By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
Consumers might not expect to find a “gourmet” deli inside a convenience store, but that’s just what they get at Bolla Market locations around New York City and Long Island (a new one is coming to New Jersey in the fall).
Bolla operates over 50 locations, 15 of which offer Bolla’s Gourmet Deli. Deli accounts for between 15-30% of total c-store sales, according to Harry Singh, president and CEO of Bolla Oil Corp., parent company of Bolla Market convenience stores. Sales are up 25% this year as of June.
For the delis, all of the food is prepared in the stores’ fully-equipped kitchens. The company is also working on developing an in-store bakery program that will enable the stores to proof and bake their own breads and pastries, said Singh. A proprietary commissary and delivery and catering services are currently under consideration.
One reason the company labels its deli concept as “gourmet” is the fact that it features a full buffet of freshly-prepared hot foods for breakfast and lunch. The buffet, which has been the centerpiece of Bolla Market’s foodservice program since 2007, is open from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. It accounts for between 25%-40% of the c-store’s total foodservice sales, Singh said.
The lunch buffet showcases entrees such as tilapia, chicken Marsala, eggplant parmigiana and various pastas with sauces along with sides such as vegetables and rice. The food is displayed and plated behind the counter. Customers can choose a small tray (one entrée and one side) for $6.99 or a large tray (one entrée and two sides) for $7.99.
On its sandwich menu, Bolla touts the fact that it uses Boar’s Head premium meats.
“We definitely believe that this helps to emphasize our gourmet status and drive our lunch business,” Singh said.
In addition to cold sandwiches, there are numerous hot varieties such as the “3M” (meatballs, marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese), chicken Parmesan and Philly beef or chicken cheesesteaks. Panini get the gourmet treatment with the addition of accents, such as caramelized onions, basil pesto and/or roasted red peppers. Sandwiches come with choice of potato salad, macaroni salad or coleslaw.
From the grill, customers can order quarter-pound beef, veggie or turkey burgers; buffalo wings; fried chicken and crunchy chicken tenders. Fries can be added to a grill order for an extra dollar.
Salads, in variations from traditional garden and chef’s salads to Greek and Caesar, are available in small and large portions. Grilled or crispy chicken can be added to a salad for an additional $2.
“We want to provide our customers with restaurant-quality meals at convenience store prices,” Singh said. “We want to provide that unexpected luxury and exceed expectations.”
For incremental sales and times when the made-to-order and hot buffets are not in operation, Bolla Markets have an eight-foot open-air unit. The unit is stocked 24 hours a day with grab-and-go hero sandwiches and meal and snack sides, including fresh fruit, salads, pastries and parfaits. A four-foot-wide, three-shelf hot case is filled with breakfast and lunch sandwiches as well as an assortment of items from the hot buffet from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Of the five c-stores run by ISU Dining on the Iowa State University campus, three offer made-to-order deli sandwiches. All five offer grab-and-go sandwiches, salads and sides made at ISU Dining’s on-campus commissary kitchen, said Kristi Patel, the university’s assistant director for retail operations.
The made-to-order locations have Subway-like assembly-line counters where customers choose their ingredients and toppings as they go down the line. Two of the stores have turbo ovens to toast the sandwiches.
The campus’ West Side Market has a self-branded program called Smack Dog, featuring Nathan’s hot dogs. Customers can choose from seven specialty dogs or a limited time offer (LTO) “Smack Dog of the Month.” Recent LTOs have included a bruschetta dog, wasabi dog and nacho dog.
Because they are on a university campus, the stores see many of the same student and faculty customers day after day.
“We have chefs on campus, we’re always watching what the quick-serve and fast casual restaurants are doing and we attend trade shows to make sure we’re up on what’s trending,” Patel said.
One trend that is continually picking up steam is consumers’ interest in health and wellness.
“We have been posting calorie counts on our commissary items for several years, long before we had to” Patel said “And, full nutritional information is posted on our Website.”
Deli sales at the stores have been growing year over year, Patel said. The Hawthorn store, which was renovated only a few years ago, has two large (five-foot-six-and-one-half- inch-wide, and 84-inch tall) cold grab-and-go cases. West Side has one of the cases.
Most of the stores are open from 8 a.m. to midnight and Patel pointed out that the delis do a good business during late night for snacks. Some of the locations allow students to use their meal plan swipes after 7 p.m. to allow for service when the residential dining centers are closed.
HOT OR COLD
Of the 96 convenience stores Town Pump operates in Montana, 85 of them boast a deli. And, at Town Pump, deli means everything from appetizers to corn dogs to lasagna.
“We’re unique in the aspect that we have a full-service hot case program that gives our customers a wide range of options including burritos, hamburgers and cheeseburgers, chili cheese dogs, breaded mushrooms and gizzards, all made on the premises,” said Pete Barthelmess, the Butte, Mont.-based company’s director of food and beverage.
In many of the larger stores, an eight-foot-long, four-foot wide walk-around cold case holds made-on-site foot-long sub sandwiches, the stores’ signature devilled eggs, a variety of wraps and a host of entrees, such as lasagna, meat balls, tacos, turkey dinners, sweet and sour chicken and teriyaki beef stir fry that can be heated on site or taken home. The offerings are also very popular with truck drivers as well as people going hunting or fishing, Barthelmess noted.
To economize on space, some stores have a combination case, which is hot on the bottom and cold on top.
He explained that, like Patel at Iowa State University, he has noticed that his stores’ customers are also looking for “better-for-you” food options.
“Depending on the customer, that could mean anything from lower calorie to a fruit or vegetable tray to anything that is made fresh in the store,” Barthelmess said. “We try to make sure we have something for everyone.”
He pointed out that house, chef and spinach salads are selling exceptionally well. The same goes for spinach wraps. In fact, Barthelmess said, the stores’ deli sales as a whole have been growing every year.
At the large truck stops, the hot case usually operates from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. At the regular stores it usually operates from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. Cold and microwavable meals and snacks are available from the cooler case from store open to close.