Build Your Foodservice Via Appetizers

Appetizer-portioned, easy-to-tote foodservice snacks from mozzarella sticks and mini tacos to doughnut holes and downsized cinnamon buns are growing in popularity at convenience stores throughout the country.

Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor

In its most recent SCORES reports showing how consumers rank new foodservice items introduced at convenience stores, fast feeders and fast casual restaurants, Datassential research company found that bite-size versions of familiar menu items tend to get high scores, especially when they are associated with a specific brand.

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For example, in July, when consumers were asked how they would rank new buffalo chicken bites with cheese, respondents ranked them in the 75th percentile for intent to purchase. When they learned that this item was being introduced by QuikTrip, that intent shot up to the 95th percentile. With a 99-cent price point, consumers scored the bites in the 99th percentile for value and the 88th percentile for frequency, whether they would order them all the time.

Earlier this year when Speedway introduced breadsticks “loaded” with pepperoni or bacon for $1 per two-piece order, consumers ranked them in the 96th percentile of new products. Chicken chile verde mini tacos scored in the 55th percentile unbranded and jumped to the 75th percentile when associated with 7-Eleven. And when AM/PM launched double chocolate mini loaves for $1.39 each, the sweet treat reached the 95th percentile.

“Retailers are always looking for the sweet spot, a combination of uniqueness to set the product apart from others available on the market, yet familiar enough to encourage trial,” said Jackie Rodriguez, senior project manager at Datassential.

She noted that in addition to serving as between-meal snacks, appetizer items give consumers the flexibility to create their own meal combinations, say chicken wings with tater tots for lunch or dinner or a sweet mini-snack to go with coffee in the morning. Plus, “one person’s snack time is another person’s meal time, so these items can fill either role all day long,” Rodriguez said.

“We see a lot of room for growth for this category within the convenience store segment,” Rodriguez added.

As a result of the popularity of appetizer-size items at its ordering kiosks, in January of 2017 Rutter’s convenience stores rolled out a new snacking concept, the hot grab-and-go pouch, according to the company’s vice president of foodservice, Ryan Krebs. For close to two years, Krebs worked with a state-of-the-art, hot-hold packaging supplier to develop a bag that is breathable, microwavable, has a handle, is Rutter’s branded and holds heat extremely well.

“The purpose of the grab-and-go pouch is to put highly craveable items at the on-the-go customer’s fingertips, eliminating a potential fryer wait for the time-starved customer,” Krebs said.

Rutter’s, which has 72 locations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, offers 15 appetizer-size options in the bags including chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, sweet corn bites and mac and cheese wedges. On the sweet side, via touchscreen kiosks, funnel cake fries with powdered sugar or chocolate, caramel or maple syrup dipping sauces have been “outrageously successful” since the stores introduced them three years ago.

A new hit has been the fried Oreos that Krebs brought into the stores several months ago. The success of these items has encouraged him to seek out new sweet bite-size snacks to add to the stores’ offerings.

More than just snacking items for mid-afternoon and evening, grab-and-go products such as hash browns and fries have proven to be additional basket upsells, Krebs said.

“A strong percentage of our customers are buying the items along with something else like a breakfast sandwich or burrito from the hot grab-and-go case,” Krebs said. “For snacking, they sell especially well between 2 p.m to 4 p.m., 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and overnight.”

De Lone Wilson, president of Cubby’s convenience stores, with 36 locations in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, emphasized that appetizers have long been a favorite with the chain’s customers. Starting at 6 a.m., they come in for the bite-size grab-and-go items including egg rolls, mini tacos, mozzarella sticks, jalapeño poppers, fried cauliflower, broccoli cheddar bites and mini tacos which they purchase with or as a meal, and sales continue to be strong throughout the day.

Cubby’s has a repertoire of about 20 appetizers the stores can choose to feature.
Wilson reported that the sweet foodservice snack category is growing. The stores do well with cups of doughnut holes and a few months ago started selling Cinnababies, warm mini cinnamon buns, five to a clamshell.

“We’re selling a lot of those starting at breakfast and all the way up to 7 p.m.,” Wilson said.
Many of Cubby’s customers are on the road, so the easy portability of these smaller items is most appealing. For retailers, appetizers are an easy way to enter the foodservice category.

“Appetizers are pretty simple to execute,” Wilson said.

To meet the growing demand for bite-sized items, Fremont, Ohio-based FriendShip Food Stores, with 26 locations in northern Ohio, is expanding its snack menu to include mozzarella sticks, broccoli cheese bites and stuffed pretzel bites in addition to its already popular fried chicken wings and Jojos, its version of French fries, said Ed Burcher, the company’s vice president of foodservice.

Burcher noted that he sees the most opportunity for sales of these items between breakfast and lunch and as add-ons to meals of fried chicken, the chain’s specialty.

“We see customers adding items like tornados to full meals rather than replacing the meals,” Burcher said. “These appetizer items get customers in front of our warmers, increasing impulse sales.”

For customers with a sweet tooth, FriendShip stores sell doughnut bites. For a new store opened in late November, the sweet menu was expanded to include churro bites, fried Oreos and cinnamon doughnut holes, all of which are fried and finished in-house. These items are set to be rolled out chainwide.

“Because we’re chicken stores we have access to fryers, making it easy for us to expand our appetizer menu,” Burcher said. “I think people are eating more frequently but in less quantity at a time and more in-between meal times.”

Burcher explained that one advantage FriendShip has is its relationship with a restaurant supplier, giving the company access to a catalog with a wide range of items and manufacturers from which to choose. He added that the company is looking for unique items that it can put its stamp on so customers will come to FriendShip specifically for these items.

“For an appetizer the customer would pay $8 for in a restaurant, they can get the same thing in our stores for $3.99 or $4.99,” Burcher said. “I know these items are going to work when we roll them out in the stores once we get the right packaging in which to merchandise them for grab and go.”