Caffe Nero is bidding to change the perception of coffee shop food with the biggest menu revamp in its history. FEJ hears how a renewed focus on innovation and the latest high-speed cooking equipment has given it the impetus to create a food offer that can rival its reputation for coffee.
Caffe Nero has no problem admitting it had to do a fair bit of soul-searching before embarking on a mission to completely overhaul its food offer and provide customers with something more compelling than they had perhaps come to expect.
“The reality was that we served premium coffee regularly considered to be the best — we source independently and roast in our own roastery before handmaking each drink in store. But our food was not at the same level,” concedes UK head of food, Hannah McKay.
“It didn’t do anything that you couldn’t find anywhere else. It wasn’t a reason for people to come to us. We would regularly see people carrying food in from other brands into our store and wanting just to buy a cup of coffee off us. They didn’t want to come and have breakfast or have lunch with us, so it needed to be addressed.”
Caffe Nero has become a high street institution, with almost 700 stores launched in the UK since Gerry Ford founded the business 22 years ago.
The food-to-go sector has changed immeasurably in that time and it became apparent to the chain that customers regarded coffee shop food as limited and uninspiring, desiring healthier and more relevant food options instead.
McKay and her team carried out analysis of customers, got together with key suppliers to discuss innovation and went out on ‘food safaris’ to examine market trends. They then came up with a set of principles demonstrating what they needed to develop against.
“We wanted to excite the senses; we wanted to create a display with great smells and theatre,” she explained at the recent Lunch! trade show.
“Think about when you are walking down some London high streets and you see these abundant, wonderful displays — they just say ‘come in and try the food’. We wanted to have abundance at the fixture because having one or two things there doesn’t really look enticing to want to eat it.
“We wanted to deliver on customisation because customers now want to be able to have their food their way, and create something that is unique to them. We needed to deliver on freshness — customers were telling us that coffee shop food wasn’t fresh enough. How were we going to look at unwrapping things? How could we inject colour into the range? And how could we, maybe, even bake in store? We also needed to think about our ingredients stories — what is the quality and provenance linking to the brand to really deliver that brand vision that Gerry set out for.”
Caffe Nero CEO Will Stratton-Morris describes the challenge as getting away from the “sea of beige” associated with coffee shop display cabinets.
“It is really about reinforcing that premium differentiation but also, without being too egotistical, transforming the market because we think there is a big opportunity.
“You can go into our stores and have a really great salad and a tartlet and a drink for £8 compared to going into a restaurant and paying £15. It is quite an attractive offer in an economy that is tighter, so it is pretty fundamental to the future of what we do.”
We would regularly see people carrying food in from other brands into our store and wanting just to buy a cup of coffee off us”
All of this behind-the-scenes work led to the company coming up with the idea of the Nero Deli, a concept designed to deliver products on trend while being accessible and premium — two qualities that have always been intrinsic to the brand ethos.
At the heart of Nero Deli are open sandwiches with Italian-sourced ingredients, breads from the south of Italy, salad bowls that rotate through the seasons to inject colour, sweet treats to complement its beverage offer and new categories of food.
“There was so much that needed to be considered for this to become a reality,” says McKay. “What would the customer reaction be? Were they actually ready for a coffee shop to look at doing something like this? Did we have all the right suppliers? What equipment were we going to need to be able to actually deliver this in store?
“It was a complete step away from what we were doing, so we needed to look at what the business case was to make it a success.”
The first step was to open a pilot store where it put in a range of food and tested a variety of equipment. Once it was happy with the working template, it rolled it into a further 20 trial stories around the country to assess potential operational challenges on a larger scale, test e-learning and training documents and ensure the equipment was up to the job.
“We needed to test new equipment — for example we had a new sweet display where we installed glass screens to then unwrap our products and create a more abundant feel. We also invested in ovens to enable us to unlock some NPD. We needed to train stores and see how they actually worked within a store.”
Specifying the right oven for the backbar was a vital part of the project, with the company selecting Panasonic’s Speed Convection Oven to support the new menu. It can cook, toast, grill and reheat a wide range of food, including savoury products such as its sausage rolls. Hundreds of units have now been rolled into stores and training has been delivered for staff.
As well as heavy duty equipment, the chain also needed to test crockery. “Up until recently we served a panini in a bowl which I really don’t think is a premium experience, so we needed to find the right crockery to enhance the food but also make sure that it fitted on a tray with a coffee cup. And we looked at lighting because lighting a display actually brings the whole thing alive.”
In August this year, the menu was then formally extended to the first 200 stores, giving a broad base of consumers their first chance to sample 14 new freshly-prepared product lines that can be served hot or cold, as well as a whole new collection of vegetarian and vegan dishes and a range of sweet items, including chunky banana loaf, crumble cakes and brownies.
We invested in ovens to enable us to unlock New Product Development”
Some of its most eye-catching additions include a line of colourful tartlets and a new range of ‘pizzettas’ — essentially mini pizzas featuring hand-stretched dough finished with either a classic Margarita or salamai and cherry bell pepper topping — while it has taken inspiration from closer to home to put a new twist on a British classic: “We have introduced savoury pastries with a bit of a ‘Britalian’ twist.
The UK consumer absolutely loves the sausage roll and it is now our number one-selling product, so we have created a pork and pancetta sausage roll. It is made with an all-butter pastry, which is handmade and takes over two days to make.”
Early signs suggest the move to a new cooking platform and the expansion of the food offer is going down a storm with customers. Savoury food sales are up 10% — and that was prior to the company launching a huge advertising campaign in London — while feedback has confirmed that visitors are finding the range more inspiring and relevant.
“Our customer spend is up and we feel that Deli Kitchen is driving differentiation for us on the high street and delivering the brand vision of a premium coffee house that serves handcrafted espresso-based beverages in a beautiful environment with deli-inspired food. However, this is just the start — there is more to come!” promises McKay.
Equipping a high throughput environment
Although best known for its commercial microwave technology, Panasonic entered the accelerated cooking arena two years ago and its SCV2 innovation has been well-received by food-to-go operators seeking an oven with excellent build quality that combines the benefits of convection, grilling and microwave.
The unit is fitted with a catalytic converter for extraction-free cooking and has two inverters, cooled by four fans. The oven can store up to 1,000 cooking programmes with images on a removable SD card, all of which is accessible via the easy-to-navigate touch control panel.
The oven operates at a temperature range of between 180°C and 280°C and measures 474mm (W) x 565mm (D) x 412mm (H) for operators that need a compact solution.