Faster food

Consumers want food, they want it fast and they want it 24/7, writes Peter Backman

Over the past four decades, the British public have moved from being a nation that, on the whole, only dined out for a special occasion to a nation that thinks nothing of grabbing a Caffé Latte and an almond croissant from Costa on the way to work, re-fuelling at lunchtime with a pot of prawn chana masala from Pod, and sharing a pizza meal from Domino’s at home with friends in the evening – film rental included!

Although we have never shown more interest in cooking – think Masterchef and Great British Bake Off – evidence suggests that rather than cook at home, people prefer to eat out or grab ’n’ go when the urge takes them. Eating has become a more casual affair, something consumers do wherever they are, at whatever time of day it happens to be.


  • MENU SUPPORT: It’s not just 3663 and Brakes that provide fantastic menu support to foodservice customers. Peterborough-based Adams Cash & Carry helped a fast-food customer turns its business around with some menu ideas and support (BW March 2013, page 11). Are you providing menu support?
  • SIZE MATTERS: Many successful fast-food outlets offer more than one size to help cater for different appetites and budgets. Encourage your customers to think about offering sharing dishes, half dishes, small portions or tasting dishes.
  • HEALTHY EATING: Fast food is no longer about burgers and pizza. Nutritious options that can be tailor-made at an affordable price point are particularly popular with time-strapped, health-conscious office workers. How are your customers responding?

Canny restaurant operators, keen to keep consumers eating out through the recession, have spotted this trend and adapted accordingly. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a plethora of establishments extending their opening hours, branching into new offers such as morning coffee, afternoon tea, breakfast and late-night meals.

Enlightened pubs are picking up on this trend, too, offering takeaways, Sunday roasts carved at the table, sharing dishes on their menus, half dishes, small portions or tasting dishes. Many outlets are embracing these innovations – and challenging their customers to try them. This is keeping their menus fresh, as well as giving them something to communicate with their customers about – a reason to email, text, Tweet or Facebook.

The grab ’n’ go habit has been good news for the foodservice sector, and it has primarily been led by the growth of the UK’s coffee culture, a whole new sector that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

Others have joined the fray, too – ­McDonald’s and Wetherspoons, for example, are now the country’s biggest sellers of coffee – a relatively new business for them that’s been developed on the back of the success of the coffee ­giants.

Fast food, whether eaten in or taken away, is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the foodservice market, and average spend is rising, too. In July this year, Horizons’ QuickBite report showed that average spend through a quickservice outlet was £8.54, up from £7.29 in June 2012.

And while there will always be a place for formal, special-occasion dining, the majority of cash-conscious people like nothing better than an evening out with friends, sharing dishes, buying wines by the glass, and ordering starters and mains or something in between.

The success of Domino’s, which is now seeing more than 6% growth year on year, has been a case in point, achieved through its use of online ordering and social media, innovative marketing campaigns and sponsorships, as well as well-placed price promotions.

But on top of all that activity, Domino’s keeps its menu fresh with constant innovation. Earlier this year, the company’s pizzas, with crusts stuffed with hot dogs, were said to be responsible for an impressive sales growth in the first quarter, helped by near arctic weather conditions. But quick-service dining comes in many guises and is no longer just about burgers and pizzas. The fastest-growing brands in Horizons’ Ones to Watch study are Mexican-themed, healthy eating, American-style dining, Italian, and coffee shops.

Healthy fast food operator Bill’s, which caters for every mealtime including breakfast, lunch and dinner, afternoon tea or just drinks, tops the list as the fastest-growing new brand. The concept is a combination of traditional with a twist, healthy and different, all at a keen price.

Much of Bill’s success lies in its presentation and menu descriptions, making dishes sound appealing and novel, yet familiar at the same time. Pecan pie and cinnamon doughnuts served warm, for instance, costs little to execute, but sounds so much more tempting than just cold doughnuts!

Bill’s has grown from four outlets in 2010 to nearly 30 in 2013 and plans to push further north in its aim to reach 50 outlets. The company offers food and drink hampers online and is also looking to improve its retail offer. It’s a busy operator, with a modern touch to its marketing.

Mexican fast food is another recent entry to the British market, with fast-casual eateries such as Chilango, Tortilla and Benito’s Hat expanding in London, as well as making forays outside the city. Mexican operators have previously tried and failed in the UK, but tacos and burritos now seem to have found an audience that is looking for value for money, filling, fast food with a difference.
US-Mexican fast casual chain, Chipotle, now has six locations in London and is focusing on adding more in the City and West End before expanding ­regionally.

Grab ’n’ go food with a healthy twist has also seen much growth, with the likes of Pod, Tossed and Planet Organic adding outlets to their estates. Healthy quick-service operator Pod sells everything from barista-brewed coffee, through breakfast, salad boxes and wraps, to hot dishes with rice for around £5.99 or high-fibre energy pots based on lean proteins and super grains for £4.50.

Although this is predominantly a London trend appealing to time-pressed, health-conscious office workers, we are likely to see expansion outside the capital once brands such as Pod become more established.

The wide variety of healthy options and the ability to tailor-make dishes wrapped up in exciting branding mean these operators are well placed to benefit from the growing trend for nutritious food at good value price points. For example, Pod now has 23 outlets, up from nine in 2010.

Fast food has come a long way over the past decade. And for operators wanting to succeed in this competitive sector, product innovation, communication with customers and being adaptable remain key.

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Peter Backman is the managing director of Horizons, the analyst and specialist information consultant for the foodservice and hospitality sector.


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