Foodservice Marketing Still Crucial

Rolling out a foodservice program can require a lot of time, effort and, in many cases, expense. But the buck doesn’t stop there. Retailers have to be willing to commit their resources to getting the public to equate their brand with quality.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor

It takes four customer interactions to change trial into habit, according to Scott Zaremba, president of Lawrence, Kan.-based Zarco USA convenience stores.

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“If we can get consumers to come into our stores four times, we’re pretty confident they’ll remain customers,” Zaremba said.

For many customers, their first encounter with Zarco USA and Sandbar Subs (the company’s proprietary foodservice offering) is through a coupon. Zaremba distributes coupons heavily at local events.

“It can’t be a 50-cents-off coupon; it must have true merit, like maybe a free lunch, to result in action,” said Zaremba. “Those coupons are redeemed 20-25% of the time.”

Community events are Zaremba’s preferred place to distribute coupons because “people who are loyal to an organization or event usually also demonstrate that loyalty in other areas of their lives.” He also reaches out to local businesses by sending sandwiches with coupons attached.

New York-based foodservice restaurant, retail and hospitality consultant Arlene Spiegel agrees that coupons (“either old-fashioned printed ones or online through an app”) can be effective incentives.

She added that when distributing coupons in-store, their value as a marketing tool can be increased when coupled with food sampling at the point of sale.

Another way to use coupons in-store to encourage return visits is to offer a bounce-back deal. For example, breakfast customers can receive a coupon for a lunch item or vice versa.

Last March, Cubby’s Convenience Stores, with 36 locations in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, offered a bounce-back coupon to promote sales for its signature Junction Burger. The coupon allowed customers who bought one of the burgers to get another for half price when they returned for another visit. De Lone Wilson, the company’s president, declared the promotion a success and said he would repeat it in the future.

Wilson has also done direct mail couponing with foodservice partner Godfather’s Pizza, using Godfather’s mailing list, with good results.

Ryan Krebs, director of food services for Rutter’s Farm Stores, which has 68 locations in Pennsylvania, distributes high value coupons via direct mail to areas within a one mile radius of new stores leading up to their opening. The coupons may offer a buy one get one for burgers or $2 off of a pizza.

He also brings coupons to surrounding businesses for distribution to their employees. Recently, Rutter’s partnered with a local minor league baseball team and, in addition to having Rutter’s beverages at the stadium, gives out coupons to game attendees. Krebs noted that all three of these couponing strategies yield high redemption rates.

Distributing coupons and food samples to local non-competitive businesses and organizations such as schools and fire and police departments also pays off for Cubby’s, Wilson said. These recipients often place large orders when they have meetings.

An easy way for stores to reach all customers with their foodservice message is to put a menu and ordering information in every bag, regardless of what is being purchased, Spiegel said. And weekly circulars that promote packaged goods should also feature foodservice specials.

For its 24 stores—many in modest towns—Cubby’s does a good amount of local newspaper advertising. Mostly, the ads focus on a foodservice offering and a liquor, wine or beer special.

“We’re evaluating all of our newspaper advertising right now to determine if the small town papers are bringing in enough return,” he said.

Billboards, the majority of which focus on food and change frequently, have a “huge impact” for Rutter’s, especially in markets that have multiple stores, Krebs said.

“You want to say what you want to say, but you are communicating with people who are driving 70-80 miles per hour,” said Krebs. “I’ve seen competitors be too wordy or busy. You have to get right to the point with the right image and as few words as possible.”

To add power to the introduction of unique food products, Rutter’s uses radio (mostly sports talk) and local television. A recent example was a bacon-wrapped cheddar-stuffed hot dog that Krebs developed with one of the chain’s suppliers. For three months, Rutter’s was the only convenience store where this item was available. Another broadcast media-promoted food item was a Pennsylvania Dutch-style chicken pot pie, a local specialty.

“We received huge responses for both of these items,” Krebs said.

As part of upgrading the gas pumps to meet the requirements for accepting Europay, Mastercard and Visa chip technology, Cubby’s added GSTV and produces videos focusing on the stores’ foodservice offerings. Inside the stores are digital menu boards featuring professionally- styled and shot food photography.

Rutter’s gas customers are exposed to foodservice promotions at three or more points during the gas pumping experience. Aside from pumptoppers, food is advertised on the hose hangers. A music and messaging system that plays inside the stores is also piped outside to the pumps. And coming soon will be digital optic screens at the pumps that will play the company’s commercials.

For continual in-store broadcasting of tempting food images, Rutter’s has large, flat-screen, digital televisions. In some stores, and being rolled out to more, are Cornelius touchscreen beverage fountain machines that also have programmable flatscreen units.

“On the beverage machines I can advertise anything I want,” said Krebs. “It’s a good place to promote our pizzas and burgers.”

At the stores’ food ordering kiosks, new items are showcased for at least a month to keep them front of mind for customers and make them easier to order. The kiosks also encourage the purchase of add-on items for a higher ring per order. For example, a burger order will prompt the display of a screen suggesting the addition of a side, making it a combo with a discounted soda or adding a dessert.

“The majority of the time we are able to upsell the order,” Krebs said.

After eight years of offering touchscreen ordering, Zaremba has determined that a large number of options can be too much of a good thing.

“If there are too many choices, the ordering process can get really backed up and we are looking for a quick transaction,” Zaremba said. “It’s a balancing act and we had to back down on some of the choices on our system to speed things up.”

For c-store retailers that don’t have the budget for in-store television or ordering kiosks, food suppliers can often provide high quality product photos for displaying on indoor and outdoor signage, circulars and ads, said Spiegel. Photos can also be used to define the space for foodservice and draw customers to it.

Rutter’s has open kitchens so customers can’t miss the fact that the food is made on the premises.

“We hang our hats on transparency,” Krebs said. “Restaurants and bistros have pretty recently started doing open kitchens, but we’ve been doing it for 10 years.”

Heavy sampling gets the food, especially new items, from sight to taste buds at Rutter’s.

Advertising food on the company’s website may seem like a no-brainer, but not all operators take full advantage of the opportunities it presents. Rutter’s posts its full menus in Spanish as well as English. A separate value menu highlights choices ranging from 99 cents to $1.99.

Social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, also provide dynamic, yet inexpensive platforms for, according to Spiegel, “keeping the brand on the customers’ radar and insuring that you are reaching critical demographics.”

Wilson noted that Cubby’s works with a local marketing company to post food images and run promotions on social media about once a week. An example is a Wednesday night “Beat the Clock” promotion, which runs from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and allows customers to get a special price on pizza when they call in their orders.

Loyalty programs can allow operators to know what customers really want and make personalized offers to them, Spiegel said. Rutter’s Reward Card holders, for example, can earn cents off per gallon of gas with in-store purchases.

“About 90% of my food items are attached to rewards,” Krebs said.

C-stores with apps can use them to offer coupons, other special promotions and reminders to customers about the availability of foodservice, particularly at traditional mealtimes, Spiegel noted.

“The best time for dinner alerts is from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. when customers are thinking about ‘What’s for dinner,’” said Spiegel.

Whatever the medium for promoting foodservice (or anything else in the stores), the goal is to get into customers’ and prospective customers’ minds without being annoyingly intrusive.
“We aim to make people aware rather than making them feel invaded,” Krebs said.