Fill your trolley, it’s time for supermarket sweep

If you happen to be a distributor or supplier that generates a meaningful portion of your turnover from restaurants that reside within the retail domain (i.e. they’ve got a high street or shopping centre presence) then business would appear to look pretty assured right now.

Analysts say that the number of people eating out is on the rise again, there is an appetite for more varied global cuisines among consumers, and branded chains seem to be embarking on their own private contest to see who can open the most sites possible. But this is nothing to complain about.

In fact, it is only good news for the catering equipment industry if it means more dosh being spent on new designs, modern kit and install work.

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One of the most compelling stories for me, though, is what’s happening in the mass retail side of the foodservice business. Supermarkets have always been major clients of the equipment trade due to the huge volume of refrigeration they require and because of the sales they make from in-store cooking and bakery goods. But there is now an additional dimension to that in the shape of restaurant investment.

Tesco is the obvious case study here after it paid £50m for Giraffe last year. The first real upshot of that purchase became apparent last month when Tesco officially made its debut in the casual dining space by launching a 150-cover Giraffe at its giant store in Watford.

If Tesco’s intentions in the restaurant space weren’t already clear enough, its largest store in Coventry was also revealed as the location for a family carvery concept called Decks.

If these trials go well, it’s inevitable that they will quickly become regular fixtures in stores where Tesco has the floor space and catchment area to accommodate them. Soon, it will feel as normal to go to a supermarket for a quality meal as it does to buy a 60-inch LCD TV or to try on clothes.

More significantly, how many more supermarket-style retailers will follow suit as they bid to alter the perception of what a traditional ‘customer restaurant’ has stood for or — the more likely incentive — they realise there is money to be made from using their store space in alternative ways.

This trend isn’t only limited to supermarkets. Debenhams has just splashed £25m replacing office space at its flagship Oxford Street store with a restaurant, cafe and bistro, while John Lewis is expected to unveil a new food concept soon after its own chief executive recently described its current restaurant and cafeteria offerings as “middle of the road”.

For catering equipment providers with established legacies or links with such household names in the mass retail sector, the next few years could be extremely interesting indeed.

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