Breakfast may be the star of c-store foodservice programs, but food forward retailers are stepping up to the plate to vie for lunch and dinner sales.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Assistant Editor
As supermarkets and convenience stores have been “raising the bar on their foodservice offerings,” an increasing number of consumers are choosing these outlets for their prepared meals and snacks over traditional quick-service restaurants (QSRs), according to a recent report from the NPD Group.
The report noted that the number of fast food purchases made at retail outlets such as supermarkets and c-stores in the March 2015 through June 2015 period was over six visits higher than those made to QSRs in an average four-week period.
“Consumers use QSRs, convenience and grocery stores interchangeably for fast food, particularly when they find the same quality and variety,” said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst. “The lines between retail foodservice and QSRs are blurring for consumers, and these channels are competing for visits from consumers looking for a quick meal or snack.”
One growing c-store competitor is the Manassas, Va.-based Wi-Not Stop convenience store chain. At two of the chain’s locations, the lunch and dinner menus include freshly made proprietary chicken, Hunt Brother’s Pizza, burgers and fries and even daily-themed meals.
Monday, for example, might be meatloaf and mac and cheese, Tuesday Mexican enchiladas or tacos and so forth. All of the themed meals also offer vegetable sides, bread and desserts, said Carl Hitt, the company’s director of retail operations.
The Wi-Not Stop Cafes within the stores have been featuring these themed meals since 2007. One thousand square feet of an originally 11,000-square-foot grocery store in Carpathian, Va. was converted to a c-store/commissary and is dedicated to food preparation for itself and six other stores in the 12-unit chain. Plans are in play to expand the concept to some of Wi-Not Stop’s other stores, Hitt said.
“We’re known for our chicken and we sell pounds and pounds of it,” said Hitt.
Lunch begins at 10:30 a.m. Hitt noted that it isn’t unusual to see lines wrapped around the building at lunchtime. At dinnertime there is a second rush as customers stop by to pick up family-size meals to go.
The food is served from a 12-foot-long glass front case, featuring 16 trays of different foods on display where customers can point out their choices.
While the themed meals are offered only on weekdays, the fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy are always on the menu. The stores also take advantage of chicken’s versatility by putting it in the cold case for grab and go and using it to make tacos, Hitt explained. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs and hot and cold subs are available for grab and go.
Hitt has seen the change in perception of convenience store foods over the years.
“Millennials are used to buying food from c-stores, but we see people of all ages come into our stores for meals,” Hitt said.
Both lunch and dinner business at the Wi-Not Stop stores are increasing “every day as our customer counts continue to grow,” he said. Hitt attributes most of that new business to customer word of mouth.
SELLING VALUE AND VARIETY
For the past 15 years, Honey Farms convenience stores has partnered with D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches, a popular branded, regional restaurant chain, in some of its 36 locations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The sites featuring the D’Angelo products offer extensive menus of grilled sandwiches as well as salads, soups and pizza.
An ongoing promotion is a “Choose Two” option of a half sandwich, cup of soup or side salad for a value price.
“We started this promotion about a year ago and it has been very successful,” said Karen Campbell, Honey Farms’ director of marketing.
All of the Honey Farms stores do a brisk lunch and dinner business with fresh sandwiches for grab and go. Honey Farms also partners with other branded concepts such as McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, Winchester Chicken, Bellarico’s Pizza and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, depending on the customer demographics of the stores.
Fried chicken—on the bone, as tenders, wings or livers and gizzards—is the top-selling item for lunch and dinner at St. James, La.-headquartered Popingo’s Convenience Stores, said Justin Talbot, the company’s director of food services. Popingo’s has a total of nine stores over the southeast portion of Louisiana. Currently, four of its nine sites serve food, but plans call to expand foodservice to all of the stores in the next three years, Talbot said.
In addition to the chicken, which is sold by the piece or in combo meals with fries, rolls and a 16-ounce drink, the stores’ hot food showcase features burgers, sandwiches and po’ boys, single-serving and large-size baked-to-order pizzas, catfish by the piece or in combo meals, and shrimp and seafood platters. All of the fried chicken and fish is battered and fried to order. A wide array of fresh side items is also displayed.
Some of the stores add homestyle plated lunches, such as baked pork chops with two sides, lasagna or red beans and rice to their menus. Platters cost $9.99 each, which includes a 20-ounce fountain drink.
“The platters sell very well for lunch and dinner,” Talbot said.
Popingo’s begins selling lunch and dinner items at 10:30 a.m. and keeps going until closing time at 8 p.m. Chicken sales are strong in the morning and remain that way throughout the day and evening, he said.
To keep foodservice sales high over the weekends, the stores feature an eight-piece dark meat chicken special for $4.99 on Sundays. On some weekdays, a bundled value meal might include a freshly grilled hamburger, bag of chips and 20-ounce Coke product for $3.99.
An app is available to allow customers to see specials and promotions. Although it is not set up for ordering at the present time, it may be in the near future. Popingo’s is also in the process of designing an ordering kiosk program and plans to launch a test of that soon.