One of the great mysteries in foodservice over the years has been just how uninspiring the cafes have been within the major supermarkets. Despite the fact they are supposedly experts in food they have always delivered a poor dining offer within their own stores.

Their long-standing argument seems to have been that everybody hates food shopping and so they have looked to do everything possible to get people in and out of the stores as quickly as possible. I’ve strongly disagreed with this and believe it was perpetuated purely for their own benefit (to push more people through their stores) and not for that of the customer. With this warped narrative, it would indeed have looked odd if they had introduced even a half decent foodservice offer inside their outlets.

Harris + Hoole: Bought and then sold by Tesco

Strange it was then that Tesco went against the perceived grain in 2012 when it bought Harris + Hoole, Giraffe and Euphorium Bakery. It introduced them into some of its larger stores but, sadly, the experiment was all over by 2016 when new chief executive Dave Lewis sought to address some of the failures of his predecessor Philip Clarke by offloading non-core elements. I’m not quite sure how these food businesses were deemed to be outside the core of a food retailer. Interestingly, what was regarded as core was a growing range of non-food products from electricals to clothing to homewares.

Not anymore. Fast forward to today and the major supermarkets now have so much space they don’t know what to do with it because a growing number of their customers now choose to shop online for food and particularly non-food items. The latter can now absolutely be deemed non-core within the group’s physical stores. Why buy a toaster in Tesco and have to lug it home when you can have it delivered?

The company now recognises you are more likely to want to buy toast in its stores – whether that be in the form of a panini or other warm specialist sandwiches. This is no doubt why Tesco has just announced its partnership with Pret A Manger – purveyor of some great sandwiches. The first shop-in-shop will open this month and another four will follow during the summer. Various formats will be on trial, including a fully seated replica of the regular high street Pret.

Tesco is certainly not alone in now looking to address the poor situation of eating within supermarkets. Sainsbury’s, this week, opened the first Caffé Carluccio’s, with 45 seats, which will be joined by a Carluccio’s Counter later this month and, in July, the Restaurant Hub – a multi-brand offer with grab-and-go and delivery options – will open in the Sainsbury’s Selly Oak store in Birmingham. Menus from Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Slim Chickens and Harry Ramsden’s will be available. 

Arriving in Sainsbury’s very soon: Caffe Carluccio

With much of the focus of these new formats on the takeaway side of things, the major supermarkets are still not putting enough effort into boosting their dine-in propositions. The exception seems to be Morrison’s, which has just spent £16m on its 400-plus cafes where a new healthier menu has been introduced and more food is being brought directly across from its Market Street counters. In my local superstore, they are currently introducing a variety of new counters including a Waffles & Shakes House. It’s certainly not haute cuisine but the company sensibly understands its cafes are an important part of the local community.

The shopping centres long ago recognised the value of a decent F&B offer in attracting customers and boosting their dwell time. I can see it is not quite the same environment in a supermarket but with space aplenty in many large stores and the fact that not all UK consumers dislike buying food, it is surely time for the major grocers to be brave and give it a go. Partner with great brands and prove that Tesco sticking its neck out to buy Giraffe all those years ago was not a mistake but was simply just ahead of its time. 

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.