If the combination of breakfast and lunch is called “brunch,” then shouldn’t the combination of lunch and dinner be labeled “linner?” That’s a question comedian Jerry Seinfeld once asked. Whatever c-stores call today’s increasingly common mix of meals and snacks throughout the day and evening, the trend offers expanded opportunities for foodservice sales.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
The management of NOCO Express Convenience Stores isn’t taking any chances on missing out whenever hunger pangs strike customers.
A walk-around cold case made up of four five-foot-long modules greets customers at the front of the stores with tempting displays of fresh sandwiches, salads, fruit, cheese sticks and premium beverages.
Foodservice is bigger than ever at NOCO Express. Although it has offered its proprietary-commissary-made Nickel City food products for about six years, the company really pulled out all of the promotional stops last year with a major overhaul of everything from packaging to sampling to big signage on end caps and at the pumps, said Stephen Beehag, director of foodservice for the chain, which has 36 stores in the Buffalo, N.Y. area. Of those, 28 stores have the Nickel City foodservice program.
Wrapped around the bottom of the display case is the promise that its contents are “Made Fresh Daily.” The commissary’s refrigerated trucks also boast bold and colorful Nickel City graphics to serve as rolling billboards for the brand.
Arlene Spiegel, owner of Arlene Spiegel & Associates, a restaurant, retail and foodservice consulting firm, agreed that the way to persuade customers to spend more on prepared foods is to make sure to merchandise them well in the store.
“Someone on the way to a late afternoon or early evening class or coming home from a workout at the gym might stop by for a cold beverage and see a freshly-prepared salad or sushi that looks particularly appetizing,” she said.
Food should always be in front of the store, but not so close that customers will walk by the display without seeing it. The optimal positioning should be about two or three feet into the store, she said. An umbrella or awning over the foodservice area can also be an eye-catcher, she said.
Beehag credits NOCO’s intensive Nickel City branding campaign over the past year with a 77% increase of foodservice sales at the stores. The company is taking the program a step further with the inclusion of a Rational-brand oven and introduction of roasted chickens at one of its new stores slated to open later this year.
The growth and promotion of the Nickel City brand has also made it possible for NOCO to grow a catering segment of the business.
“We market ourselves to cater office parties and we’ve gotten requests for office picnics and even some weddings,” Beehag said. “The largest catering order to date was for a party of 400 guests.”
At first, Beehag explained, NOCO management was concerned that the Nickel City products might compete with the Subway units in some of the stores.
“What we actually experienced was just the opposite,” Beehag said. “Some customers just want to pick up a ready-made sandwich and go. Plus Nickel City products are always available even after the Subways are closed for the evening.”
Fresh is the key to attracting Millennials and families to c-stores’ foodservice offerings, said Laurie Demeritt, CEO of the Bellevue, Wash.-based research firm the Hartman Group. She explained that “healthy” to Millennials doesn’t necessarily mean lower in fat and calories.
“To them, healthy means fresh, less processed food,” Demeritt said.
Emphasizing freshness is particularly important for convenience stores since consumers still don’t necessarily equate pre-made with healthful, said Spiegel. That doesn’t mean a chain featuring grab-and-go fare can’t establish itself as a destination for quality and freshness.
Spiegel pointed to the Pret A Manger quick-service restaurant chain, based in the UK, as a model of product quality, packaging, merchandising and branding that c-stores would do well to study and emulate.
“Even the soups, juices and teas are beautifully packaged,” Spiegel said.
Pret A Manger doesn’t have its own commissary, Spiegel continued. Instead the retailer outsources its products to suppliers who provide twice-daily delivery.
“There’s nothing wrong with outsourcing or partnering with an established foodservice brand as long as the focus is on quality and freshness,” Spiegel said. “Convenience stores have to brand themselves as legitimate restaurant options without losing sight of their original mission and sales driver, convenience.”
Among c-stores, she feels that Sheetz has discovered just the right balance.
“Sheetz is committed to foodservice and does it brilliantly,” Spiegel said. “They’re real competition for local restaurants while still maintaining the product mix and convenience that is the basis of their business. After all, she said, how many restaurants make it possible for customers to pick up a dozen eggs, a quart of milk or a bottle of wine with their dinner.”
VENTURE INTO VARIETY
Kwik Chek Food Stores demonstrates its commitment to foodservice by having fully-equipped kitchens in more than half of its 42 store locations. The kitchens have deep fryers, flattop grills, chargrills, regular ovens and some have pizza ovens.
Every day, the stores feature a “homestyle meal” consisting of an entrée, two sides and a dinner roll. There’s a different specialty entrée offered each day. Monday, for instance, might be Southern-style meatloaf, Wednesday chicken-fried steak and Friday a fish fry. Side options range from mashed potatoes and mac and cheese to green beans and fried okra.
Core customers like to see the same things on the menu every week, said John Longden, Kwik Chek’s director of foodservice operations.
“One week we didn’t do pot roast and our everyday shopper thought the world was coming to an end,” Longden said. “At the same time, our newer, younger customers are mixing things up with made-to-order subs and sandwiches and flame-grilled chicken.”
Kwik Chek is also planning to begin offering regional specialties on its store menus, Longden noted.
“Our first crack at it is a burrito bar,” Longden said. “Customers will come up to the counter and choose either a bowl or tortilla and we will custom build their meal.”
Longden noted that customers today not only want to see their food made, they also want to see the kitchen that it comes from. The theater of preparation, Longden said, is becoming an expected part of foodservice.
Overall, the company’s foodservice sales are “running positive about 10% and growing,” Longden said. Breakfast and lunch are the two fastest growing segments. Dinner is driven mostly by a robust pizza program.
According to a new study recently released by Tyson Convenience Foodservice in partnership with Anheuser-Busch, convenience stores have more opportunities than ever to sell prepared foods in the late afternoon and evening.
Although convenience store traffic is highest during morning and lunch dayparts, the study showed that half of all recent snack purchases there were between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. Of those snack purchases, however, only 22% included a prepared food item, leaving this daypart wide open for development.
As for mealtime purchases, prepared food quality and freshness were the most important attributes consumers consider when selecting snacks to buy. They also said they look for snacks that are easy to consume on the go and satisfy without overfilling.