Committing to Coffee

Hot dispensed programs are growing along with changing consumer demands and tastes.

By Erin Rigik Del Conte, Senior Editor

Taking a c-store coffee program to the next level can mean a series of trial and error, careful branding, clear messaging, balancing simplicity with limited time offers and customization opportunities, while ensuring the area is clean and the brew consistent and fresh.

- Advertisement -

In September, Salt Lake City-based Maverik Convenience Stores revamped its coffee program after significant research into consumer trends and desires, while keeping with its adventure theme.

“You really enter a Maverik world when you enter one of our stores, and we wanted to continue that with our coffee, but also elevate the experience as well,” said Lauren Hancey, customer benefits manager, dispensed beverage at Maverik, which operates more than 275 c-stores across 10 western states.

Previously, the coffee program was labeled ‘Bodacious Bean’ and cups featured a cartoon world with marshmallow clouds and a coffee stream, but surveys showed only a handful of customers recognized the brand and connected it with Maverik.

Maverik scrapped the Bodacious Bean name and rebranded its brew as simply Maverick coffee.

“The cups now are more realistic but still hold true to our adventure theme,” Hancey said. “We have different art work for small, medium and large cups and each one has an adventure picture.”

The signage, urn wraps and branding across the coffee section are now crisp and clean, with blocks of color and simple flavors without descriptions. Simplicity is an intentional component in the rebranding. “Before there was a lot coming at our customers and we tried to simplify that,” Hancey said.

Along with the rebranding, Maverik slightly decreased the size of its cups. “We’re learning still from that and may make changes as we go,” she said.

Maverik also reformulated all of its coffee blends and now offers a total of six different flavors and anywhere from 3-10 thermal coffee dispensers, depending on location. “We offer a house, obviously. We have a single-origin Columbian, a light Sumatra, a dark Brazilian, a decaf, and then we introduced a high caffeine option,” Hancey said. The chain partners with Boyd’s Coffee to supply coffee to all its stores.

Ensuring coffee stays fresh is a team effort. “It’s something we really focus on with our store team,” Hancey said.

A timer in the kitchen area that’s only visible to employees lets them know when it’s time to switch out the coffee. Employees are trained to refresh the coffee every two hours, especially during peak times, and to walk past the coffee section every 15 minutes to ensure it’s fully stocked with condiments and flavors.

Going into the rebranding in September, Maverik researched customer demand and is now gaining feedback on the changes it made.

“We’ve received really good feedback on the high caffeine variety. Customers also want to see a lot of condiment offerings,” said Hancey. “We see our customers come in and they have a very specific way that they want to make their beverage, and they want to make sure all those condiments are offered. We offer a huge array of sugars and creamers, at no cost to them. We also make sure the coffee is fresh and hot.”

Maverik rolled out its new coffee options slowly in September as it worked through its previous coffee inventory. Once the coffee offering was officially up and running, the chain ran a three-day flash sale where customers could purchase any size coffee for $1. The move helped alert customers to the updated offering.

Last year, Maverik tested a barista program at its Base Camp headquarters store, but found it didn’t resonate with customers as much as expected. “Our Base Camp location is a tricky location. We don’t offer gas. It’s an urban setting. We are busy throughout the week, but way down (traffic-wise) over the weekend because it’s an office crowd,” Hancey said.

Hancey said the location was a major factor that impacted the program’s success. Overcoming perception was another, as retraining customers to view convenience stores as destinations for prime beverages and food remains an ongoing challenge.

For now, Maverik is putting the barista program on pause while it refocuses on its newly-improved self-serve coffee offering and building its food program. While the chain has no current plans to retest baristas, it could do so at some point in the future.

J&H Family Stores, with more than 50 convenience store locations in west Michigan, also recently rebranded its coffee program to bring the offering into alignment with the chain’s overall messaging.

“While we did not change the roaster or blends, we rebranded the program to ‘Mom’s Special Brew’ in all of our new builds and remodels. The new image ties in with our ‘Family Stores’ branding concept,” said Misty Steinhauer, purchasing and store branding director for J&H Family Stores.

Because customization is such an important factor to customers today, J&H also upgraded its condiment offering. “We added a cold well to offer 12-plus fresh creamer offerings, including all the favorite seasonal flavors like Girl Scout Cookie and Pumpkin Spice,” she said.
J&H also added several other coffee drinks, including iced coffee from Goodwest, cappuccinos and frozen coffee drinks from Caribbean Crème.

The hot coffee program consists of many flavors and bean varietals. “We select what we brew on a store-by-store basis determined by neighborhood, space, and trial and error. We currently are running Pumpkin Spice and Big Bold Trucker Blend,” Steinhauer said.

It makes coffee a destination by serving a high-quality, fresh brew all day, at a competitive price. J&H partners with the Coffee Beanery to supply its coffee. “They also are a Michigan family-owned company, which is important to us,” Steinhauer said.

Coffee is clearly a hit with customers. In its second quarter, J&H ranked among the top five coffee programs, according to GasBuddy app users.

J&H is currently testing the new Wilbur Curtis IntelliFresh System, which allows the brewer to communicate with the satellite servers in order to monitor hold times and temperatures, so its always serving the freshest coffee, Steinhauer said. “It has a built-in self diagnostic system for detecting lime build-up inside of the water tank; this unit is engineered to alert you when it needs preventative maintenance.”

A consistent ‘cup of joe’ is an important aspect of the coffee program’s success, Steinhauer said.

“Coffee is not the place to cut corners. We have too many new competitors, like coffeehouses and fast feeders trying to take our customers,” said Steinhauer. “Our mission at J&H Family Stores is to provide the best retail experience to our customers by offering quality products, modern facilities and charitable giving. When you’re here, you’re home. And that starts with your coffee in the morning.”

According to a recent GasBuddy footfall report, 56% of Americans who have visited a c-store in the past three months say convenience stores make coffee drinks as good as coffeehouses.

In September, GasBuddy reported on the best gas station coffee by state. Buc-ee’s captured the highest ratings in the country. On the state level, Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip captured the top spot in seven states; followed by Wawa with six states, and Framingham, Mass.-based Cumberland Farms with five states in the Northeast.

Mike Thornbrugh, manager of public and government affairs for QuikTrip (QT), which operates 759 stores across 11 states, credits strong execution for giving it the edge against the competition.

While the chain has always focused on providing a variety of coffee options, enticing coffee customers goes beyond just providing quality taste, good price and multiple options—although those are important. It also includes a consistently clean and inviting store with attractive signage and an overall quality presentation, Thornbrugh said.

“We have really functional cups. It’s a really attractive cup and you can hold it with ease,” he said. “So that’s the sort of detail we look at beyond just having a good cup of coffee.”

Making sure the coffee section is clean requires a cleaning schedule and training but math factors into it too, he pointed out.

“We have a really good idea of how many cups of coffee are being sold and at what times they’re being sold,” said Thornbrugh. During especially busy times at the coffee bar, extra close monitoring is key.

At QT, limited time offers (LTOs) help add excitement. “We’re constantly bringing in something different, switching something out and then putting it back in. We try to give people as many options as we can,” Thornbrugh said.

QT features eight different coffee urns depending on the store, with four different flavors. QT is offering pumpkin coffee for fall, but is also cross merchandising with pumpkin baked goods, such as a pumpkin pretzel and pumpkin pastries, to also drive coffee sales, using signage and its app.

“Through the app, there will be coupons on various items, encouraging people to give it a shot,” he said.

Customization is an important driver. “Everybody’s palate is different,” Thornbrugh said. Customers take advantage of the cappuccino selection, mixing and matching to create their perfect brew.

“You’ve just got to stay on top of coffee—it’s a big, big driver for our business, for the industry. So you have to have a constant quality offer,” Thornbrugh added.

Casey’s General Stores, which was voted best coffee in four states—South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa and Arkansas—according to the Gas Buddy app, also makes LTO flavors a big part of its coffee business.

Casey’s entices coffee customers with its quality brew made from 100% Arabica beans in four to six flavors, depending on location. Most locations feature flavored syrups and fresh creamer options.

Casey’s rolled out a pumpkin spice creamer to all stores for the fall season and will introduce peppermint mocha creamer for the upcoming holiday season. All stores offer five cappuccino flavors, with several locations offering as many as eight options.

“We rotate LTO items frequently throughout the year, with pumpkin spice being our current LTO,” said Kelli Reinhart, food service category manager for Casey’s, which has over 1,900 stores in 15 Midwest states. “This is a customer favorite and pairs well with our pumpkin cake donuts.”
Sampling helps draw repeat customers. In September, Casey’s offered a 50 cents off coffee coupon for National Coffee Day through its app. “We promote digitally with coupons as well as bundling with our breakfast sandwiches and breakfast slices. We also promote (coffee) with our donuts and other bakery items,” Reinhart said.

Casey’s mobile app has already surpassed one million downloads. Customers can order several foodservice items through the app, including whole pies, hot and cold sandwiches, cookies and other bakery items.

While customers can’t pre-order coffee through the app, they just might decide to add a cup of coffee to their order when they arrive at the store to pick up their bakery items, which is a key way to grow incremental sales.