Convenience stores are beating out restaurants when it comes to pizza sales.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
In the year ending March 2016, Americans purchased 5.2 billion servings of pizza from commercial restaurants and convenience stores, said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for NPD Group. Two hundred and eight million or 4% of those purchases were made at convenience stores.
But over the past year, pizza servings at convenience stores increased 6%, more than any quick-service pizza or independent restaurants, or large or small pizza chains.
Six percent may not seem like a large increase, but compared to the movement in the other channels, it is significant, Riggs noted.
“Convenience store retailers are doing a lot of things right, from offering high quality, freshly-prepared products to supporting these products with strong advertising, promotions and loyalty programs. I see signs in front of convenience stores all over the place,” Riggs said. “Pizza is a very challenging, fragmented category with a lot of competition, but food-forward convenience stores have the advantage of offering reasonable price points and quick in and out as well as good products.”
Some pizza purveyors, both quick-service restaurants and convenience stores, are turning to technology to make ordering and delivery of pizza quicker and easier for consumers. At some locations of Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s General Stores, for example, customers can order their pizzas for delivery right from their mobile apps. Casey’s launched the program in early January of this year.
Industry giant Domino’s is heavily advertising a specially-designed and decked-out delivery car, the DXP, with an on-board warming oven heated up to 140 degrees to keep pizza hot from the store to the delivery location. In some international markets the company is also testing a self-driving robot delivery system.
But for most operators—both restaurants and convenience stores —technological advances are still somewhere down the road. Right now their focus is squarely on the pie itself, making sure it is the best available in the marketplace and using innovative thinking to make their product stand out in the crowded marketplace.
KEEPING FRESH OPTIONS
Maritime Farms Convenience Stores, which operates 10 locations in Midcoast Maine, focuses on homemade quality and variety to keep pizza sales high. The company has had its own proprietary program for at least nine years and sales “are growing all the time,” said Foodservice Director Charon Curtis.
On the menu are 18 specialty pizzas, all available in large (16-inch) or small (12-inch) sizes on regular or thin crusts. Prices range from $7.99 for a small cheese or Galley Garlic Bread Pizza to $10.99 for a Lantern Room Loaded pie. Large pizzas range from $9.99-$19.99.
All of the topped-to-order specialties are available all of the time. At lunchtime each day, four pizza selections are also available by the slice for $1.85.
The most popular varieties are the South End Chicken Broccoli Alfredo with Alfredo sauce, broccoli, fajita chicken and cheese, and the Schooner Steak & Cheese, a cheese pizza topped with shaved steak.
Some of other unique choices include the Belfast BLT, with bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese and mayonnaise; the Marimac Pizza with cheese, hamburger, onions, tomatoes, pickles, Thousand Island dressing and lettuce; the Pemaquid Pizza with salsa, chicken, green peppers, onions, black olives and tomatoes; the Sailor’s Steak Lover’s Pizza with shaved steak, hamburger, cheese and A-1 Sauce and the Criehaven Chicken, Ranch and Bacon with ranch dressing and cheese.
“We are always looking at different flavor combinations to keep our menu fresh and exciting for our customers,” Curtis said. “And we have some very creative people in our stores who are constantly coming up with new combinations.”
Every day the Seacoast Special, two single-topping large pies for $17.99, is available. Sometimes the stores bundle pizza and soft drinks at a special price.
The same dough that is used for pizzas does double duty as the wrapping around calzones, which are available in a plain cheese version—$7.99 for small, $9.99 for large—or with various toppings ($1.50 extra on the small, $2 on the large).
While breakfast sandwiches remain the biggest sellers in the morning meal daypart, breakfast pizzas are also popular. They are often ordered ahead for business meeting breakfasts and other get-togethers.
Curtis pointed out that the Maritime Farms stores are overall food-forward, featuring everything from sandwiches to burgers and newly-introduced burritos and tacos. But it’s the pizza that seems to make the stores true dining destinations.
“That’s our most creative category,” Curtis said.
For the past five years, Upper Saint Clair, Pa.-based CoGo’s has featured a distributor-branded concept called deVinci’s Pizzeria in three out of its 40 locations. Every year, the chain sees its pizza sales grow steadily, said Lynette Rasel, CoGo’s merchandising director.
The stores have the pizza available beginning at 5 a.m. each day with a couple of different breakfast varieties, including a Western Omelet version that piles on peppers and onions along with the usual egg, bacon or sausage and cheese.
In addition to the plain cheese and customized one or multiple toppings pizzas, CoGo’s daily menu features six different specialty pies. While pepperoni still reigns supreme with customers, Buffalo Chicken Pizza, topped with buffalo chicken strips, a “zesty” sauce and cheese is the next best-seller.
All of the pizzas are available in topped-to-order 12-inch and 16-inch sizes and range in price from $6.99-$9.99 for the former and $10.99-$13.99 for the latter. Customers can get an unlimited number of toppings ranging from pepperoni, sausage, bacon, ham and meatballs to veggies to pineapple, hot peppers and jalapeños for a flat $9.99 for a 12-inch pie and $13.99 for the 16-inch.
Throughout the day, there are 3-4 different kinds of grab-and-go pies available whole or by the slice ($1.99). Pizza eating occasions span all dayparts for CoGo’s customers, with strong sales up until 9 p.m-10 p.m., Rasel noted.
“While we offer topping customization as an option, our customers tend to prefer to just grab and go out of our warming box,” Rasel said.
In addition to the regular pizza menu, the stores do a limited time offer (LTO) on a monthly basis. One recent hit was a Pierogi Pizza with potato, cheese and onion topping to represent the flavor profile of the popular Polish pasta. This pie has done so well that the stores continue to make it even though its LTO period has passed.
Pizzas are baked in a conveyor oven in front of the customers. The pies take eight minutes to cook.
To keep pizza front and center in the minds of customers, CoGo’s features special deals on pizza slices twice a week. The stores also offer “dinner bundles” including two six-inch sub sandwiches and a two-liter bottle of soda.
Between pizzas and its signature pepperoni rolls, which is the c-store’s top-selling SKU, Rasel pointed out, CoGo’s has become a go-to spot for food lovers who shop in its market areas.
“We see a lot of people who come just for our pizza and pepperoni rolls on a regular basis,” Rasel said.