Spicing up Ireland’s forecourts!

MJ Tierney, PR and marketing co-ordinator, Topaz

With consumers now expecting a higher level of quality food from Ireland’s forecourts than ever before, Gillian Hamill caught up with Topaz public relations and marketing co-ordinator, MJ Tierney to hear how the brand’s new authentic Mexican tacqueria offering, Cantina, is hitting the spot

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26 July 2016 | 0

“A journey from Oaxaco, Mexico to Irish shores” is how Topaz bills its new Mexican concept, Cantina. After sampling a selection of what is on offer, ShelfLife would agree that the bold new menu has fulfilled its mission to deliver an authentic flavour of Mexico.

Cantina is a firm draw for Topaz’s recently launched ‘City Avenue’ store located in Dublin’s Citywest Business Complex, a site in which an impressive €3 million has been invested. What’s more, Topaz recently invested a further €3 million in its Ballysimon store in Co. Limerick, with another half a million invested in staff training and development by the group in the past 18 months alone.

Positive response from Couche-Tard

It would certainly appear therefore that Topaz’s acquisition by Canadian retailer Couche-Tard – a deal which completed on 1 February of this year – is working out well for the group’s forecourt sites. While the business is “still in an integration phase”, according to Topaz PR and marketing co-ordinator MJ Tierney, so far Couche-Tard is impressed with the roll-out of Topaz’s Re.Store revamp for its forecourt convenience stores.

“They love what we’re doing with Re.Store, the growth numbers in food and coffee are strong in Re.Store, so they’ve said keep going ahead and continue to revamp the sites,” he says. “We’re potentially looking at the Esso estate now. We’ve done a Re.Store job on a couple of Esso sites that came in, so we’re waiting to see is that something they want to push ahead with. It’s the same with the roll-out of the Topaz brand with the Esso estate; they’ve pushed ahead with that so for the moment it’s business as usual and Cantina is something they’re really excited about.”

In fact, Tierney adds: “They potentially could see international plans for Cantina, they’ve got a lot of locations across the world in Scandinavia, Canada, parts of America and across to Asia so they’re looking at what markets the Cantina model could fit into, which is exciting given that we’re looking at just two units at this stage, that it could be a global brand.”

Circle K

Does the success of Re.Store mean that Couche-Tard’s reported plans to roll out its own Circle K c-store brand are off the table then? Not necessarily so, according to Tierney.

“These guys are global retailers and they know their business inside out so the first thing they’ve said to us is that Circle K will be coming to Ireland in some shape or form in the future,” he says. “They’re still working through a timeline of how that can work. They’ve taken a look at Re.Store and how the roll-out is going and they’ve said don’t stop what you’re doing there, it’s working.” In essence then, while Circle K’s arrival is expected at some point “down the line”, for the moment, “it’s business as usual,” according to Tierney.

Innovative start

Business as usual certainly doesn’t mean that there’s no room for unusual thinking however. Cantina benefitted from a clever idea to create extra space without incurring expensive extension or renovation costs at Topaz’s Newcastle forecourt, situated just outside NUI Galway. What was this unique idea? Cantina actually first opened in a shipping container placed on the site and specially fitted out for the new Mexican concept. While Tierney concedes that a shipping container wouldn’t suit every offering, it did in fact suit the Mexican ‘street food’ vibe perfectly. “The best Mexican food tends to be street food based out of a tacqueria so it worked and the beauty of that unit is it’s portable, we can move that wherever we like,” he says. The Newcastle site was also an ideal fit due to students’ fondness for Mexican cuisine and their propensity to try out something new.

MJ Tierney says customers have responded well to Cantina’s menu which is “a fusion of what a chef would say is the right way to go and what’s going to work in a forecourt”

The evolution of the forecourt sector and motorway service areas (MSAs) has made the arrival of a new concept such as Cantina a viable prospect according to Tierney. “With Re.Store, we’d see it as being a competitor with some of the really good high street café offers. Wind back ten years ago and people had a very limited expectation of what they could get in a forecourt whereas now you can have something like Mexican and it completely fits. People walk in and they’ll happily try it because they’re open to something new.” That said, Tierney adds that before introducing Cantina, Topaz spent “the guts of 12 to 18 months looking at different concepts – where were we going to put it, what concept would work, what’s a good trial basis – and NUIG just lent itself to that perfectly with our Mexican offer”.

No mass chain yet

While there are a number of rivals within the Mexican competitor set such as one-off outlets and brands with a few outlets including Boojum, Tolteca, Pablo Picante and Burritos & Blues, Tierney says the group is “lucky that there’s no mass chain out there yet. That’s where we see Cantina going,” he explains. “We see it being potentially like a Nando’s or McDonalds or a Supermacs, that it can be rolled out in a number of different service stations and have people who walk in and go ‘oh, that’s Cantina’ and they know what they’re going to get. That’s the benefit of Mexican, it’s something that the public are open to and want to try but it’s not mass-market yet, it’s not across every county. So if you go up to Dublin, you go to Galway, up to Cork, you’ll get a sample of it but in Mayo and Laois where I’m from, you won’t get it anywhere there.” With regards to the roll-out of Cantina in further MSA sites, Tierney says locations will be “based on trial, what’s the demographic, what’s the age profile, who’s passing the site; it will all be very thought out.”

In terms of pricing, Tierney says: “Obviously we based it on a cost and labour model that meant we need to make money on it but it’s a sensitive area, in that if you look at the market that’s out there, they’re all sitting at a similar price point. So we would have based it off market price, but also taking into account the fact that we’ve upped our produce quality, we’ve taken the lead on what grade of chicken is used, what amount’s in it, the same with the beef and each offering. It’s been carefully [looked at] and our food development team have worked very closely on that to make sure it sits at a very comfortable price for the end consumer, but it sits at a price that works for us as well with the market and what’s out there.”

Currently, Tierney says Topaz has “plans for another four or five” Cantina outlets in 2016/2017 and is looking at Dublin locations as well as highstreet locations outside of a forecourt, and possible dealer sites that might be interested in a franchise model.

Cantina’s staff have all been well trained in how to prepare and present Mexican classics such as burritos and tacos

Importance of customer feedback

Discussing how the Cantina range of options was decided on, Tierney notes: “We have a very strong internal food development team, Angelica works in food development and for the first six weeks she’s on the site here now with the guys, making sure that they understand the process in terms of how we’re making burritos and tacos, how we present them, any tweaks to the menu that customers are feeding back.

“Feedback from customers is hugely important with this because your target audience is a new demographic that’s trialling Mexican food,” he adds. Topaz has extended the Cantina menu to have more meat and vegetarian options than other outlets, with different spices and blends such as lemon and coriander, to appeal to all palates. Tierney says the team are also looking into making its nachos a sought-after hero product, so “people will go, God, have you tried Cantina’s nachos yet?”

Menu development

Discussing the development of the menu in greater detail, Tierney says: “We’ve worked with a number of different chefs to get it to this level. We worked with two chefs specifically but most recently we worked on the development of the second menu, whereby we tweaked the first menu for the launch here based on feedback; based on taste types, based on the success of some lines, and that’s landed with the current menu here which is flying; this site is testament to what the brand can be. It’s trading really well.” Chef Nick Fitzgerald played an important role in this process, as did Derek and Angelica within Topaz’s internal food development team. The end result is what Tierney describes as “a fusion of what a chef would say is the right way to go and what’s going to work in a forecourt, with the result that we are very confident of its success”. He prudently adds: “You can’t go too far, you can’t negate your main audience by having it too far towards a restaurant type offer, so that’s what we’ve done.”

A stylish proposition

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Cantina’s design features a custom-designed ‘Day of the Dead’ style mural by Mexican street artist, Neuzz

When it comes to a trendy new concept such as Cantina, taste will make customers return, but a stylish design is often needed to draw them in in the first instance. “We’ve got a design team in-house,” explains Tierney.  Our head of creative Ciara Mulvaney, myself and our marketing and our retail teams would have sat down and looked at everything very closely. Everything right down to the tile you see at the front and how that meets the tile the in-store and the finish of the wood” which is actually replicated in the site’s table tops. The artwork is by a Mexican street artist called Miguel Mejía aka Neuzz who can be likened to Mexico’s answer to Banksy. Topaz flew him into Ireland and “got him to interpret Cantina as to what he’d see it being, which led us to a ‘Day of the Dead’ style mural”. Neuzz painted this onto the back of the original container in Galway, and from this, the team created illustrator artwork files which it will be able to apply to new Cantina sites as they’re rolled out.

Tierney’s genuine enthusiasm for this type of creative team project is obvious. “It’s absolutely brilliant and it’s a group effort but in fairness our head of creative Ciara is really strong and has worked across a lot of companies on a number of brands and would have a lot of experience in that.” Completing this type of work in-house has a number of advantages moreover, according to Tierney who says when making decisions:  “You don’t have to wait for it to come back from an outside agency; it’s designed in-house so you can talk about it that morning and you’ve a decision made by the next day so it just streamlines the whole process which is good, it’s exciting to be involved in that process.” With such a clear level of enthusiasm and attention to detail, Cantina certainly looks set to add some spice to the forecourt food sector.

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