With almost 0% waste and shoppers using the store to host birthday parties, Spar Little Island’s approach to staff accountability and variety is a stunning example of how to run a great food-to-go operation. Chris Dillon reports

For Shane Cantillon’s Spar Little Island in Cork, offering variety is the key to becoming known for fresh food to go. 

The shop’s outside walls are lined with franchises, such as Insomnia Coffee, Subway, Freshly Chopped salads, Supermac’s burgers and desserts and Spar Deli. 

“We could have a family shop with us with every person having different needs, so variety is the most important thing to offer,” he explains. 

Shane’s reason for investing so heavily in food to go is similar to most retailers’. With discounters and big retailers on his doorstep, doing packaged grocery so well and squeezing prices, his business had to do something else. “We focused on quality food, relaxing seating areas and clean toilets to make ourselves a destination,” he says.  

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Juggling such a broad range of offers demands the highest standards from staff. Each franchise receives a mystery shop at least once a month, with the whole store receiving 10 per year. Each area of the shop has team members that are designated experts, but all staff are cross-trained on each offer when it gets busy. Staff are incentivised with vouchers and company socials. “It’s not uncommon to hear members of the team say, ‘We run the best store in Ireland and we don’t carry underperformers,’” he says. 

It’s a strategy that is working, with the store running so efficiently that waste sits at a tiny 0.3%. “We’ve got our order numbers down to a T. The only thing that really affects waste is when it rains, but we’ve trained our staff to respond quickly and produce more comfort food and soups,” he says. 

The store is also challenged by the transient nature of its customers. Although 80% of his shoppers are regulars, one fifth are transient, which makes it even more challenging, and even more important to get volumes right.

“Every line, whether it’s food to go or packaged grocery, is closely monitored using our data. We need every item that we stock to earn its place on shelf, so we make very ruthless decisions with our ranging,” he explains.

Its broad offer also needs to be simple for customers. Shane wants shoppers to be able to get in and out in five minutes over lunch, so up to 30 staff are on shift during this busy period to keep the operation flowing. Shoppers can pay in a variety of ways, such as using an app or having an account with the business, and Freshly Chopped and Spar Deli can be paid for through the main tills to avoid customers having to stop in several places.

But even a thriving store needs investment. It is currently undergoing a €500,000 (£430,000) transformation. Customer feedback revealed that ice cream, Asian food and pizza to go were high on the agenda, so these will be introduced. “We’re really going after the evening trade. During the day, our counters are served by staff, but in the evening, we turn them into self-serve,” he says.

A full production kitchen will be brought out onto the shop floor, visible to customers, in a bid to promote transparency and add theatre. “We’ll always be called Little Island Spar, but we think of ourselves as a production restaurant with a convenience store on the side,” Shane says. 

Customers will also benefit from digital shelf-edge labels and a larger seating area with Wi-Fi and USB charging ports. “We’re going to be able to section different parts of the seating area off. We’ve even started hosting birthday parties here in the store, so we are anticipating events to become bigger for us,” he says. 

But a major part of the refit is the area of the store that customers won’t see. This investment is designed to reward and retain staff as well as drive sales. Team members will have access to changing rooms, a big demand from the store’s 80% of staff that are women. “I believe accountability and procedures are important when it comes to staff. If I spot something wrong, I go through the store manager rather than straight to the particular employee, as I want my staff to feel like they only have one boss. It stops managers feeling like they are overruled, too,” he says. 

“We make sure we do things properly here and lead by example.”

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