The food to go sector is expected to reach a total market value of £21.6bn by 2022, exceeding its value in 2019 when the sector was booming, according to the latest data from Lumina Intelligence.

Despite the sector taking a bit hit to sales during the pandemic – with a 45.5% decline in market value seen in 2020, Blonnie Whist, head of insight at Lumina, told attendees at MCA’s online Food to Go Conference yesterday (23 March) that the sector is forecast to claw back two thirds of its 2019 value in 2021, before exceeding that the following year.

Giving attendees a sneak preview of Lumina’s new Food to Go Market Report, Whist said that while “recovery won’t be instant, food to go is in a good position to bounce back”.

Despite a long-time slowing of outlet growth, modest expansion is expected in 2021, she said, mostly driven by traditional fast food, bakery and coffee shops segments.

The top 10 food to go channels are expected to deliver £1.1bn worth of growth in absolute terms between 2022 and 2024, with sandwich and bakery, and coffee shops and café channels set to lead that growth, by £288m and £228m, respectively.

Pre-pandemic the food to go market had seen strong and consistent growth since the mid-2010s and its recovery will ultimately be led by the recovery in the wider economy and life returning to a more familiar normal, she said.

Consumer demand for convenience at breakfast and lunchtime occasions have been a particular driver in recent years, and these are expected to return as movement restrictions are lifted.

She said the market was well-placed to recover due to its to-go nature, where interactions are low contact, as well as the fact often are often low ticket, which she said was a huge advantage as consumers feels the economic impact of the pandemic on their finances.

While flexible working and working from home have impacted sales during the pandemic, and are expected to be a lasting legacy of it, Whist said “those less frequent trips to the office may be an opportunity to drive premiumisation and ultimately grow transaction value on food to go missions”.

“This flexibility will translate into more treat-led and premium food to go visits on office days, with pent up consumer demand leading to higher transactions,” she said.

She added that there are also opportunities around location as less use of trains and tube and greater use of the car has meant that suburban drive thru and roadside motorway services will become key areas of growth over the next two years.

In addition, the pandemic has opened up new day part occasions, such ‘coffee and a walk’ and outdoor socialising. “Alternative day parts to the traditional lunch food to go mission are a huge growth channel. In fact two in five food to go missions over the past four months have been drinks-only occasions and that’s been hugely led by coffee,” she said.

The trend for outdoor socialising has also impacted the types of food people are looking for. “Pizza has had a runaway year, and picnic-style and boxed hot and cold offerings in 2021 can capitalise on this opportunity,” suggested Whist.

Heat at home ranges are also a key opportunity to tap into consumer demand for quick meal solutions when working from home. While delivery has opened up day parts to food to go operators, such as dinner, which are “totally new ground to many”.

Innovation has been forefront of the sector’s ability to shield itself from some of the impact of the pandemic and is also key to its recovery, she said.

Brands that have embraced the omnichannel approach have benefited from new customers, for example Pret launching bake at home croissants in Tesco. While the adoption of technology has been accelerated, with apps set to play a much more important role in the coming years, especially with regards to promotional deals, she said. This is turn will give operators rich data to better target their customers.

“No one is pretending that the next few years are going to be easy, but innovation and efficiencies, especially in digital, will be instrumental in rebuilding the sector,” she concluded.

You can now view the entire Food to Go Conference on demand here