Roadside caterers face an uphill struggle to maintain sales over the next five years as eating-out trends change and their market share shrinks, experts have warned.
According to research group Mintel, the sector will suffer a 3.4% real-term drop in sales (stripped of inflation), from £530m in 2006 to £512m in 2011.
Mintel's report states: "Trends in eating out have increasingly shifted away from larger full meals towards snacks and other foods-to-go, which have lower transaction values."
Increased competition from retail and forecourt outlets on the roadside will see a dip in market share from 1.8% to 1.7% over the same period, the study concludes.
But some in the industry have disputed the findings. Welcome Break chief executive Rod McKie said: "It's rubbish. Like-for-like food sales over the past 14 weeks at Welcome Break are 6% up, and we're coming to the end of this year with a substantial increase in profit and real-term growth."
Moto chief executive Tim Moss was in broader agreement with the findings. He said: "We expect our food sales to grow, although not necessarily out of the traditional catering environment. As the report highlights, more and more sales are taking place in retail outlets such as forecourt shops and convenience stores."
The report also criticises roadside operators for a lack of healthy brand offerings and sluggish sales growth over the past five years, which was only 12.5%, compared with a 26% rise in the overall eating-out market.
"Consumers are used to well-priced quality healthy food options on the High Street, which at present are a glaring omission from the product offer," says the report.
McKie refuted this claim. "There's no need to bring High Street operators on board when we are producing our own healthy, home-baked products and fresh-baked sandwiches," he said.
In November the Highways Agency will launch a 12-week public consultation on proposed changes to roadside laws that currently ban advertising on motorways and limit retail space at service areas.