By Pat Pape, Contributing Editor
Running a successful oil and gas retail business for nearly a century is a world away from operating convenience stores with foodservice operations. Just ask Bailey Lyden, vice president of retail for truenorth LLC, a 110-store convenience operation in the Midwest.
The chain was created in 1999 when Lyden Oil Co., a fourth-generation fuel supplier, and Shell, jointly formed truenorth energy LLC. “We’ve been in the industry as a gas and oil retailer for a very long time,” Lyden said. “And it’s challenging for a company to go from being a gas supply retailer to being a best-of-class retailer.”
Based in Brecksville, Ohio, truenorth has grown through acquisitions, so the chain must work with a diverse collection of store layouts. When the management team wanted to launch a competitive foodservice program, including tasty sandwiches, it turned to Eby-Brown, the convenience wholesaler based in Naperville, Ill. Like other major grocery suppliers, Eby-Brown provides a foodservice consultancy to help retail customers who want to provide more than just a drab sandwich wrapped in plastic, make effective foodservice decisions and avoid costly missteps.
“Foodservice can be intimidating to a retailer that doesn’t know a lot about it and isn’t used to managing things, like waste,” said Lyden. “It’s nice to have people from the foodservice industry to guide you.”
Suppliers like Eby-Brown recognize that the desire to have an outstanding foodservice program is universal, but each store and retailer is different. Some operators have clear, defined visions of their foodservice goals. Others just know that cigarette sales are declining so they need to be more competitive.
To help retailers make foodservice decisions, Eby-Brown can provide an in-store operational audit at no cost, sending a consultant to spend a day in a store to learn what the team is doing, how they’re doing it, what their strengths are and where they need to shore things up. The most important thing to determine is the ideal sandwich program that the store can manage consistently.
Kocolene Marketing of Seymour, Ind., operates 18 convenience stores, in addition to 18 tobacco shops. One c-store was facing challenges from the local market, and management turned to Eby-Brown for assistance.
“We had some competition come in, and that store had the space for a foodservice program,” said Andrea Myers, executive vice president for the chain. “The market was good, but there weren’t a lot of quick-service restaurants in the area. We thought foodservice would be a good fit.”
The supplier suggested a complete foodservice program that included “equipment, signage, recommended planograms and food items…the whole deal,” Myers said. Now the store offers customers both breakfast and lunch, with sandwich options for both meals—a perk patrons apparently like since the store’s sales have increased during that period.
Kocolene could have pulled together its own foodservice offering, but working with a wholesale supplier saved management a lot of time and trial and error. “They simply showed us some of their best-selling items,” said Myers. Kocolene may use the same program at different stores in the future based on individual store layouts.
Tim Barry is the corporate director of foodservice and fresh for Core-Mark of San Francisco, one of the largest distributors of consumer goods in North America. He and a team of 22 foodservice managers in the U.S. and Canada connect customers with foodservice vendors and equipment suppliers who work collectively to resolve their issues.
The foodservice managers ask each retailer a number of questions to determine what the operation is looking for and where they see their stores down the road. For specific needs, Core-Mark can provide research and information from vendors who are experts in hot foods, complete coffee programs or even made-to-go programs. If a customer wants to get serious about different sandwich types, Core-Mark will align him with a specialist.
If retailers prefer to create an original program on their own, Core-Mark can put them in contact with manufacturers that will offer their best solution for an individual store or particular chain.
Convenience store operators have been known to rely on Core-Mark’s expertise when considering a big investment in equipment. And while the company doesn’t design c-store kitchens, it will put them in contact with experienced people who do.
Core-Mark officials say they’ve helped a lot of operators—particularly independents—and seen many achieve substantial financial gains. There is no charge for the wholesaler’s service to customers.
TECH & TRADE
Most wholesalers conduct regular trade shows, inviting retailer customers to participate, review the latest offerings and check out innovative services.
In September 2014, 200 convenience retailers were in Orlando to check out the latest products and services at the national trade show produced by McLane Co., the Temple, Texas-based grocery and food supplier.
In addition to snacks, groceries and beverages, retailers assessed the technology that McLane makes available to its group of retail customers. The highlight of the show was a mobile-ordering technology application the company is introducing early this year. Retailers are able download the company’s new app through iTunes or GooglePlay and use their smartphones or tablets to reorder merchandise. The technology eliminates the use of analog phone lines to send orders.
McLane’s current handheld device has been in the industry for six years. The wholesaler rents the technology to customers and publicizes the proprietary device and its current applications as a bargain when compared to buying equipment in-house
In addition to offering advanced technology, McLane helps retail customers make decisions about foodservice expansion and equipment purchases and often connects them with the manufacturers and service providers who can best meet their needs.
In addition, some customers will visit the company’s headquarters in Texas, where they can devote time to studying successful foodservice solutions and review new sandwich items. Others leverage their relationship with the distributor to identify best-in-class suppliers for a particular segment, such as roller grill or grab-and-go programs.
According to McLane, the company tailors each conversation and project regarding foodservice to the needs and capabilities of the given customer, but the wholesaler also urges store operators to do their own research and self-evaluation to ensure that the foodservice they are considering adequately meets their needs.
Currently, truenorth convenience stores provide shoppers a competitive foodservice offering, complete with a 12-foot open-air cooler, roller grill items, warm sandwiches, dispensed beverages, hot coffee and fresh pastries. But Lyden anticipates an even better foodservice program in the future thanks to valuable advice about quality and pricing from his wholesaler’s contacts.
“Just using Eby-Brown as a sounding board has really helped me as a buyer,” Lyden said. “Now I’m looking for manufacturers and products that may be a little more expensive but that are good quality products. A lot of our regular customers are appreciative of us for chasing quality. They don’t mind paying a dollar or two more if it’s a quality product. We’ve hit some home runs with quality products.”
Lyden admits that truenorth has just begun scratching the surface of foodservice opportunities.
“But we know that we have to be a player in it,” Lyden said. “That’s the competitive landscape right now in the convenience-store world.”