Now I might be a tad biased, but I thought MCA’s recent Food to Go conference was rather good. It’s always great to hear from operators at the coal-face, and the line-up included several interesting speakers all prepared to share some insights on how they are grappling with the opportunities and challenges of the maturing Food to Go marketplace. And yes, let’s not be in any illusion, some of the froth has come off this previous darling of the Eating Out market, with increasing signs of localised saturation only reinforcing the importance of enhancing consumer relevance. So how is this being pursued?

There is no silver bullet answer to this question, but I would highlight four critical bases that were recurring focal points: convenience, customisation, plant-based and sustainability.

For convenience, think speed. Placing the customer journey and key touchpoints at the heart of business development thinking really is a no-brainer – particularly in the time-pressured cauldron of Food to Go, where getting to work on time and not having your precious lunchbreak time wasted are genuine consumer concerns. Hence the need for growing investment in digitalisation - think advance ordering, speedier payment and digital menu display screens that attractively showcase choice and offers. Supporting this and serving as key by-product benefits are of course, greater scope to communicate with customers and strengthen loyalty.

However, it is not just about technology-enabled solutions, it is also about making life even easier for customers by going to where they are. Think catering and delivery solutions into workplaces. Importantly, when these points come from Pret A Manger and Itsu, then you know you have it on good authority, even if they might admit to playing some catch-up in these areas.

Customisation is really another facet of putting the customer first and enabling them to have their food on their preferred terms. This trend is being further boosted by growing consumer demand for ever more personalised approaches to their health, nutrition and wellbeing. Clearly this is not without significant challenges in terms of operational efficiencies, labelling and pricing, but slicker technological solutions are becoming more cost effective and indeed, widespread. Certainly, the software developed by Vita Mojo remains worthy of a shout-out here.

Interestingly, several operators are discovering that when consumers have the ability to customise their order, this typically leads to them trading-up and paying a premium over average transaction sizes. The technological interface provides a more considered/less stressed selection opportunity that pays dividends. Separately the point was also reinforced by recent consumer research for MCA showing an average Food to Go spend of £5.29 compared with a 35% higher transaction of £7.14 by customers with a specific dietary requirement.

Such was its recurring references throughout the day, that if there was a prize for the most popular term of the conference, then I suspect it would go to ‘plant-based’. Plant-based references were always going to be centre stage at dedicated burger specialist, Neat Burger, (the one being supported by Lewis Hamilton) and at the highly impressive plant-based challenger brand, Slaw (the Food to Go newcomer that used to be a highly regarded, if less readily scalable, restaurant). However, they were also to the fore of business development thinking at Pret A Manger, both in terms of NPD and with the expansion of Veggie Pret, and are receiving serious attention by the board of beef-stalwart, Five Guys. The clear take-out is that plant-based is by no means a fad, but an enduring trend. Indeed, helping to reinforce this was the statistic that 60% of Veggie Pret customers are meat-eaters looking to reduce their meat consumption. So, if plant-based is an enduring trend, then flexitarianism is the super trend.

Tapping further into the consumer zeitgeist and completing the quartet of relevance-enhancing initiatives, is sustainability. At its simplest, this is about being a more responsible citizen – and it was great to see the extent of corporate commitment and enthusiasm in aiming to make a difference. However, the difficulty and complexity behind trying to do the right thing was also evident. For example: in terms of carbon footprint, it is by no means clear cut that a plastic bag is more detrimental than paper; the foodservice industry (and others) is struggling with the absence of a National Recycling Programme; and there are business profitability challenges arising from lower revenue sales of bottled water with free tap water supplies and of coffees with reusable cup discounts.

However, the fundamental point remains that consumers are increasingly embracing a values-led, and not just value for money, mindset, and this simply has to shape the business development agenda. For sure, developing more sustainable business initiatives is not an easy win, and is going to require greater collaboration and external partnerships that will take some out of their internal comfort zones. But the final word has to one of adaptation, because becoming less relevant is only a route to business extinction.