By Jeffrey Steele, Contributing Editor
When Rahim Budhwani, CEO at Hoover, Ala.-based 6040 LLC c- store chain, first introduced foodservice with a pizza program, it proved an instant flop with its customers, who are made up of construction workers and other patrons, who are Hispanic and Latino American.
Of course Budhwani, who is also the 2016-2017 chairman of National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), didn’t rise to his current position by ignoring the preferences of his customers.
He responded to customer feedback by changing course. He built a 325-foot kitchen, and had his staff make tamales, followed by tacos, tortas and chilaquiles. Then he instituted fusion foods, combining Latino and Indian cooking. In short order, his chicken curry tacos and maharaja tacos had captured an enthusiastic following.
ON TO SOMETHING GOOD
Of course, Budhwani isn’t the only convenience retailer to alter his menu to cater to a growing segment of consumers who hunger for more ethnic dishes. For consumers of Hispanic food offerings, such foodservice trends are growing more, especially in such big markets as California, Florida and Texas.
Because the laborers needed both breakfast and lunch, they often bought both meals each morning at the stores, along with beverages for the day and a treat for day’s end, said Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives for NACS.
The move to ethnic foods meant much more to Budhwani than just additional sales of tamales and tacos. “It was the added market basket of other items and a customer who otherwise wouldn’t be there, but was, day after day,” Lenard said.
This kind of tale has increasing numbers of convenience store operators looking to add burritos and other ethnic foods to their prepared food selection. By crossing the traditional foodservice border to spice up menus with ethnic foods, they’re helping ensure greater sales and profits.
According to Lenard, the growing popularity of ethnic foods is based on the greater numbers of Hispanic Americans in the U.S., the increasing appetite for exotic flavors and spices and the sandwich-replacing portability of burritos and other ethnic foods.
“There are definitely demographic changes in which some areas of the country are seeing significant Hispanic populations,” Lenard said. ”They may be a strong minority or even a majority of the population. And they are much more comfortable buying a food item they know than hot dogs or something they don’t.”
As well, ethnic foods have spread far beyond the narrow confines once defining them. There was a time when pizza and chop suey represented the limits of ethnic cuisine for Americans. “It’s much more than that now,” Lenard said.
“Ethnic- and Hispanic-themed fare can offer a nice supplement to other food programs, such as sandwiches,” he said. “They’re very portable, it’s essentially hand food and very easy for people to take back to work, or eat in the car.”
Burritos and other ethnic foods aren’t confined to geographic pockets of the U.S., said Lenard. You will find them throughout the country. A great example is the “Ahh Burrito!” program at Anderson, Ind.-based Ricker’s throughout the Hoosier State.
“When Stripes was bought by Sunoco, which in turn was bought by 7-Eleven, there was speculation the acquisition was more about the burritos than the fuel,” he said.
No chain apparently has a bigger hold on the ethnic appetites of its consumers than Fuel City, which operates three locations in greater Dallas area. The stations are legitimate 24-hour taquerias, and the food is very tasty. “They have such a crowd around their stations on weekends they have to have people directing traffic,” Lenard said. “You have this long line of people in cars queuing up around the gas pumps to have delicious tacos.”
Effectively promoting a burrito and ethnic food program is all about making customers aware you’re offering these foods. And that’s done through taste and aroma, Lenard said. Sampling programs can let your customers know just how flavorful your offerings are. When customers walk inside your establishment, they should also encounter a whiff of tempting aromas from the sizzling burrito and taco fixings.
“They may not have thought about buying your food,” said Lenard. “But that aroma puts in their minds that, ‘Next time I’m hungry, I’m adding this to my list of places to consider.’ ”
There are two big reasons a convenience store can pull off a burrito-taco-ethnic foods program more effectively than many restaurants, Lenard said. “It’s much easier to innovate in a small format and have other revenue streams to support you if it doesn’t immediately take off.”
“That’s very different from a restaurant. Gas sales help the program along until it’s embraced. The other thing is you can really experiment in a small format. Even if you don’t have that killer recipe, you may be able to talk to that local food truck about his.”
At Shout & Sack, a four-decade-old convenience retail operation on Route 66 in Vinita, Okla., Chris Carter, the owner, appeals to appetites for ethnic edibles with homemade fried burritos, a walking taco and a taco salad, as well as a breakfast burrito.
The burritos are a bit spicy and are therefore nicknamed “Gut Bombs,” Carter said. The walking taco and taco salad are particularly popular with lunchtime customers, who savor the homemade taste of the shell and bowl respectively.
“On our taco, we season our own taco meat, and of course put in our lettuce, tomato, peppers, onions and salsa in a beautiful bowl,” said Carter. “On the walking taco, it’s strictly beef here in beef country. And that’s the one where we put in nacho cheese Doritos and our lettuce and tomatoes and meat above that. It works really good for me.”
Two burrito versions grace the breakfast menu, one a bacon, egg and cheese and the other a sausage egg and cheese, with picante or salsa on a flour tortilla. “I got a big flat-top grill in the back,” Carter said. “We make those burritos the night before, they’re all wrapped up. Take them out of the refrigerated case, microwave and they’re gone. They’re in and out of here in a minute; that’s what it’s all about.”
That process has spurred a spike in food sales for the company.
By contrast, the walking taco and taco salad are made to order, and are ready in four to five minutes, said Carter.
“If people eat one, they always come back again. They’re spicy so you can’t eat them every day, but they’re good for two or three days a week,” he added.
As for promotions, Carter offers specials on the ethnic specialties, teaming them with a drink and cookie.
“When they get one of those walking tacos or taco salads, I usually give them a cookie, usually chocolate chip cookies because they’re by far our biggest seller,” he said.
At two Zarco USA stores in Lawrence, Kan., CEO Scott Zaremba is looking at establishing more of an ethnic menu based on the success of his stores’ breakfast burritos. “The breakfast burrito items are a variety of all breakfast items you can think of to put in there,” Zaremba said. “That includes scrambled egg, fried egg, fresh vegetables, jalapeños and some of the peppers. We have our kitchen staff make it up for them.”
Zaremba expects to soon transition from a pre-made tortilla to tortillas freshly made on site. “We want to give customers flavor, texture and something that’s more unique and hopefully a better product . . . We’re trying to differentiate.”
He wants to offer burritos at both lunch and dinner, but will not roll out that concept until his homemade tortillas are perfected. “We have a proprietary bread made for the submarine sandwiches; we’re looking at doing the same thing with tortillas for burritos.”
The same proteins used now in the sandwich menu will be incorporated in the burrito program. “People want a lot more spice,” Zaremba asserted. “They’re asking for some spice and variety. They want a lot more of a flavor profile than the standard items out there. The demand is for both taste and healthier items. The tortilla if done right can give you a healthier profile. Spices are part of the flavor profile we’re working on.”
The final word on the wisdom of adding burritos and/or ethnic foods goes to Budhwani, the Alabama store owner who’s reaped gains with tacos and tamales—a small sampling of his entrepreneurial style.
“That’s me, trying new ideas. After all our industry must continue to innovate,” Budhwani said earlier this year during a NACS event. “We face competition everywhere. And I want to stay ahead of the curve.”