UK consumers are “wedded to brands” when it comes to food to go in travel hub locations, John Diviney, CEO at Welcome Break told delegates.

Irish forecourt business Applegreen, which acquired Welcome Break last year, is aggressively rolling out in the UK and US, but Diviney said that whereas Applegreen’s proprietary brands are popular in Ireland, they fell flat when it launched them in the UK.

“What is particularly prevalent in the UK is the growth in customer demand for branded offers. They are very influenced by them and know it’s a safe haven,” he said. “One lesson Applegreen learnt when it entered the UK market was around coffee. We have our own coffee brand in Ireland but we tried to roll it out in the UK and it just didn’t work.”

However, he hinted that as a solely branded offer, there were perhaps opportunities to do something a little bit different at Welcome Break over the next few years.

Diviney said that Applegreen views itself as a food business that sells food, rather than the other way round, and that the wider group is essentially a house of brands. “It’s all about finding the right brand for the right location,” he said. “People plan their journeys around the stop. What are the key brands that we have that are going to convince that customer to call in?”.

He said that as Applegreen grows internationally it has access to more brands. “We are now coming across brands in the US market that we think that will work here, and vice versa. I think that will be a huge thing for us,” he added.

The business is also focused on developing technology at its forecourts and service stations. He said the company was looking at introducing self-order kiosks across various different brands this year, and would be putting significant resource behind it. “It creates extra purchase points and helps manage customer flows,” he said. “For example, with Burger King we are restructuring how those units are laid out to make the kiosk the primary point of order,” explained Diviney.

“The internal space and the kitchens get redesigned and what you get is a much more efficient delivery and production system in the kitchen and also speed for the customer, as it is absolutely key that we continue to meet our speed promise,” he said.

It is also introducing facial recognition technology to its digital screens, to capture dwell time and the profile of people that are coming in, in order to see where the missed sales opportunities are, for example, he said. Diviney added that this technology would also be introduced to its advertising screens, in order to understand more about the customer that is turning up at its different offers.

While the majority of its customers are time poor, Diviney added that there has been a return to some full-service restaurant offerings in its motorway service stations over the past 18 months – reminiscent of many ago – with Welcome Break having opened five PizzaExpress restaurants to date. He believes that business meetings in these units will be a growing area of trade.