March of the disruptors

Street food, travel hubs and workplace catering—they are all changing the face of out-of-home eating. And as the CGA Peach 2020 Conference’s ‘Life Off the Grid’ session heard, they are trends that established operators ignore at their peril

Disruptor 1—Street food
If anyone still doubted the impact of the street food market, London Union co-founder Jonathan Downey had the figures to show its dramatic scale. The group’s markets pulled in more than £3.5m in revenue from some 300,000 visitors in the five months to September, and its targets for 2020—a huge flagship market in central London, 12 local markets, 200 trade pitches, 100 bars and 4 million visitors—indicated that this sector has a long way to run yet. As Downey modestly pointed out: “It’s not just a few gazebos in a car park any more.”

Street food appeals to that elusive target group of millennials in particular. Downey said 70% of his markets’ visitors are aged under 35, and 60% of them female—and they all constantly seek new experiences. “They are so much more adventurous than previous generations—much more experimental,” he said. ”They want to try different things every week… there’s a constant need for renewal.” It means street food markets must frequently add new traders and new elements, especially around the theatre of the experience. “We’re not just good at food and drink but also vibes… the atmosphere is a very important part of our events and we spend a lot of time and money on production and lighting.

There is still plenty of overlap between street food and bricks-and-mortar restaurants, Downey added. “There are some amazing chain restaurants in London and a lot of our customers eat at them on a regular basis.” But the relentless rise of open-air market eating is something that is going to keep established multi-site operators on their toes for years to come.

Disruptor 2—Travel hubs
Millennials and their changing demands are also shaking things up in the travel space. Major stations like King’s Cross and Birmingham New Street have transformed their eating and drinking offers lately, and Transport for London’s retail category manager Siobhan Jared told the Conference that the capital’s Underground network was undergoing a similar revamp. Many new operators have sprung up to cater for commuters at busier stations on the Tube lines, and more will follow next year, with the emphasis firmly on new, edgy and independent concepts rather than mature brands. 

Jared called the new ‘Generation C’ of consumers ‘Youthquakers’—young people who demand convenient, quick access to ever-changing food and drink offers. “People want to be able to pick things up wherever they are in London now,” she said. In response, TfL is moving from a passive management of retail operations to something much more strategic, running workshops to discover what millennials want and, as at London Union markets, using short leases to constantly refresh the offer. “It means we can appeal to lots of different people at lots of different times.” If commuters are picking up their food and drink as they leave the Underground, TfL’s plans will bring big challenges for London’s on-the-go space in particular.

Disruptor 3—Workplace catering
As well as eating on the move, the generation of young professionals increasingly wants great catering at work. “People’s definition of what is good is being driven by the millennials now,” said Allister Richards, managing director of contract caterer Gather & Gather, adding that their interest in food goes well beyond what is on the plate. “Customers want an experience—it’s about so much more than the food. We’re bringing a bit of personality to the business of eating and dinking at work.”

Millennials won’t settle for mediocrity, he stressed. “Expectations are incredibly high now—they are quick to tire and quick to bore.” Contract catering often flies beneath the radar, but companies like Gather & Gather are becoming a bigger and bigger challenge for high street brands, and are picking up quickly on trends in casual dining to inform their offers. Whatever the concept, operators need to show they have a genuine passion for what they do, Richards said. “You need authenticity and intent… If you’re going to be into craft coffee for example you need to be into it in a really big way to stand out,” he said. “It’s about being absolutely focused on what the consumer is all about.”