Not Just Any Trial

M&S opened its new food to go trial concept in Baker Street, London at the end of last year. Unlike Sainsbury’s recently failed Fresh Kitchen trial, ‘Food on the Move’ is a more closely focused venture, which successfully combines hot and cold food, and should be a great success… with a few tweaks.

M&S sandwichesConvenience stores and mini supermarkets have always irritated me enormously because they never seem to have what you want when you need it most. Having said that, round the corner from where I live in Fulham is a Costcutter.

It’s been there as long as I’ve lived in my street, run by the same family. After more than a decade it had started to look pretty tired and then, low and behold, it suddenly had an almost overnight refit and is now bright, light and spanking new.

Never closed, be it Christmas, Easter or any kind of Bank Holiday, Costcutter is always there to depend on. But, what I love about it most is that neither I, nor anyone I know has ever been able to catch them out in asking for something they don’t sell.

This comes in very handy when one is suddenly caught short by delving to the back of the cupboard at home, half way through an impromptu recipe to find one’s supply of Kolongi seeds or other such random ingredient is long since depleted.

The closest, I suppose I have come to this in not being disappointed on the shopping in a rush front, is in an M&S Simply Food. I’ve long since given up on all Metros and Locals for the aforementioned reason. Generally I can find what I want there if I suddenly decide to cook something reasonably straightforward at very short notice, and, if push comes to shove, there isn’t really a better shop in which to have to improvise.

What I’ve never understood, though, is why M&S have never cracked the nut of more synergy between the different categories of convenience and food to go.

M&S shop

I’d park the cooking aspect altogether and just provide the instant solution to breakfast, lunch and supper. And hey presto, along comes M&S Food on the Move in Baker Street.

Situated next to the station in an ex-Whistlestop is the tiny wee 600 sq foot store, which has two entrances. Operated by SSP who run M&S stores in travel locations, this is a store directly targeting commuters. Having heard about this one, I have to admit being highly sceptical that they could cram 600 sq ft with the right product mix. But, if one looks at it rationally, how hard can this really be to analyse sales in each category and pile those products high on the shelves? Throwing in hot as well as cold food, however, has to be the operational challenge.

On entering the store from the main entrance, I am flanked by the sandwich section on the left and the salads, sushi and ready meals to the right. So far so straightforward.

There don’t seem to be any sandwich surprises I can see: a few ‘New’ stickers on some existing revamped lines, but the only thing I’m really struck by is how small the cut wraps look and how lost they appear in not filling their boxes.

There is an interesting choice of colours used for the marketing of the different sandwich ranges: ‘seasonal’ is pale purple, and ‘fish, vegetarian and healthy’ is pale blue – I am half expecting to smell fragrant wild flowers; perhaps even lavender and be offered matching coloured boxes of tissues with nice designs on the outside.

The salad selection, however, for me really shines. An endless choice of Fuller Longer, Fibre Boosting, Side and Superfood ranges are all so enticing and jewel like with fresh and fascinating ingredients.

These salads are without question, (in my humble opinion), the best on the market, constantly changing and brimming with innovation. Next to them is a vast choice of sushi, all representing fantastic value and choice. Some are even two for £4.00 and a lovely looking Oriental Rice Snack Pack, the prices affordably ranging from £1.75 – £4.75.

Then next to the sushi come the ready meals: Oriental, Indian and Pasta, definitely something for everyone here. Turn around and there’s a bottle of wine to go with them, along with crisps or nuts and desert options; an effortless supper is at arm’s reach and that’s pretty convenient to be able to buy at the same time as your breakfast or lunch.

Along with your choice of newspaper and a coffee from a beautifully designed coffee machine, you have a nice choice of options depending on the time of day. There is Porridge with a range of toppings at £1.75, a Bacon Roll at £2.95 and an Egg & Bacon Muffin at £3.25.

M&S Baker Street storeThere are several hot lunch sandwiches ranging from a Steak Ciabatta at £4.50 to, amongst others, a Beef Burrito at £3.95. I’m ordering a Bacon Roll (simple but difficult to get right), an Egg & Bacon Muffin and a Croque Monsieur Club at £3.95.

I’m imagining operationally that this hot counter is all going to be quite a challenge, it already appears to be a bit of a struggle and it’s not even lunchtime yet. The areas around the oven and coffee machine are very cramped and are very full of various boxes of equipment, tools and JCloths and look like they could be far better organised. A tidy counter is after all an organised one.

All the hot sandwiches are reheated in a Merrychef oven which beeps a lot. Ordering three at once entails the lady serving me to identify them first in the accompanying fridge and this appears quite a challenge as some, after quite a search, appear to be missing and have to be requested from downstairs.

The Bacon Roll and Egg & Bacon Muffin are cooked first but everything is wrapped in the same large sheets of paper so there is no way of identifying different products should you buy more than one at the same time. However, would you be able to tell the difference between four bacon rolls with different sauces, for instance, should you be on an office run? The Merrychef continues to, very loudly and disconcertingly, beep endlessly. It’s not even peak time yet and I imagine when it is it will be in full voice.

The Bacon Roll is made with back bacon, looks a little anaemic and almost steamed, but is generous in the amount of rashers it contains; mine looks like it has jolly nearly three. I’m offered every sauce imaginable and that’s nice too.

Last week I flew to Warsaw with BA and they didn’t offer a single sauce with breakfast. That sort of lack of attention to detail really annoys the dedicated breakfast eater and I’m seriously thinking about never leaving home again without sachets of HP in my handbag or just resigning myself to using operators who offer it.

The Egg & Bacon Roll is made with crispy streaky bacon instead of back. I probably would use crispy streaky for both. The egg is a country mile from what I thought I was getting and turns out to be the easy option of reheated egg mayonnaise. I was imagining a lovely fluffy version of scrambled egg – there is no excuse for hot egg mayo in my opinion.

My Croque Monsieur involves re-heating three different slices of cheese and ham laden bread, surely far too labour intensive when the pressure is on. It is however very tasty I decide later when I try it, despite the fact that when I unwrap it I discover oil from the cheese is oozing literally everywhere all over the packaging. The combination of the béchamel and ham together almost morph me to an outside pavement table at a café in a street in Paris, but realistically I imagine the oil would have instantly put a lot of people off such a nice day dream.

So what do I think of all this? Well, the concept is without doubt an exciting one and will do very well I am sure, opening a much-needed new door to this quality driven food brand. The operation side, without doubt, needs considerably sharpening up and a lot of in-depth training is needed to polish it to the level of slickness expected.

Customer service is paramount and will underpin the success of this and indeed any operation. I would have liked a hello and a smile when I arrived and a cheery ‘have a nice day’ on the way out. Cheesy I know, but it all adds to that personal touch that makes a customer feel like they matter and will be happy to return.

Sainsbury’s Fresh Kitchen tried and failed at combining hot and cold options in Fleet Street but I somehow think that the over-enthusiastically enormous range was partly to blame for its demise. M&S have, without doubt, been far more prudent in choosing the smaller tighter range option. I somehow think this will be a great success.