Despite the efforts made by operators of motorway service areas (MSAs) to improve the value of their food, growing numbers of customers regard it as expensive, according to market researcher Mintel.
Its latest Roadside Catering survey found that 55% of customers (and 65% of those in the North) thought MSA food was overpriced. This compared with 44% two years ago.
Mintel concluded that consumer expectations were rising faster than efforts to make improvements, such as Welcome Break's decision to hire food critic Egon Ronay to successfully spice up its offering.
MSA operators have also tried to boost food sales by extending customers' "dwell time" through adding shops, work stations and meeting areas. However, Mintel found visitors less inclined than before to sit down for a meal.
Fast food, which already dominated sales, has shown the biggest growth in the past two years, rising by six percentage points to 31%. Sales of take-away food grew by nine percentage points to 22%.
Mintel predicted that the MSA sector would benefit from a planned £16.2m Government investment in strategic road improvements between now and 2010.
It also predicted that the UK's only remaining players in the sector - Compass's Moto and Little Chef, Welcome Break and Roadchef - would face serious competition from French firm Eliance, which runs more than 60 MSAs in France.
Eliance currently has three concessions in MSAs on major A-roads in the South, with 17 more planned through a £60m investment by MSA developer Swayfields.
by Angela Frewin