What’s in store for cafés and food to go post-Covid?

23 April 2021, 13:22 PM
  • After a tough year in 2020, food to go is back on the rise. We look into the predicted £1.1 billion sales opportunity and how fine food independents can cash in
What’s in store for cafés and food to go post-Covid?

The UK’s food to go market is expected to take off this year after suffering a 45.5% decline in 2020. Thanks to easing restrictions and the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, Lumina Intelligence expects the sector to grow by nearly a third to reach a value of £15.3 billion in 2021.

A wider recovery is expected to come in the following years, with the food to go market on track to climb to a value of £22.6bn in 2024. Katherine Prowse, insight manager at Lumina Intelligence said, “The sudden shift from a highly transient, on-the-go society, to one with restrictions placed on movement had a significant negative impact on the UK food to go market in 2020, with much trade diverted to other routes to market such as delivery.

“However, buoyed by the easing of restrictions and the swift vaccine rollout, we will see a resurgence of the market in 2021, before a full recovery to pre-pandemic sales levels by 2024.”

Independents with newly (or soon-to-be) reopened cafés and foodservice operations are well positioned to cash in on this trend.

The café opportunity

Cafés are poised to make the most of the boom in takeaway coffee drinks, which made up 50% of all drinks consumed over the last four months, according to Lumina’s research.

Younger consumers in particular were the most likely to socialise outdoors on ‘coffee walks’, with nearly one in four having picked up the habit of purchasing a hot drink to go when on a walk with a friend since March 2020.

In the coming months, outdoor socialising will become more and more popular as lockdown restrictions ease, and food to go is poised to capitalise on this, with 21% of consumers saying they are likely to purchase food to eat in the park. For those aged 18-24, this figure rises to 38%, setting a clear opportunity to cafés and delis situated near green spaces.

Helen Thekli of Helen’s Coffee on the Green in Chingford, closed her shop for five weeks at the start of the pandemic and was nervous about reopening. “It was very nerve wracking going back and only doing takeaway – something we’d never done before,” she tells Speciality Food. “I also had to think outside the box, so I started offering afternoon teas.” The new offering quickly became popular with customers, who shared recommendations on social media.

“I was overwhelmed,” Helen says. “I have amazing customers and staff and the community spirit has just been truly, truly amazing. I’m told that I’m a rock in this and that when customers come to me they don’t just come for a coffee; it’s like coming in for a hug.”

Elsewhere, Sam Dickinson of The Fold Farm Shop, told Speciality Food that a food box service launched at the beginning of the pandemic was soon replaced by in-store options, as customers were keen to take advantage of the nearby nature trail. “I think people have been happy to come to the shop because we’re located outside of town. I think people use that as their opportunity to leave the house as well. It’s a nice environment to come to,” she says.

Catering to home workers

With more consumers planning to work from home in the future, there is also a growing focus on food to go products that are heated at home. One new start-up looking to make the most of this trend is D’Ambrosi Fine Foods in the Cotswolds. Owner chef Andrew D’Ambrosi told Speciality Food that food to go has “thrived” during the pandemic. “Our food is restaurant quality but specifically created to maintain consistency and taste on the reheat without compromise,” he explains.

As well as offering quality food to go, the shop supplies a curated selection of wines and liquors as well as homemade candles and floristry services, and the owners are now used to seeing a queue out the door made up of both locals and, when allowed, tourists. Although Andrew expects more consumers to shift to eating out in restaurants and pubs when they can, he is still confident about the future of his business. “Because we are unique in our approach, we believe our business will continue to do well.”

Indeed, Lumina’s research shows that in the years to come, convenience stores’ dominance in the food to go category will fall as it comes under pressure to compete with dedicated food to go specialists.

The future of food to go

Changing working and socialising habits means the landscape for food to go is transforming. “Portable food to go solutions will strike appeal with consumers meeting friends/family in parks, whereas a shift in focus on food to ‘go home’, will provide a relevant solution to those home working,” explains Katherine.

But these changes pose great opportunities, with Lumina predicting the top 10 food to go channels will see a £1.1 billion sales opportunity between 2022 and 2024, and sandwich and bakery and coffee shop and café segments are poised to take the lead. For fine food shops, now is the perfect time to rethink your food to go options and ensure you have a selection in place to suit the latest habits of today’s consumers.

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