, Pret A Manger, Yo! Sushi, Eat and many more.

Here are 5 key themes arising from the day that we think will impact and drive Food to Go growth in 2019.

People
Every speaker during the day spoke passionately about their people being the heartbeat of their businesses. If you have great people who really connect and engage with your customers, then they will keep coming back for more. Food to Go shoppers have an overwhelming amount of choice right on their doorstep so ensuring that your staff deliver an excellent customer experience and service with a smile is more important than ever. As John Diviney, chief executive of Welcome Break so aptly described “Food to Go is people”. Recruiting the right people, delivering training and retaining great staff continues to be challenging in the current climate but it can make all the difference between an operator simply being “good” at Food to Go and an operator being “great” at Food to Go.

Doing Good
Addressing sustainability concerns is a hot topic for Food to Go operators and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. Consumers demand more sustainable practices from the places they choose to spend their hard-earned cash and if operators don’t come up to scratch then the threat of a boycott and a social media backlash is very real indeed – particularly for bigger brands and chains. Andrew Stephen, chief executive, Sustainable Restaurant Association says there has never been a better time for operators to commit to being a restorative foodservice business. Put simply this means businesses should leave land and people in a better place each and every day.

Safe Choices
The public’s focus on allergen labelling is understandably heightened right now and one brand caught right at the centre is Pret A Manager. Tim Smith, senior advisor for Pret A Manager is the man who has been brought in to help fix the problem. Pret is taking an end to end perspective but with an operation and supply chain as large as Pret’s there is clearly no quick fix. But steps have been taken and commitments have been made to drive meaningful change by the summer. The allergen issue is of course something for the whole industry to address not just one operator. It is clear that precautionary allergen labelling is not the answer to this big question. As Tim explained, the default should always be about finding a solution to mitigate those risks therefore allowing every consumer to make the right choice and a safe choice. He was resolute in Pret’s commitment to champion positive change.

Loyalty
With so much choice available to Food to Go customers it’s unrealistic to expect someone to come into your store each and every day. Depending on your offer and price, once or twice a week is probably about right. Paul Hopper, founder of HOP Vietnamese says, “to keep people coming back your food has to be exceptional or you are dead”. At HOP they regularly tweak dishes and always listen to customers from their wide and loyal fan base. This is key for them to maintain loyalty.

Mark Lilley, founder & chief executive Abokado says: “Customers have a license to demand more now from their OOH dining experience”. He thinks people are more demanding at every level and that speed, quality and service are critically important to retain loyalty.

Customer centric businesses will prevail, but operators know consumers are fickle and incredibly promiscuous so keeping customers loyal will be keeping many of us who work in Food to Go awake at night.

Simplicity
Easier said than done of course but “keep it simple” was the phrase of the day. Don’t over complicate your offer. Don’t offer too much choice. And don’t confuse or dilute your proposition. Pret and Subway are still held in high regard by industry peers for keeping things simple and achieving both scale and success. Other operators looking to emulate their success and scale are cautious of expanding too quickly but restless in their hunger to grow.

Food to Go in 2019 is a battle ground and a real fight for share of stomach. The challenge ahead for operators in Food to Go is great but the opportunities are plenty.

The team at Jellybean are ready to rise to the challenge and help our clients maximise the wealth of opportunities that Food to Go will bring in 2019.