Americans want new flavor experiences, but they also want food items that feel familiar. C-stores are adding more conventional ethnic foods, while eyeing ways to incorporate upcoming foodie flavors, so they’re ready when they enter the mainstream.
By Erin Del Conte, Senior Editor
As ethnic foods such as tacos and sushi become further entrenched as mainstays on American menus, foodie customers, especially Millennials and Gen Z, are seeking out the next global flavor adventure.
Middle Eastern fare is the big global flavor trend gliding onto menus in 2018. Looking at four-year menu growth, Datassential explained that mentions of falafel and shawarma (a meat preparation similar to gyros) both grew by 45%; the spice sumac was up 16%, tahini (a sesame seed paste) up 44% and Aleppo pepper up 179%, substituting for regular chili peppers.
“We’re seeing spice blends like za’atar and ras el hanout popping up on a lot of different kinds of menus, and also dukkah and sumac, and North African flavors like harissa (a spicy chili paste) and berbere,” said Kyle Chamberlin, project manager for the Chicago-based market research firm, Datassential.
While these flavors aren’t yet appearing on fast-food or fast-casual restaurant menus, they are catching on with a foodie audience eager for new taste experiences. At this point, such flavors “have moved off of ethnic menus and are moving into the trend-forward casual world, meaning your gastro pubs, your independent casual restaurants,” Chamberlin explained. But savvy c-store food operators are watching, knowing tomorrow ‘shawarma’ could become as ubiquitous as tacos.
Meanwhile, as c-store retailers try to keep pace with the ever evolving taste buds of the younger generations, while still appealing to baby boomers, they’re finding the bold, Hispanic and Asian flavors that dominated trends only a few years ago settling into the mainstream and becoming prime options for convenience store menus.
Customers from all demographics are requesting foods like tacos, burritos and Tex-Mex (a fusion of Mexican and American cuisines), and c-store retailers are more frequently considering the offering alongside more traditional food programs like pizza, sandwiches and burgers.
Mario Spina, owner and CEO of The PRIDE Stores, with 12 locations in the Chicagoland area, introduced a Taco Urbano at the chain’s PRIDE of Batavia location a few years ago.
“It’s a traditional Mexican restaurant with a modern twist, with all of our food offerings being made to order,” Spina said.
Two of the most popular Taco Urbano menu items include the steak tacos and burritos. Spina is partial to the restaurant’s guacamole, which is made fresh for each order with two avocados, lime, salt and made-in-house Pico De Gallo. Even the salsas are made fresh in house.
“We originally decided to create Taco Urbano to give us some diversity in our food offerings for each PRIDE location,” said Spina. “Mexican food is very mainstream these days, and all ages love a good taco or burrito.”
The PRIDE Stores recently opened its second Taco Urbano location, a freestanding restaurant next to its PRIDE of Villa Park convenience store. The restaurant also features a drive-through.
“We are hopefully opening a third Taco Urbano location at a new-build site in St. Charles, Ill. We are working to receive planning and zoning approvals for this year,” Spina added.
If a c-store market already has a number of food concepts available that would compete with The PRIDE Stores’ Urban Counter offering—which consists of hand-pressed hamburgers—then Taco Urbano offers an alternative offering to draw customers.
In addition to Taco Urbano and Urban Counter, PRIDE offers a PRIDE Café menu with panini, crepes, salads and more. All three concepts were created by The PRIDE Stores and are run by its team members. Employees are cross-trained between the c-store and restaurant at each location, and the same point-of-sale system is used for each restaurant and for the convenience store.
“We really look at what the market currently has for each store to see which one of our three food offerings we would like to place inside,” said Spina. “We try to have different food offerings at PRIDE locations that are close to one another to allow commuters that pass multiple PRIDE locations to experience the different food concepts we offer.”
Taco Urbano provides delivery through a partnership with Uber Eats.
“We started working with Uber Eats to allow more consumers the opportunity to try our food,” Spina said. “We prefer customers to come into the stores so they can see all the other great offerings The PRIDE has under one roof, but this allows another avenue to display our menus. Most people when they come to the restaurant for the first time after ordering on Uber Eats are shocked the food comes from inside a gas station, which we love to hear.”
The PRIDE also offers breakfast burritos as part of THE PRIDE Café.
“We recently added to our PRIDE fresh food grab-and-go selection a Thai Chicken Wrap, which is very good and has been selling well,” said Spina.
As for Middle Eastern fare, The PRIDE Stores includes a Hummus Dip with Carrots and Celery in its fresh food selection.
GEN Z TASTES
Research firm Mintel points out that Gen Z and Millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse generations in U.S. history. What’s more, parents today are raising their kids to have broader palates. According to Mintel, 36% of U.S. parents of children under age 18 agree that their kids enjoy eating international foods.
So it’s no surprise Gen Z is driving the consumption of more emerging international foods and beverages. Gen Z likes to eat at international restaurants with Indian (36%), Middle Eastern (38%) or African (27%) fare.
Italian (68%), Mexican (71%) and Chinese (68%) cuisine are also big sellers with this generation, but it’s important to note that Gen Z is less likely to see these foods as global so much as American staples.
These globally-influenced eating habits mean more opportunities for foodservice operators.
Sun Stop Convenience Stores recently confirmed firsthand that Gen Z is looking for more diverse flavors than generations past. When it was creating its Eat’s deli menu at its Florida State campus c-store, it first surveyed about 30 students to understand what types of food they most wanted. The biggest request was for not for pizza or hamburgers, but for Tex-Mex food.
“I believe students requested Tex-Mex because of its bold flavors and the multi-cultural group of students we have visiting our store. It is also portrayed as a ‘fresh and healthier’ food option,” said Spencer Thomas, brand manager, Southwest Georgia Oil Co., which operates more than 100 stores in Georgia and Florida.
“We added the Tex-Mex offering before we opened the store and tested many different recipes until we nailed down our core Tex-Mex offering,” Thomas said. “The Tex-Mex offering includes burrito bowls, burritos, loaded nachos, homemade queso and homemade sauces. The most popular is our fajita chicken bowl.”
Students are responding enthusiastically to the Tex-Mex menu. Another benefit is that it’s a grab-and-go offering that students can eat easily while on their way to class.
While it’s going to be some time before Middle Eastern flavors are mainstream, opportunities to tap into this growing trend abound for c-store foodservice operators.
“I don’t think the convenience store operators necessarily have to wait to incorporate Middle Eastern options,” Datassential’s Chamberlin said.
A potential benefit to c-stores is most customers have a positive perception of Middle Eastern food, and yet they don’t know much about it.
“This can be a good thing for c-store operators. They don’t necessarily have to compete with some idea of what authentic Middle Eastern food is in consumers’ minds,” said Chamberlin. They can bring some of these flavors to the table in a sandwich or in a prepared salad, and customers won’t mind that they’re not getting it from a traditional restaurant.
Customers today are more open to trying new flavors and increasingly looking for new food adventures, but it’s important to provide a familiar framework around ‘exotic’ offerings. For example, instead of saying “Chicken seasoned with za’atar,” Chamberlin recommends saying “flavored with Middle Eastern spices.”
Tabouli, hummus and pita chips are easy ways to add a hint of Middle Eastern flare to the grab-and-go section, Chamberlin said. If you make pita chips in-house you can add familiar seasonings like sour-cream-and-onion.
“In other words, bring Middle Eastern flavors to a more traditional American format, or take a Middle Eastern format like pita chips and add more traditional American flavors to it.”