Asian Trader finds out why Gareth and Natalie Hooton won the Asian Trader Food-to-Go Retailer of the Year 2018 award.
Food-to-go is the category of the moment in the Convenience channel, but it’s as varied as the stores trying do it well.
Much depends on space available, and generally the more the better. But the winner of 2018’s Asian Trader Food-To-Go trophy proved it doesn’t have to be that way, and scooped the prize despite operating out of a sales area of just 600 square feet.
Gareth Hooton and his wife Natalie run a family business, Hootons Newsagent best-one, in Golborne, and the fact that they are on the busy north-south A573 road connecting Wigan and Warrington has influenced the set-up of their highly successful operation, although particular characteristics of the local area as well as passing trade have helped hone Gareth’s entrepreneurial approach to the market.
Asian Trader asked Gareth – being where he is at exactly the mid-point between two cities – whether he feels he belongs to Liverpool or Manchester. “I’d have to settle for Manchester,” he says, and his accent supports it, although he is supplied with his highest quality sausages by an excellent butcher in Merseyside.
They’ve been a best-one for three years, had a full refit two years back, and get two deliveries a week from Batleys in Whiston, including fresh and chilled. “They’re good, you know,” says Gareth. “Bestway are a good set of guys, they’re always there when you need them. It’s a very busy cash-and-carry that we use, the deliveries are reliable, and everything is going our way. We’ve just been grey-fascia-ed, which is the new colours. After winning your award they said it was a thank-you for entering, and they were going to put up the grey fascia now, which was very nice.”
Gareth and Natalie have to make sure the store operates like a tightly-run ship, not only because, just like aboard a boat, space is limited and everything must be stowed in its proper place; but also because it is so busy from early on and then almost all day long.
When our judge visited the location he was stunned at how packed it was and found himself “absolutely mobbed for my entire time in the store!”
“The main feature is the one metre sandwich bar, with a kitchen preparation area behind,” says Gareth, describing the well-designed space. “Food is freshly-prepared there with examples in the display chiller and POS and a blackboard showing the menu for the day. The kitchen area is open, so customers can clearly see that the food is freshly prepared. Our secondary-siting chiller” – what he calls his grab ’n’ go chiller – “is then used for pre-packed sandwiches merchandised according to category: sandwiches, wraps, salad pots, pasta salads and so on. All with our own-prepared labels.”
The pre- food-to-go business has been there for a long time – his dad owned the shop and the house next door for 38 years and it was where Gareth grew up. The fact that he has deep roots in Golborne perhaps explains his instinctive feel for the customers and his care in setting up the shop – or trimming his sails – so that it handles so responsively.
Gareth’s mum used to have a small sandwich prep counter in the family home next door, and Gareth cites this as the origin of his idea for the food-to-go area now in the shop. “We thought we needed to get the business out of our home and put it somewhere else,” he says, “and we came up with the idea of putting it in the shop because it was tailor-made for the space.”
“It’s only a small area but there’s four girls working in it at any one time,” says Gareth. Including the Hootons, there are now 12 members of staff, mostly part-timers and most of whom are trained to work in the food-to-go kitchen.
Now, though, he jokes that “the size of it now has got bigger than the space.” The sandwich bar arrived in 2014 but the expansion came along in 2017. In the year following that, food-to-go sales rose from £1500 to £3,000 per week with around 140 cups of Costa coffee a week on top.
“Our shop sales now average £23,000 a week – so food-to-go accounts for over 13 per cent of our weekly revenue,” says Gareth, whose overall margin is as high as 26 per cent thanks to the food-to-go.
The way he has decided to approach that side of the business has been professional and entrepreneurial. The bill of fare dwarfs what you could expect from an establishment of this size. “We added our grab ’n’ go chiller last year to give customers who were in a hurry the opportunity to grab a sandwich or light snack without having to wait for the food to be prepared. This complements our full hot and cold serve-over offering,” says Gareth, noting that, “The secondary-siting chiller added 55% to our food-to-go sales.”
In all it’s quite an offering: “Our Boston’s branded donut display is right next to the chiller and then we’ve got meal solutions for breakfast and lunch running throughout the rest of the day – from toasties, jackets or burgers to our mega breakfast at £6.50 or Hunter’s chicken or BBQ pork ribs.”
The store opens early at 5.30 AM when the shutters go up and “the girls” arrive to start putting out fresh sandwiches at 6 AM. First, though, there are customers who look in for a bite on their way home after finishing night-shifts at local factories.
“There’s cars waiting for the shop to open and there should be sandwiches from the end of the last shift left over for people to grab-and-go. Possibly not many, just a small selection because generally they are sold out from the day before,” says Gareth.
Selling out has become normal for Hooton’s best-one store.
“Since introducing food-to-go four years ago it’s gone from strength to strength,” he says, “despite competition from a café, a fish-and-chip shop, sandwich bar and McDonalds all within a half-mile radius.”
Part of the explanation is his decision to print up 1000 colourful advertising leaflets every week: “They were eye-catching,” he says, “and we distributed all the flyers to the local businesses, put the prices and times on, and it was really effective” – as a full menu containing over 100 options from your local Convenience store would be.
“We buy the best ingredients and don’t scrimp on quality,” is the Hooton motto, along with providing real service instead of sitting still and waiting. Evidence of this fired-up approach is the way that Gareth runs his catering service for local businesses, providing sandwiches for lunches at just £3 a head or a full platter (including savouries, crisps and cakes) for £6. The service side of this particular enterprise includes blisteringly fast delivery added on.
“Our response time is pretty quick – customers have been known to call just half an hour before they require the platter and we’ve delivered!” he says proudly.
The shop also has a metre of chiller for a cake display which has changed a lot since 2017: “Customers had been buying their fresh cakes on a daily basis but then the local bakery that was supplying us closed down.”
Casting an eye over the available space in the shop (with just four square metres for food prep) but also imagining the extra margin to be had, the Hootons decided to bake their own cakes and create their own desserts.
“The customers love it!” Gareth now says. “We advertise on Facebook and have lots of likes and end up making batches of cakes and desserts every day. We make everything from chocolate brownies and flapjacks to cheesecakes – at the moment we’re selling 30 cheesecakes every day.”
It hadn’t been Gareth’s original plan to continue, never mind expand, the family business. At 20 years of age he moved out and started his own family with Natalie, bought a house, settled down, and got a good job. “I became a gas service engineer,” he says, “and then when I was 29 my father wanted to retire due to his health. He was in a bad accident with his car – in fact he was on the way to the cash and carry – and he really damaged his spine.”
His dad needed help with the shop and Gareth stepped in to take over – but giving up his independent existence was not difficult.
“I wanted to finish my job because of the roads,” he recalls. “It was terrible being out all day on the roads.” Constantly being on the hop from one job to the next and trying to keep up felt like running a never-ending marathon and though it looked like freedom he felt trapped. Back in the shop Gareth now has all the freedom he wants – to innovate and experiment and make his own money.
“The hours can be tough,” he says, “but I’ve got a good set of girls who come in and they’re fantastic and they keep it going when I’m not there. For example, last year I had glandular fever and that took it out of me,” but the girls kept the show on the road.
The 5.30 AM start sounds punishing but it’s part of what makes the store a local hero: it is open for more than 100 hours a week. And after the early deliveries and night-shift workers it’s locals in search of milk , papers and smokes, and then the rush-hour crowd looking for breakfast on-the-go.
“The breakfast solutions, burgers and pies, are popular choices with the large percentage of workers that we have nearby. Then the soups, sandwiches and salads prove a hit with the local mums and office workers,” says Gareth.
Many hungry builders contribute to the Hootons’ prosperity: “We have got a lot of commercial businesses in our area, with big workforces, like Murphy’s, a massive civil engineering and construction company – I’ll bet they employ about 2,000 people on site there.”
Murphy’s even tried to go into competition with the Hootons, reveals Gareth. “They were trying to take us on, to create their own canteen inside their own place, but people were still coming to our place,” he says. “I asked the workers why and they said our food was lower price and higher quality. You see, we buy the best stuff off the butchers and we don’t scrimp and save.”
Here Gareth illustrates the paradox of success in food-to-go: to make more money you should not spend less but increase your spend in the interest of raising the quality of your offering above every competitor. If you cut corners you lose. Where freshly prepared food is concerned nothing beats the best ingredients: people will pay more for taste and that constitutes your wide, food-to-go margin.
Meanwhile, following the early birds the store is inundated and it’s all hands to the pumps. “It’s constant, all the time,” says Gareth. “We are very busy in the mornings. Then at eight o’clock the schoolkids, until half-past eight. At nine o’clock we start getting the big orders from the local businesses start coming in for the sandwich bar. So between nine and half-ten the girls are fulfilling the orders. But at nine o’clock it kicks in proper. It’s full steam ahead then until about one, and then it’s clean up time and you can fill up the fridge again and see what’s left in the chiller and then at two o’clock the girls are finished.”
Yet that is only a brief afternoon lull to replenish the chillers and shelves before the schools are let out and the kids flock around looking for sweets and ice creams: “We let them in two at a time,” Gareth laughs. Then their parents all arrive for an encore on the way home from work.
Th evening meal, as everyone knows, is the hardest part of food-to-go to crack. “Bestway provide us with meal deals, like a quiche, chips and ice cream for a fiver or something, which is very reasonably priced,” says Gareth. “But I don’t think my customers are really buying the deals. Nobody’s actually doing a meal deal at night. Down the road you could possibly do it, I don’t know, it’s just different shops in different areas.”
Perhaps it is still having to cook the stuff from cold when you get home that lessens the “instant” appeal of such offers.
Perhaps truly successful supper food-to-go involves awaiting real take-away capability from Convenience-store sized bain-maries dispensing daily selection portions of steaming hot curry, lasagne and shepherd’s pie ladled into cardboard-topped foil containers and picked up along with the milk and chilled beer on the way home – to be devoured as soon as the weary worker gets in the front door.
Wine, too, for Gareth, is not earning its rent as far as shelf-space is concerned. “What we are tending to see is that when the wine is on promotion, the customers are grabbing them off the promotion bays and not looking at the other wine section,” he says.
“We’ve got wine in the chiller because people like their chilled rosé and white and obviously there’s a section for red and white, about two metres of wine ceiling to floor. I think I could introduce more food-to-go and make some money rather than having [the wine] sitting on the shelf.”
It sounds like a no-brainer if the Wigan-Warrington corridor is not a valley of wine-lovers and Gareth wants to expand his successful food-to go operation.
Although he has a Costa Express machine in the store already, Gareth’s idea is to go more glam and upmarket and install not only a hot grab ’n’ go section but next to it an iced-coffee Frappuccino machine: “I think they’re getting big, the iced coffees. And the coffee thing’s not over by any means. It’s just the beginning isn’t it?”
With the public – especially the young – buying less alcohol and more coffee and desserts for their treats, it looks like the right direction to go in.
“At the minute the question is where does it go in the shop,” Gareth ponders. “That’s all that’s stopping me from buying it. The wine section is possibly one of the places I could think of putting it. That’s my thoughts, possibly a 2020 project. I’m just weighing things up at the minute – watching the market, how people are shopping and spending.”
Gareth reveals that at least five hundred new homes are going up around the shop (hence the influx of builders demanding full breakfasts), so that when they finally leave their custom will be replaced by hungry new families.
Needless to say, Gareth is planning on buying some land at to the side of his premises to expand into and accommodate his food-to-go strategy.
“I see food-to-go as an important part of the future, to get people through the door,” he says. “And to keep them coming through the door I’m going to make my food-to-go bigger. It’s hard work, obviously, but it’s a good buzz. When I decided to put a little sandwich bar in my shop I never dreamed I would win awards for it! It’s crazy.”