The National Advisory Group (NAG) Conference in Santa Fe, N.M. continued Tuesday, Sept. 15. In a session titled, “Finding your foodservice niche: defining what it takes to be great at foodservice,” moderator Dr. Nancy Caldarola, general manager, The Food Training Group, led a panel of retailers in a discussion on executing this difficult category.
Caldarola stressed that convenience store retailers need to find their niche, or the element that makes them stand out enough in their market to be the place to go for foodservice. “Foodservice can be a very profitable goldmine,” Caldarola said. But only if it’s done right.
“First of all we need to keep fresh in mind. In 2010 there were a lot of naysayers when I brought up fresh. I think today everyone knows fresh is key. Fresh drives sales, whether it’s made on site or in a commissary,” Caldarola said.
Other key takeaways Caldarola offered included:
-Today’s customer is more educated.
-Breakfast all day is the new norm.
-Millennials graze all day. There is no set time to eat. What’s good for retailers is they are buying food and eating it all day long. That is going to be the new norm.
-Look at your advertising materials and use the keywords “better for you.”
-Food trends are always changing. Stay on top of them. Not only are food trends changing, but all trends are changing and those changing trends will impact your business.
-You better be capturing data and you need to start data mining. You have to have the numbers. You need that information to build a foodservice program that will keep costs under control and make money.
-Your foodservice culture must be cultivated and nurtured.
Raising the Culinary Bar
Rick Hamilton, vice president operations of Tri Star Energy, which operates 73 c-stores in Tennessee is raising the bar when it comes to foodservice. “In Nashville, the culinary bar is being raised and we’re going to go with it. About six years ago we got a new CEO who had a great vision. For 15+ years we’d done the usual c-store fare. It was time to start changing our culture, which included a remodel process and with that we brought foodservice to the forefront of our sales.”
Thus far, Tri Star Energy has remodeled 35 of its 73 sites.
In making foodservice a top priority, Hamilton has learned a few lessons along the way. “Foodservice requires patience. Consistency needs to be in place and you need a fresh food offering. But how long can you hang your hat on ‘fresh’ alone? If you have product consistency they know it’s fresh,” he said.
Your employees are key in a successful food operation. “Let your folks know they are important, and know what you can do to help your employees to help everyone be successful.”
Perception is reality to most people. “If you beautify it you will attract more customers. Once you beautify that area, your coffee tastes better, your foodservice tastes better.”
In introducing Twice Daily convenience stores, Tri Star Energy remodeled those stores, including introducing separate flooring in its foodservice section to differentiate the offering. It brought food to the people through sampling, and promoted food items at the pump. Twice Daily also added a hostess position to greet and assist customers. Instead of a cook, Twice Daily has a chef. The menu is always fresh.
Driving Food Sales
Paul Servais, foodservice zone leader for Kwik Trip in La Crosse, Wis., which operates 462 stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, noted Kwik Trip’s goal is to get people to stop in for breakfast and come back for lunch and again in the evening.
Kwik Trip has its own dairy, bakery, commissary, warehouse and fleet for delivery. It offers a hot food and grab-and-go program, and boasts 15 breakfast items, 18 lunch options, and 9-10 snack items. Stores where it fits the market have been doing breakfast all day for years.
A condiments bar lets customers customize sandwiches their way.
Customers can also select from pizza—take and bake, or baked whole or by the slice— and soups, which are made in Kwik Trip’s commissary and shipped to stores.
Roller grill items continue to be in demand with the best roller grill sales coming from travel centers along the interstate.
The chain debuted a fresh case in 2004 with better-for-you items including sandwiches, cheese sticks and fruits. Today those have grown to new 12-foot cases, that turn over once a day.
Sandwiches are made in Kwik Trip’s commissary and shipped to stores. Better-for- you sandwiches in the last two years really took off with customers.
Bakery is a huge part of Kwik Trip’s business. It works on doing the basics and providing quality and value around those basics.
Packaged bakery, including cookies and donuts in take-home packaging are also big sellers with stores moving 500-600 pieces a day. “Small town bakeries have left, so there is a market for this,” Servais said. Donuts are frosted in the stores.
Last year, the chain added self-serve espresso makers, which have seen great success. “Consumers need quality and value. If you can deliver this at a lesser price it does sell. Starbucks customers are hard to get but McDonald’s customers are all over it,” he said.
But before anyone embarks on a foodservice program, Servais stressed that cleanliness and quality service are the price of entry. “If your stores aren’t clean, from your forecourt to your stores to your bathrooms, don’t get into foodservice,” he warned.
Bart Stransky, executive director merchandising, for Race Trac, which operates more than 400 stores across the southeastern U.S., noted the chain’s 6,000 square-foot open-format stores feature 3-6 roller grills, a toppings bar, fresh sandwiches, a frozen yogurt program, and a made-to-order burrito concept called Speedy Avocado and a pizza concept—which are being tested.
RaceTrac’s test kitchen allows it to continuously innovate.
Stransky noted that RaceTrac’s foodservice program has been put in place over the past 5-6 years, and other chains that haven’t joined the foodservice bandwagon yet, haven’t missed the boat, as it is possible to put some of these big concepts into action relatively quickly.
RaceTrac focuses on fresh. Its frozen yogurt program offers five dual head machines and 41 toppings.
It’s new Speedy Avocado program is being tested with touchscreens and without. Based on the success of upselling with the touchscreens, RaceTrac plans to move forward with the screens as it continues to roll out the offering at more stores.
Stransky also shared some lessons learned along the way.
-Hire for attitude, train them and push them to sample. If you miss one of three, if you are not training or not sampling or not employing friendly people, your sales will suffer for it.
-Presentation is key, from the finishes to the details like wrappers with buzzwords such as fresh to an across-the-store cohesive feel around store layout and design.
-Attach combos and two-fers, where you can.
Stransky noted it’s also good to look outside the convenience store channel for inspiration. “We will keep pushing ourselves to do more. The more the industry as a whole gets better at foodservice, the better it will be for everyone.”