Steve Loehr has been at the forefront of the chain’s push to provide more nutritious choices.
By David Bennett, Senior Editor
As America embraces healthier eating habits, the c-store channel has undertaken the slow and methodical process of transforming the country’s perception of an industry that deals in unhealthy, mostly processed food products, to one dedicated to serving consumers healthier and more nutritious options.
Steve Loehr, vice president of operations support for LaCrosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip Inc., has helped develop various company programs, from managing quality assurance programs via vertical integration distribution systems to raising the bar on fresh food offerings in company stores to establishing employee-centric benefit packages.
As the former chairman of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) executive committee and now a member of the National Advisory Group, he continues to champion healthy foods as a top industry issue. He recently shared his thoughts with us.
Convenience Store Decisions (CSD): Kwik Trip was an early purveyor of healthy food options in its stores, to include offering fresh produce. How has this decision helped shape the long-term relationship the company enjoys with its customers today?
Steve Loehr (SL): Kwik Trip was the first convenience store to become a member of Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA). We had some built-in advantages going into it because we have historically sold bananas, apples, oranges, potatoes, onions, etc. for many years, so our guests were used to seeing healthy food options in our stores long before the term “healthy food options” even existed. So, adding even more options and promoting them more has built our reputation among our guests as a great place to go for healthy food.
CSD: Fresh produce offerings such as bananas and potatoes have been staples for KT. Can you explain how Kwik Trip has expanded its fresh food platform in the last few years to provide customers even more choices?
SL: We have grown the choices by adding a variety of cut fruits, vegetables, salads, etc.
CSD: Has the philosophy of fresh extended to the chain’s expanding foodservice menu?
SL: The greatest impact to our food menus was in providing healthy options to our combo deals—adding water, or skim or 1% milk as part of those deals, as an example.
CSD: Kwik Trip is considered one of the trail-blazing convenience store retailers when it comes to healthy food options—a course that more convenience stores are now embarking on. Would you say the c-store industry has made positive inroads in terms of providing consumers healthier foods?
SL: I think the industry as a whole has made huge strides in this area. Again, we had a huge advantage in that we self-distribute so we could act and react quicker versus a retailer that has to get buy-in from their wholesaler first.
CSD: The general perception that the c-store channel remains unhealthy when it comes to food offerings? Is the industry effectively chipping away at that perception?
SL: Again, the industry has made great strides. In fact, the NACS Supplier Board has this very thing as one of their key issues to address this year.
CSD: Because of evolving consumer demographics, it’s necessary that c-stores still strike a balance between stocking indulgent snacks and similar items with fresher, healthier food options. How does Kwik Trip go about assessing that fine balance of indulgent and healthy to meet customer expectations?
SL: We look at this balance frequently. I remember my first meeting with the PHA Board. I said we are serious about growing our healthy food options but “we still want to sell 800 donuts and cookies a day, too.” To their credit, they understood that and that is one of the reasons why the partnership has worked as well as it has.
CSD: Kwik Trip was an early collaborator with PHA. How did this collaboration come about?
SL: I credit NACS and specifically Jeff Lenard for having the foresight and dedication to coordinating this effort. NACS facilitated bringing us together and subsequently has helped add a dozen more retailers since.
CSD: What have been some of the benefits of being a PHA partner?
SL: PHA has a lot of ties in Washington, D.C. and a lot of connections with manufacturers. With NACS assisting in adding the retail dimension, it makes the partnership an impressive juggernaut, all to the benefit of the consumer.