Forecourt food has a reputation for being less than satisfactory. However, retailers are realising the value in a quality fresh produce offer, and are now providing customers far more than limp lettuce in dreary, lank sandwiches
It would appear that Alan Partridge was ahead of the trend in hanging out at his local petrol station, with forecourts in the midst of a long overdue renaissance. Partridge, the alter ego of comedian and actor Steve Coogan, frequents a typical service station filled with shelves of microwave burgers and confectionery during the first series of his 1990s I’m Alan Partridge TV show, but today forecourts are aiming to attract the customers of elegant farm shops.
There is plenty of opportunity too to pick up grocery sales, with research by consultancy group HIM showing that the number of visitors to forecourts buying only fuel fell from 52% in 2011 to 37% in 2014, while 13% did not even own a car.
The study, from HIM’s Forecourt Tracking Programme, also revealed that women were more likely to use forecourts to do ‘top-up’ shopping, and that the better availability of fresh produce was among the factors driving this trend.
A great example of sophisticated forecourt food retailing is Tebay Services, the so-called ‘Selfridges of service stations’. The business, part of the Westmorland Family group of service stations, is often featured in travel blogs with images captioned: “If only all service stations were like this”.
Fresh produce plays a large part in Tebay’s success. “Finding the right producers and working with them to give our customers the best produce and a taste of the surrounding landscape is fundamental to what we do,” says a spokesman.
“Unlike any other motorway service area, we don’t have franchises. It's important to us that our produce is local and seasonal and that food is home-cooked. That’s why we make as much of our food as possible in our kitchens every day. It means we can choose what goes into recipes (and what doesn’t) and that the end result reaches you quicker, fresher and tasting better.”
This month [April] will see the opening of Westmorland’s second site, Gloucester Services on the M5 Southbound, which the firm says will be dedicated to local food, farming and the surrounding community. In November last year it acquired Cairn Lodge Services on the M74, where it is also working on upgrading the food offer.
Tebay, meanwhile, has introduced a new range of juices from salad growers PDM, which has built a juicing facility on its Shropshire farm to produce the B-Fresh brand of drinks.
Tebay's food development manager and buyer, Dan Pearson, says although initially the company was approached to take a small taster selection, they decided to take the full range. The investment has paid off, as the brand is proving popular with customers.
Tebay is not the only independent business to spot the gap in the market for upgrading, and therefore selling more, forecourt food.
The family-run Simon Smith Group recently refurbished its store at Highworth Service Station near Swindon, under the SPAR fascia, and put fresh produce at the heart of the concept.
Simon Smith already operates a Budgens at New Quarry, Cirencester, and says that its mix of customers in the rural area “respond[s] well to Budgens’ high quality, and the variety of fresh produce.”
Co-director Susie Hawkins says as an independent they need to work hard to attract custom, and therefore it’s important to have a thriving shop that’s always stocked with fresh vegetables.
This is also the situation for the Manchetts fuel station in Burwell, Cambridgeshire, which boasts “quality fresh produce rarely found on a fuel forecourt”.
For years, service station food lacked quality or even care, given that its customer was a captive one with little choice if they were hungry than to take what was on offer. The term ‘dashboard dining’ was coined in the US to describe forecourt food customers, and often they were identified as being overwhelmingly male, manual workers, and time precious.
However, that customer profile is changing with Ireland’s largest forecourt business Topaz launching the first of its new concept stores, ReStores, in February with an eye to capturing foodie-driven customers, families and executives.
The executive customer is a lucrative one, and as a recent academic study shows, there are plenty of opportunities to engage them. Loughborough University’s Dr Donald Hislop and Dr Carolyn Axtell of Sheffield University revealed that service station car parks were more popular than trains or planes as places to work for on-the-go executives.
The researchers analysed almost 700 forms handed out on intercity trains in the East Midlands, an M1 motorway survey station in the Midlands and a regional airport in southern England. Almost two thirds, 66%, of respondents worked “quite a lot” or a “great deal” while sat in their cars at motorway service stations.
With the customer mix changing, it’s no wonder that supermarkets are targeting the sector, providing even more scope for the produce industry to increase orders.
Asda recently signed a deal to take on 15 standalone petrol stations from Rontec as part of the first phase of its plan to open 100 standalone petrol stations by the end of 2018.
An Asda spokesperson says at the moment it has not decided what the retail offer will be, beyond the basic range of groceries, but that fresh produce will play an important part in the offer.
The move also expands Asda’s Click and Collect service; opening it up to a wider customer base, and ensuring that consumers looking to purchase a ‘big shop’ are no longer restricted to physical stores or delivery catchment areas.
Asda’s president and CEO Andy Clarke claims the supermarket is redefining value retailing. “We have set out a clear ambition to lead online and expand further into London and the South East, opening 100 petrol stations and 1,000 Click and Collect sites by 2018 as part of five year strategy,” he explains.
“Our grocery home shopping is already growing at more than 20% year on year and click and collect will allow us to bring Asda value to even more customers with the acquisition of these 15 new petrol stations.”
With forecourt retailing undergoing a makeover, the chicest place to buy fresh produce this year could become a motorway service station.