Menu development is an essential though often overlooked element in the success of a c-store’s foodservice program. So, while operators may go about it differently, they must all see to it that they do, indeed, go about it.
From consumers’ desires and local competition to convenience, equipment costs, supplier availability and more, menu development is a process, a balancing act of factors that go in and out of style.
Menu development is “definitely an ongoing process,” said Ryan Olsen, Adventures First Chef for Salt Lake City-based Maverik Inc., which operates 192 Maverik Country Stores. “If you’re not continually working on that stuff your menu gets tired. We definitely want to be, maybe not first to market, but quick to market with new things, new trends.”
Olsen, who for the past two years has reported to Director of Foodservice Curtis Watson, said Maverik’s various brokers and distributors are “constantly presenting new items for us to look at.”
Maverik’s menu is admittedly “pretty extensive,” Olsen noted, and has evolved in the direction of more home meal replacement and complete meals. “We’re trying to go that way with the menu.”
Though it hasn’t spread to every store, the chain is rolling out a take-and-bake pizza program. Shoppers can take one from the hoagie case, bring it home and bake it, or have an entire pizza pie cooked in the store, or even have the store prepare individual slices. “So they have three options,” Olsen said.
The factors that operators must weigh when developing their menus are many, complex and continually in motion. They include:
Consumers: The most important consideration is the lifestyle trends, “the psychographics and demographics of the population you are serving,” said veteran foodservice consultant Arlene Spiegel of Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York City.
“Part of what is very important for the c-store operators is to recognize who it is they are serving,” said Paco Underhill, the founder and CEO of Envirosell Inc., a global research and consulting firm. “I think this is one of the most difficult parts of 21st century retailing: what is global and what is local?”
Offering a breakfast burrito, for example, in some markets is incredibly smart, and in others may make no sense at all. That sensitivity on the part of the operator to his trade area is, Underhill insisted, “a very critical piece of the mix. I also know that basic behavior patterns in a c-store vary greatly based on the kind of road you sit next to.”
Menu development will also be colored, Underhill said, by recognizing that “every visit to a c-store is mission-driven, meaning I come in looking for one thing—I’m thirsty, I need this—and that often, the most important journey in the store is the back of the store to the front as opposed to from the front of the store to the back.”
What is “absolutely essential” for a c-store is getting the customer “to at least consider adding on something else,” Underhill said. “If it’s a drink, it’s a drink and some food. If it’s some food, it’s adding the drink. If it’s coffee, it’s a newspaper. The way in which you conveniently bundle is one of the ways that you raise your average transaction.”
Equipment: The equipment package will be dictated by both the menu and the “wow factor” that operators want—or don’t want—to create.
“Based on space, what is most important for your customers to view? Muffins being baked during breakfast? Flatbread sandwiches for lunch? Chicken pot pies for dinner? If so, then your oven and the preparation areas should be in full view of the patrons,” Spiegel said.
Nothing creates more interest or provides more credibility for a product than seeing foods prepared.
Food prep and cooking equipment should all be capable of multi-tasking to permit the greatest amount of products in the least footprint. “Consider the level of talent and number of employees that can fit comfortably in the preparation areas,” Spiegel advised. “I often recommend that all passive storage and bulk preparation be done in the low-rent district of the store—the basement, or even outside if possible.”
The newest Maverik stores are between 4,200 and 4,800 square feet. Roughly 40 to 50% of the space is devoted to foodservice, Olsen said. A key piece in the equipment package is a deluxe micro-convection-infrared oven that can cook take-and-bake pizza in about three minutes.
“We can do sausage patties, biscuits and other items,” Olsen said. “It works really well for products like corndogs and chicken wings.”
Costs: How to compute ROI? “Do the math,” said Spiegel. “Calculate the total cost of design and build-out; marketing and training; labor; and even the rent on the square footage the foodservice component will occupy. If you can make enough profit to pay off the investment in two years and attract a new clientele that will also purchase other packaged items you will sell, it pays. Also, consider the eventual loss of business if you don’t bring in foodservice.”
Food cost and average check are to be considered together, Spiegel said. Food cost alone “does not pay the rent; gross margins do. Typical QSR menus are engineered to yield approximate food cost of 28%.” However, she added, “I’d rather sell a product with a 50% food cost that yields a higher profit margin.”
Labor: Employee training is “the one area where operators fall down and lose their professionalism,” Spiegel said. “Even in the most well-designed kitchen and counter, with the perfect menu engineered, it’s always the front-line staff that ‘sells’ the sizzle.”
Training manuals detailing everything from customer interactions to food safety and handling, portion control and packaging are the key to getting off to a great start.
“However, continuous training and motivation need to be part of the daily operations to keep staff on top of their game,” Spiegel said. “I use the same models and manuals with QSR as I do with fine dining. Customers who are treated as if they are in a ‘special place’ will talk about the establishment and go out of their way to buy from you.”
Food Trends: “The trend in food today is fresh and much more what I would call healthy,” said John Kinsella, senior supervising chef at Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College and reigning President of the American Culinary Federation Inc.
“Develop a menu around simple things that you can put together quickly and efficiently,” Kinsella said. “Don’t complicate it, and stay away from processed foods as much as you possibly can. Instead of bringing in a pre-made cooked burger, bring in a beef patty that you can put together and cook in the microwave.”
“In terms of menu development, it has been interesting to see how the c-store operators are internationalizing their offerings,” Underhill said. “Not only is it wraps and tacos but it is also steamed buns and elements of Asian cuisine that are turning up in places where you would have never dreamed them coming up before.” He termed the trend the “globalization of convenience foods.”
Local market: “Evaluating what is in the area is key to any menu decisions,” said Brenda Jens, director of foodservice for Shop Rite Stores in Crowley, La. “If you have people that are part of maintenance crews, for example, you certainly want to cater to them.”
But even menus that target market niches can grow stagnant. At present, 22 of the chain’s 60 stores include delis, and two locations have attached sit-down restaurants.
Each of the Shop Rite stores goes its own way when it comes to the menu, Jens said. Aside from delis, some units offer cold sandwiches, some fresh fruit and salads. “Every one is different. The smaller stores just have the finger foods. The largest stores can make their own sandwiches and salads.”
Other popular items include gourmet cheeses, cold cuts, slow-turned rotisserie chickens, ice cream and cold drinks.
Newness: “You should always have something that is new and innovative in your menus,” Jens said. “If something is not working in your menus you need to kind of boot it out and put something new and fresh in. Always keep it fresh.”
All of the foodservice items available in Shop Rite stores can be deep-fat fried, she says, “and in most cases you can put it in the oven, so we have a dual application. Very, very seldom do we have anything that is not a dual function.”
Seasonality: Jens also recommended paying attention to shifting seasons, which have been shown to have a definite impact on how people dine.
“Each season brings different foods down here in the south. In the wintertime, people will eat more and ‘bulk up’ more. They will eat more rice, gravy, sauces. In the summertime they’ll eat lighter,” Jens said. “In the wintertime we push gumbos, soups, plate lunches, chilies. In the summertime we’ll go with fresh salads, a lot of finger foods. We find that the plate lunches just drop off completely because it’s too hot.”
Testing: Experimenting with new offerings doesn’t require a dedicated research-and-development budget, Jens said. What it does require is taking in trade shows and working closely with vendors.
“What we do usually is take maybe five locations as pilot stores to see what will work,” Jens said, adding she is concerned with franchisees incurring undue expense. “We don’t want the end user to be out a lot of money for a lot of equipment, so we’ll try out, in our best locations, the ones we really feel will generate the sales. Of course, we’ll do a lot of advertising and promotions on it, to try and really make it go. If it doesn’t, well, we feel like the vendor is not out a lot of money and that we’ve given it our best shot.”
Some items climb to permanent status on Shop Rite’s menu, while others, like comets streaking across the night sky, jump-start sales and then fade. “One time we tried hot tamales,” Jens said. “It was a two-week thing, a flash in the pan, everybody wanted hot tamales—and then it just kind of died out.”
Another new and innovative items that recently appeared on Shop Rite’s menu is a boudin meat pie, basically rice and gravy in a casing. “What we’ve done is take it out of the casing and put it in a meat pie. Down here we’ll just about eat anything,” Jens said.
Commitment: A year from now, menu watchers will see Maverik continue to offer “fresher options,” Olsen said. “Menu development is, frankly, a difficult challenge for a lot of stores. It’s a big commitment and it would be a colossal mistake to overlook.” CSD