Waitrose in the UK has announced the appointment of its first ever Director of Food Service, marking its commitment to instore dining and the growing food to go channel. Simon Burdess will join the partnership in September from InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) where he is currently Vice President for Restaurants and Bars.
The creation of this role coincides with Waitrose’s decision to divert money away from new stores into redeveloping its existing estate – the retailer has plans to refresh its entire portfolio over the next three years. Part of the new store concept is ‘The Kitchen’, an instore foodservice counter targeting lunch, breakfast and dinner for tonight, with meals prepared by Waitrose staff right in the heart of the store.Waitrose is part of the John Lewis Partnership and has annual gross sales of over GBP 6.5bn (EUR 8bn) according to LZ Retailytics.
Waitrose’s new Managing Director Rob Collins has spoken about how he wants the retailer to become ‘even more Waitrose’ – referring to the things Waitrose is already famous for: its long-term relationships with farmers and suppliers; championing British and local provenance; and producing high quality food. These are the things that its loyal base of shoppers keeping going back for, but importantly it is also a way to differentiate – and in the increasingly competitive UK grocery market standing out from the crowd has never been more important.
Under its Modern Waitrose strategy the retailer is currently striving to strengthen its quality credentials, increasing the depth and pace of development and innovation in existing stores, whilst slowing new store openings. Hospitality here is a key focus, with the expansion of instore cafes, grazing areas, wine and juice bars. Waitrose already has 48 sushi counters and four open kitchens serving hot breakfast, lunch and dinner. The latest appointment will help to prioritise and focus these efforts to drive footfall to its stores, with a level of restaurant expertise above what would usually be expected from a supermarket.
Many UK grocery retailers have eyed the food service sector, with its much faster growth rates and its increasing crossover with grocery shopping, but few are giving it this level of commitment in their plans. Creating a Director of Food Service is just part of the strategy; a much bigger deal is the diversion of capex out of the space race and into step changing the store estate through a three-year refreshment programme. It’s a brave move when so many retailers rely heavily on new stores for growth. Waitrose will open just eight stores this year, only two of which will be supermarkets (the remainder will be ‘Little Waitrose’ convenience stores).
The aspiration is big for a relatively small player, but it operates in a market where customer loyalty and differentiation efforts will set it apart. Waitrose aims to not only make the shopping experience convenient and enjoyable, but also to inspire customers about food. Creating meals right in front of customers eyes through the ‘The Kitchen’ and instore grazing concepts is a great way to do this.
While its instore ‘supper clubs’ – launched in just one store so far – may be too niche for all its locations; its open kitchens, sushi bars and food counters feel like concepts that could be rolled out widely across Waitrose’s store estate. Injecting this level of quality into its stores is a gamble for Waitrose, but it is a focused effort that will surely set it apart in a market that is otherwise characterised by price pressures and discounting.
With contribution from Senior Retail Analyst Lisa Byfield-Green.