Inside track by Peter Martin
Food and eating increasingly act as the punctuation marks of modern, everyday life. Whenever there’s a pause in the hectic daily routine, we jam something into our mouths. We may not have time to stop for breakfast, lunch or even a leisurely dinner, but we will reach out for a convenient snack at just about any time of the day – whether it’s something to take back to the office, to eat in the car or on the train, or to fill the waiting time before catching a flight. We are the grab-and-go generation. But no longer will any old fast food do. We want the same choice and quality we expect from our supermarkets and restaurant chains – whether it’s a health-packed option or good old comfort food. We may be on the move, but we need to be fed well, fast and interestingly. That’s reflected not just in the flood of new and fledgling takeaway and fast casual concepts being launched onto the market, but also in the juicy price that Compass was able to secure for the sale of its SSP and Moto travel catering businesses this month. McQuarrie, the Australian bank which paid £600m for the 43 sites in the Moto motorway services chain, and EQT the Scandinavian-based private equity group which splashed out £1.8bn for the global SSP airport and rail business obviously believe there is significantly more growth in the food on the move market. The big challenge for both these businesses, as they break away from Compass, will be to shake-off their contract catering heritage, where securing the operating deal, the contract, is the key driver. The focus will need to be more on honing their retail and consumer skills. For SSP that will include developing not just its own brands such as Caffe Ritazza and Upper Crust, but nurturing new consumer offerings. The same is also true for Moto, which will continue to operate SSP brands like Upper Crust. The truth is that both businesses have already started that process, encouraged both by the success of the M&S Simply Food operation on motorways and railway stations, and the demands of partners such as BAA for a better passenger experience at its airports. They know they need to keep their businesses refreshed. There are signs that traditional fast food names such as Burger King may soon find themselves squeezed out of prized sites such as airports to make way for newer concepts. Square Pie, the gourmet pie maker, opened its first site in Heathrow last week, for example. It is all part of the general consumer move to higher quality, often healthier, and more interesting food options. There’s no shortage of emerging grab-and-go and fast casual offerings on the high street, in particular in London, for the likes of SSP and Moto to look at. The likes of Apostrophe, Abokado, Fresh Italy, Leon and Itsu, the sushi chain backed by Pret a Manger founder Julian Metcalfe and which is perhaps proving the most inventive at the healthy-living end of the market, are all expanding. The fact that the Kaye family, founders of iconic eating out brands such as Garfunkels, ASK and Zizzi, is now investing in the roll-out of Dim T, the dim sum chain, or that former Asda boss Archie Norman is backing the expansion of Chop’d, the City of London based salad bar concept, simply underlines the potential for growth that the quality, fast casual market possesses.