Keeping the Menu Fresh

Foodservice customers are becoming value-conscious, a reflection of current economic conditions. Consumers are now expecting better value in terms of price, service, consistency and food quality.

By John Lofstock, Editor.

Bringing consumers into convenience stores to buy food requires a great offering at a good price. But with all the competition for share of stomach, getting customers coming back week after week is proving to be much harder.

Keeping consumer interest high means livening the menu with unique items, limited-time offerings (LTOs) and timely promotions. Tracking overall food trends is also an absolute necessity. Foodservice suppliers can prove an excellent source of menu intelligence. So can local restaurants, which are always the first to spark or follow current food trends.

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“Like restaurants, c-stores will do limited-time offers, but it’s more than just that,” said Tim Powell, director of research and consulting for Chicago-based Technomic Inc., a foodservice research and consulting firm. “They’re also looking at fresher items. We’re starting to see items that like salads and pastas, more meal-type items. It’s kind of like what you’re seeing with quick-service and breakfast. C-stores need to stay out in front of these trends.”

Time to Boost Sales
Though LTO offers make sense and can generate incremental sales, surprisingly few convenience stores use them. One chain that does well with them is York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Farm Stores, where Vice President of Foodservice Jerry Weiner puts a turkey leg on the menu every Thanksgiving.

Many of the limited-time offers that do show up in convenience stores are based on price promotions where consumers can take advantage of a two-for-$2 deal off the roller grill, or a bundled meal.

Dena Brewington, who operated Chuck’s Short Stops in Fredericktown, Mo., finds that freshening her menu with periodic additions is essential. The company, which has built a following with its biscuit sandwich line, added an egg and bacon option earlier this year. “We did it in order to make the offering fresh and to compete with the fast food restaurants in town.”

The new items, which are served during the morning hours, sell for $1.89 and have worked well, Brewington added. Biscuits and gravy were added to the menu in September.

Chuck’s recently added a Philly steak and cheese pizza from Hunt Bros., which debuted as an LTO menu item late this past summer. The pizza is priced at $2.69 per ‘hunk,’ which is a quarter of a pizza pie.

Fresh and Focused
Changes to the menu shouldn’t be dramatic to get customers’ attention.Convenience store operators can take yet another page from restaurants in highlighting their offerings. “Add locally produced and grown products to your menu mix,” recommended veteran foodservice consultant Arlene Spiegel, of Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York City. “Feature the farmer, producer and vintner on your menus and promote in-store events to honor their work and products.”

Breakfast continues to be the fastest-growing daypart in most of the country. “The latest thing we’ve done has been to add a maple-flavored biscuit and sausage into our breakfast line,” said Donna Sitka, food manager for Gonzales, Texas-based Johnson Oil Co., which operates 23 Tiger Tote Food Stores. The addition, in early November, is priced along with the rest of the line at $1.49. “I’m hoping this one will become a permanent addition.”
The 13 Tiger Tote stores that serve food also offer three other biscuit products. Limited-time menu additions are a key component of the chain’s vibrant menu.

“Temporary items give you a good sales lift. It may not be an item that has longevity, but for a time it helps,” Sitka said. Nor will all stores experience the same lift or duration.

When temporary items earn their place on the regular menu it can be a thing of beauty. “A couple of years ago we added fried shrimp to our menu. Normally with LTOs, stores would start calling us to get rid of them. But on that particular item stores were calling to say, ‘This one is a keeper.’”

Sitka scouts out local restaurants to track menu trends and urged other convenience store operators to do the same. “One of the things we have learned from restaurants is that appetizer sales are growing,” she said. “As a result, we are testing new products and working with our vendors to see what they are recommending in this segment.”

Another major menu addition that Johnson Oil is checking out is a rotisserie chicken. “A big part of our business is our fried chicken program,” Sitka noted. “But you’ve got to have a solution for the folks who are looking for something that’s not fried.”

Tiger Tote’s equipment packages include eight-foot holding cases to merchandise the fresh foods. “We cook in anticipation of the customers coming in, and not to order so we’ve always got to keep in mind what the hold time is going to be on the items we sell,” Sitka said. “Will it hold up in a warming case? That’s the main thing at which we have been looking. We can’t afford to put something in there that’s got a 20-minute hold time.”

Connecting With Coffee
While menu items are good for boosting sales, the coffee category continues to be an important attraction at all three dayparts and even snacking occasions.

“Probably the best examples of seasonal and limited-time offers are really still in the coffee part of the business,” said Technomic’s Powell. “Nice N Easy does a lot of seasonal stuff. Quick Chek has outstanding seasonal coffee offerings that it brings out every year.”

While chains like Quick Chek are considered the gold standard for their coffee offering, other chains need to pick up their game to keep pace with forward-thinking operators like McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway, Powell said. New items don’t have to necessarily be game-changers, such as Subway’s $5 dollar sandwich line. “A little bit of excitement goes a long way toward keeping the menu fresh and attractive.”

For example, in November, Sheetz added brewed-to-order Sumatra blend, fair-trade certified and USDA organic gourmet coffee to its seasonal offerings. Quick Chek followed suit, incorporating fall flavors into its new seasonal favorites menu items.

Technomic reported earlier this year that despite the rise in interest in specialty coffee, regular hot coffee still accounts for the highest level of reported consumption among consumers surveyed. Fully 60% reported drinking regular hot coffee or tea within the last month. The firm also reported that 14% of consumers said they are making more purchases of regular hot coffee today than they did two years ago.

“You don’t necessarily have to come out with revamped menu,” Powell concluded. “A good idea is to have in your portfolio three or four things that you can offer, maybe from a beverage perspective. Or, consider some of the things you already do well, and how you can make variations on them based on holidays or special occasions.”