Grab-and-go food has come a long way from the days of a plastic-wrapped egg sandwich and a bag of crisps from the dusty end of the canteen. Now foodservice operators are offering everything from protein pots to sashimi packs, burritos and pizza slices, served with value-added drinks and snacks, displayed in glossy fridges or hot cabinets - and all wrapped up in recyclable packaging.
It may all look too good to eat, but that isn't holding consumers back. In 2017, 95% of the UK engaged with the food-to-go market, with purchasers spending an average of £508 each, according to MCA's 2017 market data report.
This popularity shows no sign of slowing down, with Kantar data suggesting that the food-to-go market is set to grow by 2.8% to a value of £20.7b in 2018, which is 1.5% ahead of the total eating-out market.
The main challenge for operators is to stay ahead of trends and make sure their offer stands out in a very competitive arena.
One of the biggest trends sweeping the out-of-home sector is the rise of plant-based options suitable for vegetarian and vegan diners, according to Alison Smith, product developer for Mars Food Europe. "It has now become a massive market of which operators can't afford not to be a part," she says. "When operators offer a summer grab-and-go menu, it is essential that they include delicious, innovative veggie options as well as the usual selection of popular meat-based dishes."
James Robinson, product training manager at Brindisa, reports that Spanish tapas-style food is also very much on-message. He says that British consumers have gained an appetite for Ibérico de bellota pork (acorn-fed Ibérico pork), which includes the presa Ibérica, a cut from the shoulder of the pig not normally offered in UK butchering, as well as pimientos de PadrÁ³n (finger-sized peppers).
He says: "Spain produces amazing ingredients with provenance that add another level to grab-and-go serves with minimal effort."
Aimee Davidson, channel marketing manager of Ajinomoto Foods Europe, says that Japanese-inspired dishes are also ideal for operators looking to refresh their grab-and-go options, and gyoza dumplings appeal to both the desire for authentic, exciting flavours and healthier alternatives. Ajinomoto's gyoza are available in duck, chicken, pork and vegetable options, and can be cooked from frozen in under five minutes. Larger meals that can be eaten on the hoof include yakisoba noodles, which can be served in a takeaway bowl with added chicken, pork, duck or tofu.
Supplier Sco-Fro suggests that its Shangri-la Sushi lends itself perfectly to the grab-and-go market. Bulk-packed and kept frozen, it can be repacked according to customer-specific requirements into individual portions or trays.
Calder Foods marketing director Nigel Parkes says the food-to-go supplier has looked to abroad for inspiration for its latest fillings: Korean-inspired recipes, vegan and anything pulled are its three key trends. "We are, for example, working on a shredded chicken tinga, which is a Mexican favourite. We are also looking at a vegan jackfruit alternative, and a number of fillings, such as Korean staple kimchi, which is made from fermented vegetables."
The spud steps up
Closer to home, potato products can be worked up with a huge variety of flavours and offer versatility in how they are served, says Nic Townsend, UK and Ireland marketing manager at Farm Frites. Chips can be loaded with cheese, meat or vegetables or simply tossed in a spice rub, creating an interesting dish in a matter of minutes. Townsend says: "Our new Shake Your Fries offering is a 'shake to taste' concept that puts flavour choice in the hands of the diner. This chips are delivered to customers in a box along with a spice sachet. They can choose a spice mix, sprinkle it on their chips, and give the box a shake."
Bakery carriers are also tapping into UK consumers' passion for global flavours, says Erwan Inizan, UK commercial director at Bridor. "Breads are reflecting changing tastes with the inclusion of ingredients such as corn, sourdough, pesto, nuts, olives and chorizo," he explains. "It's been possible to extend the appeal of grab-and-go bakery products to new audiences by recognising their desire for international flavours."
'Better for you' options are also becoming more popular as customers seek healthier alternatives. There's much more emphasis on nutritional products and high-quality ingredients, Inizan suggests. Smaller breads and pastries that specifically target the on-the-go market and suit every snacking occasion are also being introduced.
Samantha Winsor, assistant brand manager at LantmÁ¤nnen Unibake UK, adds that snacking products can also reflect overseas influences: Schulstad Bakery Solutions' Portuguese custard tarts or classic French and Danish pastries can be a great option for consumers who are looking for a pick-me-up before lunch, and can provide added value if sold alongside or in combination with takeaway hot drinks.
The big swig
Beverages are another area of the grab-and-go sector that can be upgraded with exotic flavours, says Marshall Kingston, Tetley senior brand manager. "'Natural' claims on global new food and drink product launches are on the rise, and demand for these products is twofold, as consumers seek out bold and adventurous flavours while pursuing the alternative health benefits associated with the ingredients." He adds that offering a range of fruit and herbal infusions is an easy way to attract audiences to the tea category and drive rate of purchase.
With grab-and-go, presentation is vital - both in terms of packaging and display. Packaging supplier Planglow says that with Asian-inspired offerings becoming increasingly popular, caterers who wish to offer on-trend buddha bowls, Japanese-inspired noodles or Vietnamese pho-style soups should think carefully about appropriate packaging, in terms of practicality for the consumer, environmental factors and appearance.
nglow predicts that hot dogs are poised for a renaissance, and will be launching a hotdog tray this summer with offerings including vegan "dude-food" concepts or dogs with a Caribbean or Asian twist. For these messier options, Planglow's grease-resistant Street Deli Paper has proven immensely popular because of its versatility and eco-credentials.
According to Planglow's PR and marketing co-ordinator Jess Lyons, the company's packaging is made entirely from plant-based materials and is free from oil-based plastics. She says: "We would recommend that you offer packaging that is home-compostable wherever possible, especially in light of the proposed latte levy, which has once again heightened consumer interest in waste reduction. Home compostables offer the consumer complete autonomy over their own packaging waste and negate waste collection services."
Takeaway packaging is constantly in the news and it can be tricky for an operator to know what products to use, what's recyclable, what's compostable, and in what way packaging should be disposed of, adds Becci Eplett, marketing manager at Huhtamaki UK.
All of Huhtamaki's paper-based cups, cartons and boxes are made using paperboard certified by the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Huhtamaki also has the Taste and Eatwell ranges of packaging, both of which can be recycled where appropriate facilities exist, as well as its Bioware range of compostable products.
It's show time
Display equipment needs not only to show food off to its best advantage, but also to hold it at the correct temperature. The design needs to promote hygiene and maintain food safety and quality through consistent temperature, in both heated and chilled food units.
Equipment manufacturer E&R Moffat has developed a circulating air system for its heated grab-and-go displays so pastries stay hot and fresh for longer. Moffat's latest freestanding units are available in cold, hot, the two combined, and ambient models.
colm Harling, sales and marketing director at Williams Refrigeration, says the company has just introduced units with natural hydrocarbon refrigerants and thermal-efficient self-closing and hinged doors.
New energy-saving features have been fitted as standard across its multideck ranges, such as aerofins on the front of multideck shelves, which are angled to trap cold air as it flows around the unit and redirect it to the shelf below. As well as helping to keep a stable temperature, they reduce 'cold aisle syndrome', as most of the cold air remains within the display instead of spilling out of the front, making for a more comfortable environment for staff and customers. In fact, as grab-and-go brings consumers menu options from around the globe, the packaging and display equipment are also looking world class.
Ajinomoto Foods Europe
LantmÁ¤nnen Unibake UK
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