Stepping into Paul Gardner’s Budgens of Islington is to be confronted with a vision of the future of convenience retailing. But as he tells Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski, his customer’s ain’t seen nothing yet

Most retailers are understandably exhausted after they oversee a major refit of their stores. Paul Gardner of Budgen’s of Islington is instead desperate to continue his business’s transformation: 

“We did this major refit over the summer and then I went to Dublin and Northern Ireland where they do the most amazing food to go and now I have a ridiculous number of ideas,” he says. 

Enter his business at any lunchtime and there are already a “ridiculous number of ideas” on show, however. Concerned with the amount of “dead space” in the heart of his store, Paul went about creating a food hall-style area including a freshly-made sushi counter, a Max’s Kitchen-branded Italian food offer and a butchery concession. 

“Sushi is just something completely different from what we were doing before. The Italian range was something that we had already started to create in the old food to go area we had. We just added a bit more in terms of range and created the Max’s Kitchen name – but it’s the same chef and he started by just bringing in meals into the store,” Paul says. 

The model the store uses emphasises this food hall atmosphere. “They’re all independent concessions. The sushi guys are in two other stores. Max’s Kitchen is independent and exclusive to us, we have a fresh juice guy – who turns his area into a Belgian chocolate selection during lunch times. The idea really is to get people in who know what they’re doing and are passionate about it,” he says 

Inviting businesses to operate in his store means Paul has managed to reduce the risks of his bold new venture: “They all provide us with a 20% margin but, of course, we don’t have any bills, wastage or staff costs.” And where the partnerships provide opportunities, Paul is ready to grasp them. 

“We’re still selling plenty of our own sandwiches, despite the fact Max’s Kitchen makes them to order. What I want Max to concentrate on now is on creating sandwiches for our chiller in his quieter periods of the day, replacing the Urban Eat range that we stock at the moment. 

“We’ll still do the same meal deal but he’ll then sell it to us a bit cheaper than we get from Budgens and then he’s a winner and so are we.” 

Another partnership which has blossomed is between the store and its butchery concession. As the weekend approaches, prepared, ready-to-roast cuts of meat are put on an offer with a bottle of wine and have been quickly selling out. 

Now, with his mind full of ideas from his Ireland trip, Paul wants to go further. 

“We’re looking at taking away our special offers chiller at the end of one aisle, moving our Cook freezer down by about 30cm and then we’ll have space for a proper hot food counter using our butcher’s meat, hot baguettes from a carvery on Sunday, sausage rolls and other things he makes,” he says. 

With all this innovation in food to go, has Paul moved away from running a convenience store? He’s adamant he hasn’t. 

“Overall our basket spend has increased and it’s largely been through things like our spirits range and our Cook freezer. Until recently Cook had its own shop on the street but now people are coming in and filling up a trolley with their products,” he says.

Even the design of the new food hall-style entrance – and its tiled flooring – is designed to convert hungry lunchtime customers into full-basket shoppers.  

“The idea is that you get drawn through the store – the flooring subconsciously draws people into the store,” he says.

With so much thought already displayed in this state-of-the-art business, where Paul takes his business next will be of interest to any ambitious convenience store owner. 

Find my store: