Basic food-to-go ranges such as sandwiches have long been a feature of UK convenience retailing, but it’s clear that in the wider world, food to go has evolved into so much more.

Retailers, seeking to optimise this fast-growing opportunity, need to look now beyond the conventional, to build an offer of food to go that gives greater choice and differentiation, and that provides a destination focus for this increasingly critical customer mission.

But where to look for inspiration?

Well, London’s food-to-go market is perhaps the best developed of any world city, with an ever-evolving scale and scope. With an apparently insatiable appetite for lunch, breakfast, coffee and snacks on the move, the capital is serviced by a huge array of retail and foodservice operators, both multiple and independent.

Central London offers a showcase of the leading, emerging and embryonic formats targeting the opportunity, as well as the key food trends shaping the capital’s on-the-go eating habits. Even just from a quick survey, we’ve identified 33 of these established and emerging London-centric chains, operating over 700 stores in and around central London (and that’s excluding the already ubiquitous national coffee chains: Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero).

At the head of the list is, of course, Pret a Manger. Above all others it is synonymous with food-to-go in London, and is the benchmark for anyone targeting the sector. Established in 1986, an ‘early entrant’, and with some 200 stores across the capital, it still remains London-centric, adding 15 new London locations in 2014-15 alone.

Pret’s success is built on outstanding brand values (focused around fresh, health, quality and innovation, plus upbeat customer engagement) and an efficient operating model well known for its speed of service. Any retailer would be well advised to stop and consider how Pret has achieved 10% like-for-like growth in the last year.

EAT is another ubiquitous presence in central London, with around 90 stores, but there is also a remarkable long tail of smaller chains bringing an ever wider variety of alternatives to the on-the-go market. United by the common watchwords of health and freshness, operators such as Itsu, Wasabi, Pod, Leon, Tossed, Vital Ingredient, Poncho 8 and Benito’s Hat provide menu influences from Asia, the Middle East and Mexico, to meet the increasingly varied global tastes of London workers.

Of course, there’s always something new to find amongst the emerging players jostling to bring some other aspect of differentiation to a crowded market. Check out Suchef, with its focus on sous-vide cooking, or Arancini Brothers with its signature risotto balls – and don’t neglect the vibrant street food scene as the likely source of the next big food inspiration!

Of course, not every concept may be scalable or would work outside London, but with so many ideas packed into such a small space, it’s an encyclopaedia of possibilities that retailers shouldn’t ignore.