Speed and convenience are king in the on-the-go food sector, EAT CEO Andrew Walker told the Lunch! show in London last week.

In conversation with CGA vice president Peter Martin, Walker said he had taken learnings from his time as managing director at Pret in the UK to tighten up EAT’s operations, especially during busy lunchtime trading. “At the moment we’re focusing on getting our core market operating at a higher level… We need to concentrate on making it faster,” he said. “It’s no secret that if you go into a Pret store it’s busier than an EAT store… Pret’s an operating machine that everyone admires, and I think we can make EAT fantastic like that too.”

EAT now has 110 stores—90 of them in London, 15 in the regions and a few at airports—and is now exploring new opportunities with TRG and other franchise partners to push into hospitals and universities, Walker said. The brand’s format can be adjusted to suit different markets, but the footprint of new openings is crucial, he suggested. “Customers flock to confident brands. When you put down a big store down people flock to it, but if you have a little corner site on a back street, customers can see that you aren’t so confident—and then they don’t feel confident about going there.”

Walker also discussed some of the barriers to growth, including rising food, property and staff costs. “There are more and more competitors out there, and we’re all fighting for the same sites and labour.”

The on-the-go space is facing challenges from delivery specialists too, but Walker was sceptical about its long-term potential. “Everyone’s gone delivery and click and collect mad, but it needs a bit more thinking—people are giving a lot of margin away,” he said “If you can get the service right, people still like to come into a store and choose from what’s in front of them… they like to get out of the office.”

EAT has been shaking up its management teams and is seeking to increase loyalty among shopfloor teams by offering better career paths, Walker said. Recruiting diverse teams is another aim. “It’s important to have ethnic diversity in teams… you need a multicultural blend or you find teams get into cliques—so we’re making sure that we’re recruiting across the board.”

Brexit may threaten operators’ ability to do that, though its full impacts are yet to be felt, he added. “Whether you think it’s a good thing or bad thing is neither here nor there—we’ve got to deal with it. Right now it’s a problem but not a major problem. But we’ll see how it pans out.”

     

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