Few foods are as veto-proof as pizza. Because of the promise of profits, convenience stores are getting an increasingly larger piece of the $40 billion U.S. pizza market.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
Americans are passionate about pizza. They crave it morning, noon and night, as convenience store operators have discovered. And stores don’t have to offer a special breakfast pizza to get the morning business.
Hy-Miler Convenience, a 22-store chain based in Huron, Ohio, doesn’t have a separate breakfast pizza, yet it has travelers coming in off the road and buying slices of regular pizza at 9 a.m. and earlier, said store manager Jonathan Stipp.
Stipp noted that dinner sales are also growing, especially with the availability of delivery service.
“Delivery has been great for us and has become a big part of our business,” he said.
Stipp keeps the warming box filled with slices until the store’s closing time, between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. weekdays, 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and midnight in the summer. He said pizza sales are steady throughout the evening.
Hy-Miler is a franchisee of local favorite restaurant brand, Cameo Pizza. That affiliation has helped to make the Hy-Miler store a destination for aficionados of that brand.
Cameo’s main restaurant in downtown Sandusky makes the dough and sauce and delivers them to the convenience store twice a week. The restaurant also provides its proprietary cheese blend that helps give the pizzas their unique flavor. For “Friday night rush,” pies are kept in a warmer to pro- vide customers with an immediate “hot and fresh” option, he said. Pies can also be made to order with the customers’ choice of toppings (for example, some customers like their pizza topped with sauerkraut, onion and bacon or sausage, Stipp said). With a Lincoln Impinger oven, a pie takes only six minutes to bake.
Although pepperoni is America’s favorite topping, consumers also like to have the opportunity to try different varieties. The menu at Hy-Miler features 12 different specialty pizzas. Because the menu at the original Cameo Pizza is so extensive, Stipp noted, he can also select one of the specialty pies his store doesn’t usually carry to feature as a limited time offer (LTO).
The store heavily promotes its pizza offering, using a lot of outside signage—including an electronic reader board that is visible from the main road. Radio remotes and coupons in the local paper and delivered through direct mail also sup- port the pizza program.
FRESH TO GO
Pizza is considered an ancillary part of the foodservice offering at the four Handy Mart stores that have a Pizza Inn express.
“While pizza sales may average only $10,000 per month, there’s very little labor tied to it,” said Link Cook, director of food operations for Handy Mart, which has 40 convenience store locations in eastern North Carolina. “It also drives customers to our core products such as sodas, six-packs, bags of chips and sweet items for dessert.”
The major portion of the stores’ pizza sales come from individual seven-inch grab-and-go pies. They are available in four varieties and have a one-hour shelf life.
Larger thin- or thick-crust pies may also be custom ordered. Having the Pizza Inn program allows Handy Mart to offer other complementary items, such as cheese sticks and pepperoni and mozzarella wraps, using the same basic ingredients.
Although Pizza Inn makes frozen dough available to its franchisees, Handy Mart makes it daily in the stores.
“That freshness is a part of who we are as a company,” Cook said.
Like Stipp, Cook finds that pizza sales are steady from morning to 10 p.m. closing. At one time, the company tried a breakfast pizza, but it was not a big seller, he said.
BETTER QUALITY AND SALES
Convenience stores have long been snacking destinations so having pizza hot and ready all day makes sense, said Tim Powell, vice president of consulting at Chicago-based Q1 Productions, a food and beverage consulting practice. Pizza is one of the top five areas of foodservice growth for c-stores. Much of this growth is driven by the increasingly mobile population, especially Millennials; the rise in disposable income and the drop in fuel prices. Most of all, however, it is driven by the availability of better quality pizza at convenience stores.
Powell expects pizza sales to continue to increase. “After all, who doesn’t like pizza,” he asked.
For most convenience stores, pizza is usually more of a basket builder than a trip driver.
“For most consumers, buying pizza is not top of mind when they go to a convenience store,” Powell said. “People come in to pay for gas or get cigarettes, giving the stores the opportunity to tempt them with the sight and smell of fresh- baked pizza.”
Sampling is an important marketing tool for food products, including pizza. “Take the samples around when the pies are just out of the oven,” he said.
Be sure to sample at the end of the day, when people are coming to the store on their way home from work. And don’t confine the sampling to within the store’s four walls.
“Take samples outside to the pumps,” Powell said. “Give your gas customers another compelling reason to come into your stores. Then, when they come in and see and smell the pizza, it will sell itself.”
He also recommended having signage with photos of appetizing-looking pizza in and outside of the stores as reminders customers will see every time they visit.
As for dayparts, Powell noted that some c-stores see more pizza purchases in the morning than at any other time of day, particularly if their customer base includes shift workers. While breakfast pizzas offer variety, pepperoni remains the number one topping, accounting for about 75% of sales, even early in the morning.
To add variety, Powell thinks that LTOs give operators the chance to test out different toppings and crust thickness. In addition to adding something new for consumers already in the stores to try, LTOs also give retailers something interesting to post to social media to spark readers’ interest and drive new business.
Calzones may also be a profitable addition to a convenience store’s pizza menu, Powell suggested, because they’re ultra-portable, use the same ingredients as the pizza and can be sold at a good price. Take-and-bake pies from the refrigerator and/or freezer can be another wise category extension.
“Not only do take-and-bake pies have a longer hold time, they are also key to what c-stores are all about—convenience for consumers,” Powell said.
Any of these variations can be tried without increasing the need for more and different ingredients or added labor.
Although pizza is not usually a destination driver for convenience stores, it should be treated like one, he noted. Like an ancient hot dog sitting on a roller grill that characterized c-store food in consumers’ minds 20 years ago, pizza that has been sitting around too longer in the warmer is a turn-off for customers.
The most challenging time of the day when it comes to how much pizza to have out in the warmers is the prime snack period between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. His guideline is, even if it tastes better than it looks, toss it.