Before investing in foodservice equipment, convenience store operators must consider tangibles such as flexibility, return on investment, market demographics and menu offerings.
By Howard Riell, Contributing Editor
Purchasing, operating and maintaining foodservice equipment is becoming increasingly important for convenience stores, making experience, expertise and careful management essential.
All of the factors that go into an equipment purchase—each machine’s level of flexibility, return on investment, market demographics, planned menu offerings, daypart sales breakdowns, available square footage, employee competency and in-house training capabilities and maintenance and service—must be weighed carefully.
“Having the right piece of equipment to suit your menu is critical, and selecting the wrong piece of equipment can impact the customer experience and the bottom line,” said Jannah Jablonowski, corporate communications consultant for Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle Inc., which operates 194 GetGo convenience stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia. “All equipment decisions should start with the most important question: what is on the menu?”
Operators should identify the pieces of equipment that can handle the expected volume, Jablonowski continued. It can be very costly in both dollars invested and the level of customer experience—from lengthy wait times to poor product quality—to select a piece of equipment that is too large or too small to accommodate a store’s needs.
“Understanding the return on investment is also important when selecting equipment,” Jablonowski said. “You have to establish a sales target that will make the equipment investment worthwhile.”
Of course, investment is only part of the equation when making the best choice.
“The equipment must be safe and simple enough to be operated by the untrained public,” suggested veteran foodservice consultant Ray Soucie, senior project manager for Webb Foodservice Design in Anaheim, Calif. “Pieces like that enable self-service and cut labor hours.”
Which pieces of equipment will allow c-stores the most flexibility and the broadest menu? According to Jablonowski, it is combination convection/microwave technology ovens like those manufactured by Turbo-Chef or Merrychef, which she has found afford a great deal of flexibility and speed without requiring specialized skill to operate.
“Combi-therm ovens provide a wide range of cooking options, and are ideal for locations that are doing large-scale production like baking bread or cookies and roasting or steaming products,” Jablonowski said. “Many options can be suitable, but it is vital to select the best equipment to meet your menu needs.”
Like other convenience store operators, GetGo faces two basic challenges, which most quick-service restaurants (QSR) don’t face: the lack of space and a greater need for speed.
“Because c-stores generally have limited available space and also need equipment that can quickly produce great tasting and great looking products without a high culinary skill level, there is no need for large pieces of equipment that take 10 minutes to produce a menu item,” Jablonowski said. “In a restaurant environment there is typically more time to prepare a product, so broilers, ranges and grills are the norm.”
Opinions on which pieces of equipment can reliably be purchased used and which cannot vary—most operators are more willing to take a risk on less-costly machines—but Jablonowski said she has no qualms with any type of unit.
“Provided that a service technician has inspected and approved the equipment, I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase any specific piece used,” she said. “It’s similar to having a mechanic check over a used car before you purchase it.”
KEEP IT NEW
Soucie explained that an exception is refrigeration equipment, which should never be purchased used because it’s so critical.
“It is on 24/7, houses the bulk of their perishable inventory, and is used heavily,” Soucie said.
Jablonowski advised convenience store operators to begin at the beginning when mulling equipment purchases, by starting with a set menu.
“This is the start to defining exactly what you need. Once you have an idea of what you may want, do some research with folks who are already using it, Jablonowski said. “Ask if they are happy with its performance, if they have experienced any issues, or if they have any suggestions.”
Retailers should also take advantage of the fact that most equipment companies have a corporate chef on staff who is tasked with demonstrating the equipment and showing the features and benefits. “Ask the corporate chef what he would change if he could redesign the equipment. That provides an opportunity to possibly expose some of the gaps in performance that otherwise wouldn’t be revealed in the typical sales pitch.”
Sam Odeh, president of Elmhurst, Ill.-based Power Mart, part of a retail network of 1,150 stores, identified what he sees as three primary reasons why equipment succeeds or fails in his stores. The first is orientation/training and operations; the second is consistency and accuracy of operations; and the third is upkeep and maintenance.
The great challenge facing his foodservice operations, Odeh pointed out, is staffing for the required experience and expertise. “Our foodservice people are not experienced, and lack the manufacturer training.”
Success when purchasing and operating foodservice equipment in c-stores, Odeh said, hinges on retailers doing their homework in four key areas: “training support, the maintenance program, regular cleaning and upkeep, and the availability of replacement parts when needed.”
QUICK AND CONVENIENT
More and more, the lines of foodservice offerings in retail channels continue to blur.
“I think restaurants are coming around more to the c-store model, in all honesty,” said Shannon Harvey, foodservice category manager for Indianapolis, Ind.-based Ricker’s Convenience Stores, which operates 57 locations, 13 of which offer foodservice. “Restaurants are just like everyone else: they want it quick, they want it convenient, and they are willing to pay more for a finished item. But they are going to save on the labor, and the technology is amazing now.”
After finding success with its original food truck business, Ricker’s began to expand its presence in the foodservice arena with its first in-store test in 2014. At that time, the menu featured fast and fresh Mexican cuisine that gave customers high-quality burritos, tacos, quesadillas and salads.
As part of its growth strategy, Ricker’s is now expanding its food offering to include a variety of fresh, made-to-order breakfast, lunch and dinner options, including pizza, breadsticks, deli sandwiches, salads and more.
The company plans to add its foodservice offering to another 12 stores in the months to come as part of a system-wide remodeling program. The program will eventually find its way into every store that has sufficient square footage. According to Harvey, the standard equipment package costs $20,000-$30,000 per location.
Knowledge is power, Harvey said, which is why she recommended c-store operators planning to expand their foodservice offerings attend trade shows where the latest equipment is on display and manufacturers in attendance.
“One of the best things you can do is go to the shows like the National Restaurant Association show or the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) Show, where you see all the technology and options out there,” Harvey said.
Manufacturers, she continued, will help retail customers design their recipes and program the equipment.
“That’s what they are there for. They have chefs who work for them who will help you do that. We’re not spending all the time learning how to program the oven,” Harvey said. “I tell them, ‘I want to do this and this with this oven’ and they will program it for me.”
The need for more efficient foodservice equipment will only grow in the years to come.