As a leading food and drink marketing agency with a passion for foodservice and eating out, we make it our business to keep on top of all the latest trends in the food and drink arena. The world of food to go, or quick service restaurants as it’s sometimes referred to, is a hotbed of innovation and has proved to be one of the most resilient sectors of the eating out market, both during Covid more recently the cost-of-living crisis. So, we hot-footed it along to The Ham Yard Hotel last week to hear from some of the key players in the food to go market at MCA’s Food to Go Conference.

Lumina Intelligence – Food to Go Market

First up at this year’s conference was Katie Gallagher of Lumina Intelligence with highlights from their recent food to go report in which they have predicted that trading should be back to normal by the end of 2024 (geopolitics permitting), and accelerate from 2024 to 2027 with the food-to-go market seeing a 2.8% annual growth rate.

With tourism and travel-boosting footfall and employment rates high, food to go has been buoyant despite the current cost of living crisis. Interestingly food to go consumers seem to be over-indexing for healthy eating with 44% considering themselves very health conscious, 2% above the general out of home audience. Operators are harnessing the power of plants as well as focusing on gut health, protein and nutrient dense foods, all of which are coming through in NPD. As the top three trends seen in food to go NPD are vegan, healthier eating and high protein (followed in descending order by Asian cuisine, indulgence, breakfast, gut health, immune system boosting and spicy).

Digital innovation aligned with artificial intelligence is predicted to help operators plan more effectively to mitigate staff shortages and drive operational efficiencies, whilst partnerships between brands and suppliers across FMCG and foodservice will explore limited time offers to help boost engagement. Multiple formats will capitalise on investment in forecourts, railway stations and airports as operators leverage flexibility. Sustainability will, once more, be front of mind for operators when it comes to packaging and supply chain development.

As ever, proximity is a key driver for the market, but digital loyalty is becoming more important and something that became a running theme for the day. AI is predicted to impact the food-to-go market with front-of-house seeing an impact across social media, personalisation, self-serve and payment, whilst back of house will see benefits around inventory predictions for staffing and utilising data.

Although the cost-of-living crisis has hit headlines, it would seem the food to go market is bullish with consumers valuing quality and understanding that quality has a price (86%) with 73% happy to pay more for higher quality. We can see this with the premiumisation of meal deals across operators. We’re also seeing multiple formats as food to go moves into kiosks and drive-throughs, as well as partnerships with retailers. As workers return to the office and tourism continues to recover, travel hubs are also an opportunity as footfall increases. Convenience store grab and go is set to add the most value to the market as they up their game with limited edition premium ranges and a wider choice when it comes to meal deals. As far as the rise of the TWATS (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday Workers) go, Lumina is seeing Tuesdays and Wednesdays better for footfall, while Thursdays and Fridays see more workers at home.

In summary:

  1. Growth is expected to accelerate at 2.8% annually
  2. Food to go consumers are more health-led leading to nuanced healthier eating
  3. Digital innovation is allowing operators to cater to needs
  4. Partnerships are driving spend and premiumisation
  5. Operators are expanding with multiple formats
  6. Sustainability is a business priority

LEON – Maintaining Magic and Momentum in a Digital World

Here we heard how LEON is tackling the challenge of offering a frictionless and efficient service whilst trying to still maintain human connection or as they put it, their ‘magic’. As digital advances create a less personal experience, from app sales to kiosks and of course delivery, they have the added benefit of data insights, but at what cost?

In addition, they have found that Covid has changed their workforce from more full-time, 25–40-year-old Europeans in their 2nd or 3rd job, to part-time students, with a younger demographic (17-25yrs), worldwide or British heritage, Gen Zs in their 1st job. Yet, customers have gone from being 5 day a week worker-led, mixed generations, universal menu, with confidence in the economy and ordering manually, to hybrid workers with a mix of needs, mainly digitally savvy Gen Zs with reduced disposable income and the need for personalisation.

The challenge they face is matching guest ease and speed with warmth. Without counter service and ordering in person, how can the brand continue to engage consumers with a digital interaction? As most orders are captured via the app or kiosks, they’ve put in place a service standard whereby staff offer a big warm welcome, a clear number and name call out when their order is ready and then a warm goodbye. In this way, they aim to maintain that personal touch, something that is also helped by their ‘favourites cards’ which staff are encouraged to give out to add a little magic to customers’ days as random acts of kindness.

They’re also using data, not to just make the customer experience more frictionless, but also to help manage staffing levels gauging demand both back of house and front of house. This, along with customer feedback tools, is helping them maintain the magic in a digital era. As to the future, now that they’re part of EG Asda there is already one LEON in an Asda site, and they’re looking at moving outside of London and travel hubs to extend their reach and ‘magic’ across the nation.

Panel F&B innovation for success

This panel saw Chopsticks, Knoops, Flexeserve and Joe and the Juice discuss F&B innovation, looking at how to drive revenue and stand out from the crowd. Some of the key themes that came through were listening to customers as well as their own teams, customisation, the move to in-app ordering, need for affordable luxuries and the robust nature of food to go in the current cost of living crisis.

Knoops’ hot chocolate concept is driving a previously unseen category, which gives them the opportunity to offer both entry level hot chocolates and more premium higher cocoa percentage hot chocolates for consumers looking for that moment of luxury with no real top price benchmark to work around unlike coffee.

Ole & Steen

We then heard from David Campbell of Ole & Steen, the all-day bakery brand that is a household name in its homeland of Denmark with 109 sites. Currently, they have 26 sites in the UK and growing, making this Scandi operator one to watch. David outlined some of the challenges in the UK including the different model from Denmark where they are 85% food to go, whereas in the UK, operations sit at around 60% food to go with consumers stopping to enjoy an eat-in experience afforded by their larger stores. As in the UK, they very much see themselves as a café with bakery whereas in Denmark they’re more a bakery with café.

As a mature brand in Denmark, they are omnipresent, but in the UK, there is still a job to do around educating consumers as to what they do and executing it to the highest level. They see themselves as accessible premium and have moved from 12 stores in 2020 to 26 stores in 2024. But, David was keen to stress that new stores are not the be all and end all, and actually making the most of the stores they have is key to their strategy. The ex-Ivy Collection, Pizza Express and Wagamama executive has gathered a key team around him including ex McDonald’s executives and has big plans for the chain. Having been used to working for private equity firms, he understands the need to deliver in a short space of time and is driven to make this Danish household name a success in the UK.

Panel: Trains Planes and Automobiles the Resurgence of UK Travel Hubs

Here we heard from BP, Welcome Break and TRG Concessions who discussed the resurgence of travel hubs. As consumers take back to the roads, rails and air, we looked at how F&B is evolving and diversifying and why travel offers a strong channel for growth away from the crowded High Street. Some of the key themes that came across included the need for customisation and premiumisation and the fact that although consumers are health conscious, they still desire a treat when in transit. Families are a big market and BP identified the majority of their customers are time poor, digitally savvy, multi-mission consumers, who desire a frictionless experience.

As electric vehicles (EV) become prevalent, dwell-time can be 15 to 25 minutes which is driving the demand for higher quality freshly made-to-order food for the EV market. Equally, when it comes to motorway service areas, there is a demographic who will remain in their EVs watching videos as their cars are speced-out with far more tech.

When it comes to air travel, TRG Concessions look to match their offers to the airport portfolio and experience very different consumers when it comes to business versus leisure travellers. Business travellers tend to spend less time and move through airside faster, whereas leisure travellers will see the airside experience as the start of their holiday and dwell far longer. They see a number of challenges, with rent, food costs, labour and regulation issues impacting their business. Of course, unsociable hours drive up the cost of labour and recruitment is tougher than in some other travel segments due to the security checks needed for those working airside. However, within travel there seems to be a resilience with similar spend levels which is good news for the sector.

Taco Bell

Next up was Ian Cranna, General Manager of Taco Bell, which is currently experiencing an acceleration of growth in the UK and Europe, championing its value-led credentials to a cash strapped consumer base.  This Mexican inspired QSR brand, which is a household name in the US, is making waves in the UK food to go market with 137 stores, the latest one to open at South Mimms service station.

Their rapid growth has been delivered through a franchise model leveraging the cult status of the brand in the US to target Gen Zs. Positioned as a ‘cultural rebel’ rather than some of the more family-orientated brands on the High Street, Taco Bell likes to stand out with their ‘See you next Tuesday’ campaign driving their Taco Tuesdays and ‘Feed the Beat’ initiative tapping into grassroots music artists.

Social media is a key channel for the brand, especially TikTok, and 80% of their business is digital whether that’s via kiosk, app, or delivery. Their aim is to help franchisees make money by building the brand in the UK to achieve similar cult status to the US. Will they start to offer breakfast? Well, not across the estate, but it’s possible in travel hubs, so keep an eye out. As for healthy eating, they admire sister brand KFC’s recent nutritional report and the transparency level and currently offer 50 menu items under 600 calories, but understandably do not claim to be a healthy brand. They understand their consumers and by focusing on their core demographic of Gen Z and soon to be Gen Alpha, the brand is making its mark in the UK.

CACI Insight Transaction Trends and Opening Strategies

Paul Langston started the afternoon session with an injection of energy as he took us through current changes in the market. As hybrid work becomes further ingrained into office culture food to go spend remains concentrated on fewer days (although these vary!) whilst spending remains under pressure as cost-of-living pressures enter a second year.

In summary:

  • Food & beverage is transforming High Streets – With the majority of centres seeing a growing share of F&B outlets.
  • Centres are polarising – The majority of centres are seeing a decline in their overall pull. The four most attractive asset classes: city centres, regional malls, major town centres, and satellite centres have all seen a decline in their pull whilst there is more of a mixed picture lower down the retail hierarchy.
  • Customer behaviours are still changing – There’s been much talk of TWATs (workers who go in on ‘Tuesday Wednesday And Thursdays’) as hybrid workers work from home Mondays and Fridays, however different missions attract different day parts and Paul clearly showed that although in Fleet Street and Saint Paul’s Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are strong, in Sheffield Bakers Pool there is a completely different pattern with Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday seeing the biggest footfall. Whilst Eastbourne Terminus Rd saw traffic throughout the week with a focus on the weekend.
  • Growing brands are mixing things up – Here Paul looked at the rising star in High Street bakery, Gails, who have a clear demographic target of ‘Luxury Lifestyles’ and ‘Established Affluence’ from their acorn classification, but surprisingly also do well with ‘Up and Coming urbanites’ and ‘Tennant Living’ which are in a lower socioeconomic demographics.
  • Cost of living casts only a slight shadow – Although food to go is a resilient sector offering a lower price point in this cost of living crisis, worryingly Tenant Living consumers are decreasing F&B spend as a result of price rises, as 56% are concerned for their finances and they are the only group with a marked decline. They make up 2.3 million households (8% of the UK population) and tend to be between 18 and 34 living in privately rented accommodation. This is not good news for Wasabi, Deliveroo, Black Sheep Coffee, LEON, Pret and Sainsbury’s Local which are their top food to go brand affinity brands.
  • Big players have mixed results – Tim Hortons openings may mask concerns, as it saw a massive growth to decline either side of summer 2023. Popeye’s are one to watch with big plans and an impressive start.  Greggs are the star of the established players, driven by expansion and broad appeal.

In summary, it’s all about knowing your customers, knowing the places they’re going and spotting the trends to be ahead of the game when it comes to locating your food to go outlet.

Fireaway Pizza, a Franchise Success Story

We then heard from entrepreneur Mario Aleppo, Founder and CEO of Fireaway Pizza. Since its launch in 2016, the build-your-own pizza concept has grown to over 160 UK stores, boasting an eye-catching design and innovative menus, the success of its entrepreneurial founder is regularly featured on YouTube. In this interview, Mario described how he used the franchise model to create a differentiated pizza concept on the High Street with enduring appeal specifically targeting a younger demographic.

With fresh pizzas made in 180 seconds the build-your-own concept started out when Mario was approached by what turned out to be the second store in Croydon and his first franchised store. Since then, things have gone from strength to strength. As with any QSR business there have been challenges and there are things that can still be improved, namely driver management, speed of delivery, loyalty scheme and possibly even a future drone delivery (which to date was not the greatest of successes although gaining them valuable PR coverage). Mario’s vision is for a maximum of 400 to 500 stores, seeing new sites opening internationally this year. With all core products sourced from Italy, quality is at the heart of the brand, as is speed and Gen Z appeal. A real success story – Fireaway Pizza shows what can be done within a franchise model and the right offering.

Pret in Partnership

In their mission to follow the customer and bring Pret to more people, this previously operator-owned brand is moving into the franchisee realm. Pret may be a big brand, but it punches above its weight when it comes to profile, as in reality it is far smaller an estate than the likes of Cafe Nero, Greggs or Costa, with under 500 stores whereas Costa has over 2,500.

The next chapter for this UK food to go brand is ‘Pret in Partnership’ which sees Pret hand-pick franchise partners to build their estate outside of their comfort zone of London city-centre sites. This mission to expand outside of skyscrapers now means that 20% of their estate is franchised. While staying true to the brand, there is a huge opportunity for them to scale up by working with 12 highly experienced franchisees partners across the UK and Ireland.

Indeed, some of their best performing sites are franchised and if they can maintain the brand ethos and quality, it looks like Pret may be reaching more parts of the UK, and beyond, than they have ever done before.


Panel: Delivery Dynamics and Transformative Tech

We heard from Wingstop, Attensi, Maragame Udon and Uber Eats on how food to go operators are adapting and optimising their delivery offerings, as the channel continues to mature. The panel discussed volumes, dayparts, demographics, cuisine trends, as well as new technologies that are easing back of house and front of house operations.

Maragame Udon highlighted the importance of packaging for delivery and has always embraced delivery from the start with a separate delivery entrance to avoid customer complaints. Uber Eats highlighted their ability to cross-fertilise consumers from Uber Rides to Uber Eats and visa versa. They also stressed the opportunities they offer both the big brands and local favourites to advertise on their platform, whether that’s in-journey, their ads platform or boosted ads. In addition, they also give operators the option to white site their online ordering and delivery with Uber Direct which offers brands a way to build a direct relationship with their consumers whilst tapping into Uber Eats delivery logistics. Attensi stressed how active learning and gamification can help onboard Gen Z. Whilst finally Wingstop spoke about their dark kitchens, Deliveroo Editions and their marketing strategy targeting Gen Zs.

Krispy Kreme Delivering Joyful Donuts to The Nation

Jamie Dunning, UK Managing Director of Krispy Kreme, aimed to surprise us with some facts that we may not have known about Krispy Kreme. No one can argue that Krispy Kreme isn’t a joyful brand, its challenge now is to maintain its cool amongst younger demographics and open up new channel growth opportunities. Their goal is to make people smile and encourage generosity, with their dozen box that is aimed at sharing joy and generating smiles.

The good news is that despite the cost-of-living crisis, their consumer research has shown that 9 out of 10 consumers are still generous with their time and money and a third of consumers have received an act of generosity recently. Indeed, they even have a button on their tills to deliver acts of joy so that they can give away free doughnuts to those who they feel deserve one. Staff are targeted to a minimum of three a week and to date they have delivered half a million acts of joy.

The brand started out in 1932 and launched in Harrods in the UK in 2003, so last year marked twenty years in the UK. Boasting 17,000,000 customers with 88,000,000 doughnuts sold each year (made fresh daily) their business model is Omni channel with 42% DFD sales, 50% retail sales, and 8% e-commerce sales. They currently have 141 retail shops and 70 dark shops offering 1642 DFD points of access delivered across the country by 112 trucks driving their £132,000,000 turnover. Currently, they partner with Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Costco, Centre Parks, Moto, Euro Garages, Welcome Break, Just Eat, Amazon Fresh, Uber Eats Delivery and Go Puff.

They aim to drive universal access to the joy that is Krispy Kreme, through more places, more occasions, more choices and making the experience more rewarding via their loyalty scheme (one of the most generous out there which is certainly on-brand). They freely admit that they are not an everyday food item, as a HFSS product, but believe in the value of joy and generosity and treating yourself and others (although the classic glazed is only 190cal less than a croissant – good to know!). On average, people have Krispy Kreme three times a year with 80% of those occasions a sharing occasion. Today you can get hot fresh donuts at their new Oxford Street store which echoes the original store with it’s ‘hot light’ which shows when the donuts hot and fresh.

As for special diets they have a vegan donut, but so far, they haven’t found a good enough gluten-free solution. Next up is a link-up with Pretty Little Thing and incentives to share and earn smiles through their reward scheme which currently has 2 million members. Through the magic of their logistics and ever-growing partnerships they aim to bring smiles across the country, and at a time when we all need more smiles, that has to be a good thing.

Westmoreland Family – Another Way of Doing Motorway Services

Anyone who has been to one of the Westmoreland family’s motorway service areas knows it is far from a Moto or Welcome Break. There are no big brands, no franchises, what there is though is a stunning farm shop and kitchen with amazing food to eat and take away, lifestyle homeware and gifts and a friendly welcome. They are the rolls Royce of MSAs. This family-owned enterprise started in 1972 when the M6 ran through their farmland at Tebay. Since then, they have expanded to seven sites across the country with three main MSAs at Tebay, Gloucester and Cairn Lodge.

With local, seasonal and cooking from scratch at their core, they partner with local producers and sustain the local economy not just through commercial partnerships with small producers and being a trusted local employer, but through giving back to local charities and community schemes.  Their motto is, ‘It’s about the journey, not the destination’ and the brand seem to be on a wonderful journey so far.

Congratulations to the events team at MCA on a great day full of interesting people and some really insightful presentations. To see the full line-up visit: