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High street outlets offer dawn-to-dusk dining

Drop into your local coffee shop but order a beer; saunter down to the sandwich bar for an evening meal with wine at candlelit tables.

Either sound like a nifty idea - or an outlet's identity crisis depending on your point of view - but both have arrived, courtesy of Starbucks coffee group and Pret A Manger, the sandwich chain.

The boundaries between different types of outlets are becoming blurred in the face of a more demanding consumer and rising competition for a bigger slice of the UK's vibrant £33.5bn eating-out market.

Pret, the UK's biggest sandwich chain, demonstrated the need for established brands to cater to changing food and drink habits this week when it began serving dinners with wine and jazz at one of its central London branches.

Starbucks, which has been selling beer, wine and dinner at its Stansted airport branch since February, has decided to expand its evening format to its outlet at Edinburgh airport later this month.

The coffee chain's action follows an incursion into its own territory by pub operator JD Wetherspoon. The cut-price chain has moved more aggressively into the breakfast and coffee market by cutting the price of its Lavazza filter coffee to 99p, with free refills, while serving breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as the odd pint.

"It's possible we'll be selling more coffee than draught beer in 15 years, which will make pub aficionados blanch," Tim Martin, chairman of Wetherspoon said last month. He is aiming to triple the company's coffee and breakfast sales by the end of 2016.

"Different companies are jumping on the bandwagon of the success of others," said Helena Childe, senior foodservice analyst at Mintel, the market research group.

"They are encroaching on restaurants to get a share of the leisure pound at a time when there is still pressure on consumer spending," she adds.

Mintel predicts that eating out will rise by 3.5 per cent this year to £34.7bn. The sector is one of the economy's most buoyant, but Ms Childe says the relative maturity of the market means that growth is more likely to come from winning market share from other operators, rather than any underlying growth in consumer demand.

Though real earnings are now ticking upwards, consumers are also unlikely to forget quickly the frugal lessons they have learnt from the recession. "They are scrutinising their spending more closely and questioning what constitutes value for money. So, operators have to proactively chase sales," says Ms Childe.

Pret says it is responding to consumer demands for more evening options, though is not currently planning to expand the dinner trial beyond its Strand branch in London's theatre district.

Nick Candler, Pret's chief operating officer, says: "People are eating slightly more throughout the day. They want to be in charge of their own agenda and the times they eat."

Operators are also responding to what Nick Batram, leisure analyst at Peel Hunt, calls the rise of the "on-demand" consumer.

"A lot of people used to be governed by the television schedule - having to be home for dinner to watch EastEnders, for example. Now they can watch what they like on demand - in fact they are on-demand consumers. Any successful business is thinking about how to take advantage of that," he says.

Starbucks' push into dining, which started in the US in 2011, ensures that the coffee shop chain can cater to the needs of consumers at any time of the day, says Ian Cranna, the chain's marketing vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Offering alcohol has boosted coffee sales, he adds, with the option of beer and wine attracting groups of customers looking for a casual place to meet in the evening.

There are other potential advantages too. Attracting consumers for breakfast in the morning, all the way through to drinks and dinner in the evening, means outlets can make the most of their property and equipment. In this way, cafes are "sweating their assets", says Jeffrey Young, chief executive of Allegra Insights, the consultancy.

But venturing beyond their traditional fields of expertise also carries risks.

There are operational challenges in catering to the various food and drinks demands throughout the day, says Mr Young. Newcomers to the dinner market, such as Pret, could run into danger if they fail to match the experience consumers have come to expect when they dine out.

Pret's new evening trial matches bottles of wines at £18.50 with a menu that primarily consists of the foods it serves at lunchtime. "It does feel a bit incongruous if you've got expensive wines and the same foods you offer during the day," says Mr Young.

Consumers can also become confused about what a company stands for. Peter Martin, director at CGA Peach, the food and drinks consultancy, says the challenge for operators that are branching out, will be that of holding on to a distinct brand identity.

"Where is the differentiation if everyone does everything?," Mr Martin says.

Speedy Pret keeps prices low, except on wine

With a candle on the table, polite and speedy service, and a window-side view on to a bright spring London evening, dinner at Pret A Manger promises all the trappings of a perfect date, writes Kadhim Shubber.

Founded in 1986, Pret used to be a simple sandwich shop that would close in the late afternoon.

Now with more than 300 shops in the UK and as far afield as Hong Kong, the chain is branching out into evening dining with wine, beer and a dinner menu that mostly consists of its hot lunch offering served in ceramics rather than cardboard.

The format at Pret's trial store on London's Strand is similar to that of the Nando's chicken chain. From 6pm each evening, staff greet you at the door, guide you to a table and bring you your food after you have ordered at the counter. It stays open until 11pm and attracts theatregoers.

All of the food costs less than £6 - I choose the Korean BBQ pulled pork, with quinoa rice and pickled red cabbage, while my date opts for the kale and cauliflower macaroni cheese.

Together our meal comes to just over £10.

The wine, however, is surprisingly pricey - the selection of three whites and three reds on offer comes in at a flat rate of £18.50 a bottle. Our final bill is £29.40.

Amy Morcom, a 26-year-old stage manager who works nearby in the West End, is impressed by the salad and beer she is enjoying with her friend, Zoe.

"I don't know what else you'd do for that price and speed range," she says.

But she would be unimpressed if invited to Pret for a date, she adds, even with the candles.

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