Food service operators have been tailoring their offerings since the breakdown of traditional set meal times of breakfast, lunch and dinner, and providing easy-to-prepare alternatives. Patrick McGuigan reports
How many minutes in an hour? Well, when it comes to the average lunch hour the answer is a measly 28, according to a report from contract caterer Eurest last November.
In fact, one in five people skip lunch altogether, claiming they're too busy to eat. It's a similar story at breakfast, when market research company Datamonitor reckons about a third of people regularly eat nothing in the morning.
In short, traditional meal times of breakfast, lunch and dinner are increasingly less relevant to time-pressed Brits. As Nicky Cracknell, national account controller at supplier Bakehouse, puts it: "Meal occasions are merging. People are moving away from the traditional three meals a day to five or six smaller meals at flexible eating times."
For food service operators, this means increasing the range of snacks and "grazing" products that can be eaten at various times of the day, whether it's hot savouries, sweet bakery treats or sandwich variations.
High-street retailer Bhs has replaced takeaway sandwich shops with a new coffee-shop format called the Coffee Lounge in 25 of its stores. The outlets, which sell sandwiches, paninis, savouries and sweet bakery treats, have been so successful that it plans to add another 40 by Christmas and wants a total of 120 within the next 18 months.
"We've seen sales increase by as much as 200% when we put in a Coffee Lounge compared with the old sandwich-shop format," says Bhs retail director Tony Brown. "People want to sit down, have a handmade sandwich or a muffin, as well as being able to grab and go." He adds that the split between eating in and taking away is probably 50:50 in these new outlets. "We've created an environment and product range where you can do both all day long," he adds.
Another big high-street name that has adapted its food offering is pub chain JD Wetherspoon, which has introduced snacks to complement its Lavazza coffee and attract customers in the morning and afternoon - traditionally quiet trading times.
"Muffins, wraps and paninis have been a staple of Wetherspoon's airport pubs, where time is of the essence and people don't necessarily want a full meal," says spokesman Eddie Gershon. "But they're now widely available in many other Wetherspoon's pubs." Light snacks are likely to become more popular with the smoking ban now in place, he adds. Indeed, Bakehouse says it's working with Wetherspoon's to develop a range of new breakfast products.
This point is backed up by research into pub food by Moy Park Foodservice. Marketing manager Matt Godbold says: "Consumers want a food option throughout the day that goes beyond crisps and nuts, whether it's a Cornish pasty, a muffin or a wrap filled with crunchy mini chicken fillets. Many landlords are still very old-school and stick to serving full meals at lunchtime and dinner, but there's nothing else in between. With the smoking ban, pubs have an opportunity to attract different types of customers with snacks, particularly women, and to build sales in the morning and afternoon."
Bakery supplier Délifrance reckons sales of food in pubs will increase by about 7% in the next two years because of the smoking ban, but says any successful all-day snack range must be easy for operators to prepare. "We've recently launched a range of prefilled, pregrilled paninis, which can be microwaved from frozen in just three minutes," says category manager Lucy Pickersgill.
The panini range is also popular with hotel caterers who want to offer 24-hour room service, contract caterers and coffee-shop operators, she adds.
At wholesaler Brakes, Mark Irish, senior development chef, says it doesn't take much to offer a wide snack range. "A snack menu for a limited kitchen could include nachos, soups, pizza slices, sandwiches and paninis, and the only equipment you need is a microwave and panini machine," he says. "Base your snack menu on minimal preparation time, value for the customer and a quick turnover of diners. Look to change the menu on a regular basis or just vary your current menu by adding new accompaniments."
A good way to do this is by sourcing products that can be used in various ways. Bakehouse has recently developed a new service called the Menu Factory, which provides recipe suggestions so caterers can get the most from individual products. "For example, our Rusticata breads can be cut a certain way for sandwiches, sliced to serve with soup or even used for bread and butter pudding," says Nicky Cracknell.
While flexibility and convenience are important points to look for in a product, knowing when you might get a rush of customers is more difficult as meal occasions become more fragmented. According to David Girdler, Delice de France marketing director, all-day availability is vital. "With our frozen bakery products it's easy to bake little and often so the customer always has a good range of fresh snacks to choose from and operators have very little wastage," he says.
Sandwiches are still the most popular snack, says Girdler, but so-called "sandwich fatigue" is driving consumers to search out new bread carriers, whether that is the company's new sourdough breads or Arctic wraps.
Sandwich fatigue is also creating demand for snack alternatives. Delice de France has recently added mini pies, quiches and a new sausage lattice to its range, while Bakehouse has launched cheese twists and Brakes has mini chicken salsa wraps.
On the high street, juice bar and healthy food chain Crussh has seen increasing sales of Healthpots across its 16 stores. These are salad pots with healthy ingredients such as beans, pulses and seeds. "We try to develop food that's saleable throughout the day - products that are flexible and healthy," says managing director Chris Fung. "A good example is our falafel wrap, which can be eaten in the morning for lunch or late afternoon, while toasties are popular throughout the day."
Other snack innovations from Crussh include sushi wraps and wheat-free bread alternatives. Its shops also sell porridge in the morning, but even this has metamorphosed into an all-day snack in the form of cold porridge with fruit compote called Summer Porridge.
It seems that business and industry catering is mirroring the breakdown of meal times seen on the high street, and the trend for healthy snacks. Contract caterer Avenance, which services more than 350 companies in the UK, says its customers demand a healthy range. "People are health-conscious these days and we sell a lot more salads and soups," says Chris Sprague, southern managing director. Avenance has developed a balanced offer of snacks, including paninis, fruit and salad pots, doughnuts and cookies. The company has a system of coloured flags to inform customers of the food's nutritional content.
Sprague reckons the split between traditional sit-down meals and snack products is about 50:50, when five years ago main meals dominated. "Some of our customers only have ‘grab-and-go' facilities now," he says. "Office space is expensive you don't need as much room to prepare and sell snacks."