By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
Warrior Fuel Convenience Stores’ signature burritos are the talk of Bernalillo, N.M, where the company operates two stores.
That word-of-mouth plus the aromas of fresh cooking wafting through the stores sell the house-made burritos more effectively than any advertising could, according to Silvia Gibson, Warrior’s manager of retail operations.
The burrito buzz has even gone beyond Bernalillo, drawing regular customers from Albuquerque, about 20 minutes away, and Santa Fe, a 45-minute drive, Gibson noted.
“We have even had customers come from as far away as Cuba who told us they came in because they had heard about our burritos,” Gibson said.
Local high schools often order as many as 200-250 at a time.
No flash in the pan, the burritos have been a staple at Warrior for more than 14 years. Both stores have commercial kitchens that produce six or seven made-to-order dishes.
“What makes our food stand out is that we cook it like our customers would cook it at home,” Gibson said. “I always tell my people if you wouldn’t serve it to your family to eat, don’t put it out on the line.”
In addition to the burritos, Warrior stores offer made-to-order sandwiches and salads. To keep up with the growing foodservice competition in the area, Gibson said that the company is considering adding from-scratch tortillas to the stores’ menu.
Gibson pointed out that foodservice accounts for “a significant part” of the stores’ inside sales. Customers who come in for the food also usually grab sodas, waters and other convenience items while they are in the stores. They are also more likely to become loyal gas customers, according to Gibson.
Convenience store retailers who want to get the edge on the quick-service drive-through and third-party delivery service competition for lunch and dinner should focus, like Warrior, on differentiating their offerings with innovative menu items, outstanding food quality and proprietary branding, said John Pracht, vice president of retail at Nielsen market research company. Hot dogs, pizza and taquitos are fine for a snack menu, he explained, but, to stand out as a mealtime destination, c-stores have to feature food products, like sandwiches or specialty items such as burritos, and quality customers can’t find anywhere else.
“Branding should match the store banner to link that food product directly to the store,” he said. “For example, if I want a chicken sandwich, I will probably have to drive past a number of foodservice offerings, maybe even some that also offer chicken sandwiches, to get to a particular convenience store. But if I really feel that the convenience store’s chicken sandwich is outstanding, I’ll go out of my way to get it.”
Pracht noted that a number of c-stores have already established store-brand connections with their coffee that challenge the best national brands.
For sandwiches, it is important to offer product tiers to appeal to the widest range of consumers.
“Some customers just want a standard turkey or ham and cheese sandwich so it’s important to carry the basics,” Pracht said. “But a growing number of consumers are looking for another level of sandwich made with premium, natural, sustainable, healthful and even organic ingredients.”
While five years ago, most consumers would have been surprised to find fresh food at a c-store, today freshness is expected, Pracht said.
“A product might be super-convenient, but if it doesn’t meet consumers’ expectations of freshness and taste, convenience is not a compelling enough reason to buy it,” Pracht said.
Regular customers at Manassas, Va.-based Wi-Not Stop convenience stores know that if it’s Monday it must be homemade meat loaf. Every day, including weekends, they know they’ll find Wi-Not Stop’s locally-renowned, proprietary-recipe fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy.
“We sell pans and pans of chicken every day,” said Carl Hitt, Jr., the company’s director of retail operations for the 12-store chain. “Customers will call us and order in advance for family dinners, churches and events.”
Aside from the ubiquitous fried chicken, the four stores that have Wi-Not Stop Café locations offer a variety of different lunch and dinner entrée, side and dessert options every weekday.
All of the food is cooked in the stores’ fully-equipped kitchens. Food is served from a hot line in a 12-foot glass-front case. Customers go down the line choosing their entrees and sides, which are weighed for pricing.
“Customers can see our staff cooking in the kitchen, so they know the food is really homemade,” Hitt said. “That and the appetizing sight and smell of the food in the case spark interest and hunger.”
Until about two years ago, Wi-Not Stop used frozen entrees. Since going fresh, never frozen, sales have soared, he noted.
“Customers told us they wanted real, home-cooked meals and that’s what we give them,” he said.
Five of the 12 Wi-Not Stop stores have full delis that offer sandwiches and sides such as potato, macaroni and fruit salads. The delis slice their own meat and offer the sides either in individual portions or larger take-home tubs.
The rest of the stores without delis are provided with grab-and-go sandwiches and subs by the company’s commissary. Sandwiches can be customized with tomatoes, onion, lettuce and condiments in the stores.
Like Warrior, Wi-Not Stop relies mostly on word-of-mouth to draw in lunch and dinner customers.
“Seeing that it is our highest margin area, foodservice has become an integral part of our business and one that we plan to continue to expand,” Hitt said. “We see that our best opportunities for the future are in food.”
As customers get used to finding good food at gas stations, they are increasingly “coming to fill up their hungry bellies as well as their cars,” he said. “The culture has changed and they have come to expect a one-stop shop where they can get fuel, high-quality food and sundries all in the same place.”