Nick Powell, corporate chef for QuikTrip Corp., has helped guide the convenience store retailer to the top of the foodservice pyramid.
By David Bennett, Senior Editor
While working in research and development for Tulsa, Okla.-based Bama Frozen Dough Co. seven years ago, Nick Powell enjoyed being part of a hometown company with a big business footprint. A global provider of pies and pizza dough for McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, Bama operated in various locations, including Beijing, China, where Powell was employed off and on for three years.
On a visit to a QuikTrip Corp. convenience store in Tulsa one evening Powell was struck by the freshness of the sandwiches and the friendliness of the staff. It was then that he had an epiphany that there was an opportunity for the Tulsa-based c-store chain to expand its foodservice that would eclipse rival fast-food chains.
“I could see in my mind where the company was headed with food, so I kept an eye out for an opening with the company,” said Powell, who did join QuikTrip in 2009 as the company’s corporate chef.
While QuikTrip, which operates 720 locations across 11 states, had “a roller grill program like no other,” decision makers, which included Powell, envisioned full-service customer counters and a made-to-order menu from kiosks. Known today as QT Kitchens, the initiative not only provided the fulcrum for the c-store’s customer-service philosophy, it’s a pillar for the company’s future.
“When you’re in Japan, you can go into a c-store and get anything you want,” Powell said. “That’s where I saw QuikTrip going. But a lot of our stores didn’t have kitchens, so we were limited in what we could do.”
QuikTrip began its in-house foodservice venture with a soft pretzel offering. Pretzels didn’t require a significant amount of equipment or knowhow, and “the response for them was so good, that it opened the door to what we’re doing today,” Powell said.
A hometown company with a big business footprint, QuikTrip in 2015 ranked No. 28 on Forbes’ list of largest private companies with $11 billion in annual sales.
What QuikTrip is doing today is blazing an innovative trail based in part on a menu shaped by Powell. At each QT Kitchen full-service counter, customers can order Hotzi-branded breakfast sandwiches, made-to-order sandwiches, flatbreads, pizzas, pretzels, smoothies and coffee drinks.
The QT Kitchens concept has been a decade-long journey of research, testing and retrofitting existing stores to accommodate fully-equipped kitchens. In a little more than a year, the company added QT Kitchens in 600 of its 720 locations across 11 states. The last of the revamped sites were completed at the end of 2015, making a total of 670 QT Kitchen-equipped locations. Though those remaining 50 sites are too constrained in size, every newly-built store will feature a full QT Kitchen.
“When you walk in, you’re facing a nice open kitchen,” Powell said. “We have these gorgeous LED menus. All the ordering is done via kiosks—a touchscreen, so you can get things made exactly how you want them.”
Building upon the success of its pizza-by-the slice, QuikTrip in January 2016 put additional pressure on pizza competitors by launching its new carry out X-Large pizza—a made-to-order, 12-slice pizza.
With the company-wide renovation of its store locations, QuikTrip in 2016 intends on refining its foodservice program by honing training for workers and expanding its company app to better incorporate the made-to-order offering concept.
Those two things will keep Powell busy this year, but the chef does acknowledge that the road already traveled has been a whirlwind.
“If you had told me five years ago we would be where we are today, I don’t think I would have believed you,” Powell said.