Tracking Foodservice Trends

Hamburger and fries from Clark’s Pump-N-Shop. Photo by Brandy Clark.

Understanding what your customers want from foodservice will go a long way in meeting their daily need for fresh foods.

By John Lofstock, Editor

Just a decade ago, convenience stores were struggling to penetrate the foodservice market.

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The industry battled with a reputation problem that had many people wondering if it could effectively shed the “gas station food” label, and rightfully so, as old hot dogs spinning on a roller grill was the impression many consumers had of c-store foodservice programs.

But those who underestimated the c-store industry’s ingenuity, leadership and drive to satisfy customers’ immediate needs are now eating their words as c-stores have become one of the most preferred destinations for immediate-consumption fresh foods in the country. In fact, chains like Wawa, Sheetz, Rutter’s, Parker’s and many others have exceeded quick-service restaurants in terms of customer satisfaction. In a recent story, a McDonald’s in Philadelphia added touchscreen ordering kiosks and the burger franchisee, Tonya Holliday, said, “Now we’re just like Wawa.”

The hunter has indeed become the hunted. One of the biggest barriers to foodservice acceptance was that c-stores lacked the skillset, space and labor to produce fresh food on a daily basis. And while some people may still associate c-store food with old hot dogs, this stigma is quickly vanishing.

To keep moving the needle forward, convenience stores must track foodservice trends and keep tabs on the competition. Here’s a look at some consumer trends that are driving foodservice purchases:
Changing Customer Preferences. Bold and exotic flavors, snacking and health and wellness are at the forefront for consumer food preferences in 2018, and the Millennial generation is frequently driving those choice options with their adventurous palates.

Subscription food home delivery will also continue to evolve, keeping in mind consumers’ wishes to be part of the meal-making process with easy-to-follow recipes and healthy, fresh ingredients, according to RSM US, a Chicago-based consulting firm.

Likewise, on-the-go, convenient packaging, like bowl-based choices will grow in demand as eager consumers look for quick but healthy eating options. Bowls, in particular, said Jerry Weiner, president of Weiner Consulting, are an ideal solution for convenience stores.

“Bowls are easy to create, cost-effective and portable for a variety of occasions for consumers,” said Weiner, who retired from Rutter’s in 2016 after serving more than 30 years in the c-store foodservice business. “That’s what customers are looking for—something quick and easy, that tastes great. Keep it simple, but make sure it’s good.”
Food Safety. A variety of healthy, fresh food options are currently accessible from most c-stores, as many have adapted their facilities to meet consumer demand. C-stores also offer prepared food options in addition to onsite food preparation stations as store concepts converge to keep up with consumer tastes. As a result, delivering fresh food that customers want while keeping the food safe, reliable and profitable is a growing issue. Customers need to know the food is fresh and safe, especially as chains like Chipotle struggle with repeated outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

Young consumers are pushing this trend forward with 71% of Millennials saying they enjoy attending food-focused events and 81% stating that they appreciate exploring new cultures through food. Foodservice operators will see a continuation of this trend, both in dining experience and innovation in global flavors.

High Expectations. Consumers of all ages wish to establish trust with food providers, and young consumers are expected to continue this trend in future years. Some 68% of Millennial consumers prefer local sourcing of ingredients and 66% of them are willing to pay a little more for food that comes from local producers, according to a Y-Pulse study titled “The Modern Consumer: Understanding Tomorrow’s Tastemakers Today.”

Foodservice consumers want it all and it’s a trend that’s here to stay. Sixty-seven percent of Millennial consumers said they love ordering healthy options offered at a restaurant. Yet, 63% of Millennial consumers also say they love restaurants that offer “over-the-top” menu items.

Convenience stores will need to react to this consumer group to continue to earn their business. The key, Weiner said, “is understanding what you can do really well and doing it consistently. Be innovative, be fast, be fresh, but above all else, you have to be really good.”