Great menus don’t happen overnight. They evolve with consumer preferences and food trends. But a few basic steps and a little creativity can help you build a market-competitive menu and keep it fresh and dynamic for your customers.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
Each day at Cubby’s convenience stores in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, the menu features a different special item plus a beverage for a value price.
To keep patrons apprised of the daily specials as well as store managers so they know what products to order for each week’s inventory, the company is standardizing the daily menu. For example, every Monday the special will be tacos and every Tuesday a tenderloin sandwich, said Cubby’s president De Lone Wilson.
“While just about everybody is trying to build a food culture, we already have it, but we need to rein it in a little and establish a little order on our menu,” Wilson said.
Standardizing the menu will also give the company a better handle on how much each item costs per serving, how much they’re selling and how much they’re grossing, Wilson explained.
For some of the convenience stores serviced by Dallas-based Empire Petroleum Partners, standardized proprietary menus of daily specials have long been the foundation of successful foodservice programs, said Ted Roccagli, director of partnerships and preferred vendor programs for the Dallas-based company, which serves some 1,500 locations, inclusive of some company-owned and -operated sites, spanning 30 states.
“These stores have a loyal following of customers who come in, say, every Monday for the meatloaf or every Friday for the catfish,” he explained. “Stores can also attract loyal followings by offering different value-added combinations of items they serve all the time—for example, three tenders, a potato wedge and fountain drink—on the same days every week.”
Utilizing ingredients already in the stores also saves waste and money for Cubby’s. Take the c-store’s fried chicken, for example. At the end of the day some of the chicken that has not been sold is repurposed into creative dishes such as casseroles, soft tacos, pot pie or bowls with layers of chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, gravy and cheese. Bone-in chicken is shrink-wrapped and sold from the cold case.
In the Empire partner stores that feature either Krispy Krunchy Chicken or Chester’s Chicken, product that has been in the warmer for a few hours is moved to the cold case where it becomes eligible for sale to customers who have Electronic Benefits Cards (EBT).
But chicken isn’t the only versatile ingredient in the convenience store inventory. Cubby’s sells store-made pizzas and burgers, which separately do well, but together have created a new—and very popular—menu item dubbed the Junction Burger.
“For the Junction Burger we wrap a hamburger with toppings in a pizza crust and bake it,” Wilson explained.
Just about anything can go into the Junction Burger, he said. One foodservice manager even wrapped up spaghetti and meatballs in a unique concoction.
“We’re always reviewing our menu and trying new things because we want to be different than the chicken, pizza or sandwich shops down the road,” Wilson noted. “But we don’t want to be too off-the-rails different because our Midwestern customers like their food a little plainer. And while we don’t chase trends, we do try to incorporate whatever is new that will work in our stores.”
WINNING WITH BREAKFAST
Breakfast, for example, is a big deal at Cubby’s. In most stores, customers can get a full sit-down breakfast with eggs, bacon, pancakes and biscuits.
Nine months ago, the company introduced a breakfast sandwich and, according to Wilson, it has become one of the stores’ best-selling items. The idea came from a visit to the store of a member of a study group to which he belongs.
Seventy-five percent of c-store operators have also seen an increase in their breakfast food sales, according to a new report from Datassential market research. The report attributes this sales rise to offerings of hot breakfast sandwiches, which have shown the greatest sales growth second only to pizza.
Breakfast is available at any time of day at Cubby’s, a now-hot trend that the stores have been doing for a long time.
An attractive breakfast menu can put consumers in a food-buying mindset that can last throughout the day, said Brian Darr, Datassential’s managing director.
“C-stores have always been great destinations for hot and cold beverages and, with the growth of consumer interest in breakfast, can most easily make the transition from beverage-only to food and beverage purchase during that daypart,” Darr said.
But breakfast doesn’t only mean bagel and biscuit sandwiches. Darr suggested that retailers offer a wider variety of foods and not only those usually associated with the breakfast daypart.
“A surprising number of people buy hot dogs in the morning, just as they are now looking for traditional breakfast items later in the day,” Darr said.
Accounting for customer preferences takes experience.
Wilson pointed out that Cubby’s sells a lot of chicken in the morning, including tenders with potato wedges.
“We also regularly see customers order and eat a pound of gizzards in the morning,” he said.
Breakfast gives stores a chance to really show off their dedication to freshness products made on site.
“Even if you’re just baking muffins or other pastries from frozen dough, you should include some of these products on your menu to add to the quality perception of all of your foods items,” Darr said. “The latest equipment, such as speed ovens with smaller footprints, makes it possible to go beyond the microwave.”
When developing a menu, Roccagli emphasized, it’s important to know your customers. In areas with a large Hispanic community, for example, spicy and familiar ethnic foods should be available. Datassential reported that over the past four years the most-added items to c-store menus have been ethnic foods such as egg rolls, empanadas and sushi.
Among the prepared foods that retailers told Datassential they expected to add to their menus were fresh fruit and vegetables, green salads, fresh-brewed iced teas and smoothies.
“There is still a lot of room for growth with fresh and better-for-you items,” said Ann Golladay, senior project manager at Datassential.
Retailers who are hearing their customers call for “better-for-you” options should understand this no longer applies to just “reduced calorie” or “low fat” products for many consumers. Instead it also means all-natural, fresh never frozen and free of preservatives and antibiotics, Golladay said.
“We use the word ‘fresh’ a lot because ‘healthy’ sounds great, but doesn’t sell,” said Cubby’s Wilson.
Adding wraps to the menu is one way to add a halo of healthfulness to a sandwich menu, Roccagli said.
“There are many different kinds of tortillas, including chipotle and spinach, so retailers can vary the combinations and flavors,” he said.
Looking closer at the Datassential study can also yield some new menu ideas. For instance, the survey found items that showed high consumer interest but are less often offered in c-stores included Asian rice bowls, hot soup and salad bars.