Ask people what SSP is and they may hazard a guess at Statutory Sick Pay or maybe the Scottish Socialist Party. Those are two of search engine Google’s top answers anyway.
In fact, SSP is a huge foodservice company, operating 2,000 retail outlets in locations such as airports and railways in 30 countries. The UK part of the business accounts for 36% of overall sales and has 422 outlets, with brands including Millie’s Cookies and Caffè Ritazza.
SSP UK has been rather low-profile to date. Now, the firm, which calls itself "the food travel experts" is ready to put itself onto the radar, and talk about life after its 2006 demerger from parent Compass.
Formerly Compass’s Select Service Partner division, SSP was sold to EQT, a Swedish private equity group in 2006. Compass wanted to focus on its core contract catering business, following several profit warnings. The demerger and the global recession which followed were both factors leading to a complete overhaul of the SSP estate.
Concept brands were abandoned, and underperforming outlets closed. SSP UK discontinued pilot brands, such as the artisan bread concept Panopolis, which was "ahead of its time". Bagel format Ixxy’s was discontinued, described as "too restrictive just to offer bagels, other brands had more legs", and Pie Kitchen closed as its pies were not suitable to be eaten on the move, according to UK brand director Steve MacDavid. It was a process of "ensuring we had the right brand in the right location", he says.
SSP then worked on improving its brands and product ranges. A major preoccupation is what MacDavid calls "travelisation" making sure products are suitable to be eaten while in transit by customers in a rush. They have to be solid and not too messy. For example, the brand Pie Kitchen could be said to fail the "travelisation" test, as its pies offered the double whammy of a drippy filling which had the potential to scald.
Drive for value
There has also been a drive to offer "value" as consumers become more price-conscious. MacDavid explains: "It is all about building a pricing architecture. You need something for people who don’t want to spend a lot, but at the same time, we are trying to put added value in our more premium products." Some 70% of consumers are aware of price, according to SSP research, he says, but only 33% want to buy the cheapest option.
Upper Crust, for example, introduced a budget range, but also sandwiches that offered big fillings such as a chicken club with two proteins. "We want customers to remember having an amazing experience," MacDavid says.
SSP has also updated the Upper Crust brand with activities and promotions. There was a big Mexican promotion last year with staff wearing sombreros, for example. MacDavid comments: "The last year has been about waking and reinvigorating, measuring and auditing the key brands against set standards."
At Caffè Ritazza, the focus was on improving its "coffee credentials" and on moving out of unsuitable locations. Six new coffees were introduced and staff trained as baristas. He says: "Ritazza is about the art of coffee. It is a key brand for us. It is one we need to expand, but we need to make sure we have the right brand in the right location. Sometimes a Ritazza does not fit the location."
Meanwhile, Millie’s, the cookies chain also had a major facelift. The brand is aimed at teenagers and young people and is all about fun, says MacDavid. It was given a new look and a Twitter account. Innovative new products, such as mince pie cookies at Christmas and chilli cookies at Halloween, have proved popular.
Millie’s is in fact the only brand that SSP operates outside the travel arena many of Millie’s outlets are based in shopping centres. There is not much of a ’pipeline’ for UK expansion of Millie’s, although the concept is being franchised out of the UK in Egypt and Malta.
The core focus for the future is on the travel units and getting products and brands right in that specialist and highly competitive marketplace, says MacDavid. A new brand, Bread Box, was launched in Manchester in November. The ’round pound’ format majors on tea and Best of British products, such as jam doughnuts, bacon rolls and mugs of Bovril. It has been successful so far and is just about to open its second outlet in London’s Victoria station. Meanwhile, the Panopolis brand has been revived (see pg 4).
And there are still some loose ends to be tidied up with Compass. A five-year agreement when SSP was sold allows Compass to operate the Caffè Ritazza and Upper Crust brands under licence in non-travel outlets. Compass runs Caffè Ritazza outlets in Asda stores and in universities, for example. SSP says it is possible that the agreement will be renewed only in specific channels when it expires.
But for now, as SSP approaches the five-year anniversary of its split from Compass, it is in good shape and "happy we have a good selection of brands that fit customers’ requirements", says MacDavid.
SSP brands* 2011
BrandNo of outlets
Millie’s Cookies 113
Caffè Ritazza 51
Camden Food Co10
The Pasty Shop19
Delice de France 20
Bread Box 1
*Brands managed/licensed by SSP at travel locations