From delivery and breakfast all day to sustainable, plant-based and healthy, eating patterns are evolving and c-stores are adapting to own the marketplace.
By: Erin Del Conte, Senior Editor
2019 has arrived and the drive toward a “convenience economy” is in full swing, impacting all areas of business, especially foodservice.
Foodservice customers want higher-quality items faster and customized on their terms. They’re also seeking foods that are healthy, high-protein, plant-based and easy to eat on the go. However, that’s just a part of the picture.
According to market intelligence agency Mintel, this year the foodservice landscape is set to experience big changes, with customers demanding increased awareness and responsibility from foodservice operators on social and environmental issues, as well as innovation in technology-enabled customer service.
Food customers want to align themselves with brands that fit their lifestyle and values, Mintel indicated. They want to support companies that consider ‘the greater good’ above the competition by benefiting the people behind food systems as well as the environment.
As foodservice establishments struggle to retain talent amid high labor costs and shortages, operators are expected to focus on employee well-being and giving back to the communities they serve.
Meanwhile food operators are leveraging technology to own ‘convenience.’ Customers increasingly employ mobile apps and/or touchscreen kiosks to order food on site and opt for delivery more often. In fact, food delivery trends are impacting restaurant traffic numbers overall. At the end of last year, research firm Q1 Consulting LLC saw sales increased in traditional restaurants, but traffic fell. Food delivery caused the difference, explained Julie Heseman, principal with Q1 Consulting.
Heseman expects more upscale c-stores with robust foodservice programs in urban areas will begin considering delivery in 2019, if they’re not already offering it. “Those more forward-thinking foodservice convenience stores are definitely going to be looking into partnering with the Grubhubs and Uber Eats of the world,” Heseman said.
Regardless of how they order, customers are seeking high-quality eats with “either higher-end ingredients or unique flavor profiles,” Heseman said. C-stores are responding by increasingly providing more traditional restaurant sections, often with made-to-order foods, in addition to cold-case grab and go.
Breakfast, healthy foods and grab and go continue to grow as trends c-stores are in prime position to capitalize on in the new year. Meanwhile packaging, food safety and technology are areas where savvy c-stores are upping their game to stand out in a crowded marketplace with an overabundance of options.
Daypart rules have flown out the window in 2019. Customers want breakfast all day, and they crave dinner for breakfast.
Jackie Rodriguez, senior project manager for research firm Datassential, pointed to “PM flavors in breakfast foods” as one trend expected to exhibit staying power. Examples of PM Breakfast include positioning a burger—a traditional lunch or dinner daypart item—as a breakfast burger by adding an egg; or adding egg, chorizo or maple pork sausage to pizza to create a breakfast pizza.
“The addition of an egg is a good factor for success, or at least getting consumers’ attention across dayparts because everybody is so interested in high protein,” Rodriguez said. Customers overwhelmingly perceive “high-protein” as healthy. An egg provides a quick, easy, cost-effective way to add protein.
Breakfast foods are also appearing across dayparts. “The biggest reason why customers choose breakfast foods later in the day is because they have a specific craving for them,” Rodriguez said.
Ethnic flavors also continue to entice. Mexican flavors have become a standard breakfast flavor. Foodservice operators are further enticing adventurous palates with complex or less well-known versions of salsa like Salsa Verde, or more obscure Mexican-style cheeses.
Middle Eastern fare is growing as a trend, leading to new opportunities. Labneh, a soft cream cheese made from strained yogurt, represents the next trend forward step after Greek yogurt, Rodriguez said. Labneh is thicker than Greek yogurt making it less messy and therefore possible to include as an ingredient in handheld items. Calling it “Middle Eastern-style yogurt” on a menu makes it approachable and intriguing.
Dessert-inspired breakfast is another big trend: think red velvet pancakes with cream cheese frosting. For c-stores, simply adding a butterscotch or caramel sauce to an existing breakfast item, such as French toast sticks, can be a quick on-trend addition.
Rutter’s, which operates 73 locations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and now Maryland, rolled out a new waffle program at the end of January. The program is on-trend in that it fits the PM breakfast, dessert-inspired breakfast and daypart blurring trends.
“It’s a sweet Southern waffle, by a company owned by legendary football player, Herschel Walker,” said Ryan Krebs, director of foodservice for the York, Pa.-based chain. “We’re incorporating it in all dayparts. It’s kind of a collision course in how to incorporate a waffle in every possible way so it hits breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.”
The waffle is available solo with syrup and butter, or as a carrier for breakfast sandwiches, burgers, and chicken and club sandwiches, perfectly meeting both PM breakfast and breakfast anytime trends. Rutter’s also offers chicken and waffles with a choice of syrup so guests can make the dish sweet or savory. It can also be ordered as a dinner basket complete with sides.
In addition, those seeking a dessert-inspired breakfast can order the waffle with chocolate syrup, cinnamon and sugar or caramel sauce.
Rutter’s also captures the PM breakfast trend with its breakfast pizzas, which debuted two years ago and feature eggs and bacon or sausage.
Krebs said breakfast for dinner represents a massive trend with staying power, which retailers can satisfy with an item as simple as waffles that can be used in a myriad of ways.
“By cross-utilizing one item (waffles) across all dayparts, plus as a dessert item, we’ll see a huge success,” Krebs said.
LOCAL & HEALTHY
The Specialty Food Association’s (SFA) Trendspotter Panel outlined a number of major trends set to impact 2019, including plant-based foods becoming a major movement.
Plant-based alternatives for everything from burgers to milk to yogurt have now achieved mainstream appeal and the trend will be “significant” in 2019.
Gen Z and Millennials are driving a demand for authentic regional fare including regional cuisines of Africa, South Asia and Latin America. CBD-infused products, thought to relieve anxiety and manage pain, are trending also.
Among Whole Foods’ annual list of top food trends for the new year, is the rise of keto, paleo, grain-free and even “pegan” (paleo and vegan) diets, which are shifting mindsets around healthy fats, which more customers are demanding.
If you imagine such trends don’t matter at c-store level, keep your eye on the new Alltown Fresh that just opened in Plymouth, Mass. in January. Global Partners’ Alltown operates 74 COCO Alltown sites in New England.
This is the first Alltown Fresh, but the chain has plans to grow the concept. The new site features a customizable menu of healthy on-trend items from organic produce, local fare, vegan and vegetarian options, PM breakfast options like a Green Smash avocado toast with an egg; and even Colossal Falafel salad, which fits with the growing Middle Eastern flavor trend—and that’s just to name a few.
“We want to make sure our guests feel like they can stop into our convenience market place and get healthy, clean, natural, organic, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, locally-sourced food items,” said Eric Slifka, CEO of Global Partners LP.
Protein bowls are among the many healthy food options at Alltown Fresh. “Customers want protein bowls and bowls in general…we wanted to allow consumers to order clean, well-thought-out, great-tasting food in a bowl, if they didn’t want (a traditional sandwich),” Slifka said.
One of the many bowl options at Alltown is the ‘Teriyaki Tease,’ which offers steak strips, roasted broccoli, sautéed mushrooms, shredded carrots and three-grain brown rice in a teriyaki sauce. Alltown selected brown rice for its better-for-you profile.
Datassential confirmed bowls are soaring in the grab-and-go space. “It’s not necessarily something you would eat on the run, but depending on the ingredients, it’s going to retain a lot of product integrity on the go,” Rodriguez said.
She noted when it comes to bowls as a platform “the sky is the limit” from breakfast bowls to mac-n-cheese. Altoona, Pa.-based Wawa, for example, introduced a hoagie bowl so customers avoiding carbs or gluten could still participate in the hoagie experience.
“Adding that sandwich experience without the carrier in bowl form, ensures you don’t miss customers who don’t eat bread, and it allows you to maximize sandwich ingredients already on hand in another platform,” Rodriguez said.
ON THE GO
While the trend toward small bites is plateauing in restaurants, it’s still alive and well in c-stores where the grab-and-go trend reigns.
“Certainly, doughnut holes or mini (cinnamon rolls) have really proven popular. Not just for breakfast, but again throughout the day. I don’t think they’re going away,” Rodriguez said. The big focus for 2019, she noted, is on handhelds. Empanadas are currently on trend—they’re easy to eat on the go, incorporate global influences and can be savory or sweet, baked—considered healthier—or fried.
Krebs sees big demand for small bites at Rutter’s across all dayparts. Recently the chain added handheld, fried apple pies, which fits the empanada-style trend while meeting dessert-inspired cravings.
Rutter’s hot grab-n-go bags of snackable sides are a big hit with customers. Overall it has about 85 hot-hold options from mozzarella sticks to chicken tenders. “We found that the more diversity we had into our hot hold, the more the sales are driven,” Krebs said.
Hot sandwich varieties are king for 2019, especially the croque monsieur—a baked or fried boiled ham and cheese sandwich—and the Monte Cristo—a fried ham and cheese sandwich, according to Datassential. C-stores without a hot sandwich program might consider cold-case sandwiches that can also be microwaved. Sliders, are also trending for their “poppability” on the go.
Customers at Marcy, N.Y.-based Clifford Fuel’s 19 Cliff’s Local Market stores are demanding healthier, on-the-go items—from salads to hard-boiled eggs. “We also have customers on the Keto diet, and they have been buying our deviled eggs and pepperoni-and-cheese cups,” said Derek Thurston, director of foodservice operations for Clifford Fuel. “We also focus on local products. We have done great with cheese curds, a regional favorite.”
The chain partners with local dairies that supply the cheese curds. “We buy in bulk and bag it ourselves. Customers love the local angle. Sales of this product have been outstanding,” Thurston said. Edible cookie dough cups are also a big grab-and-go hit.
SAFE, AUTHENTIC, SUSTAINABLE
All experts agree sustainable packaging is trending.Customers are starting to care about what packaging is made from. Experts expect to see more plant-based packaging and packaging made from ‘upcycled’ ingredients in 2019. “Research is advancing the use of tomato peels, kelp, and mushrooms into sustainable alternatives, coatings and other packaging materials,” according to SFA’s 2019 report.
The concept of “food safety” and the danger of food recalls have permeated consumer consciousness. Following December’s Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working on a labeling system for leafy greens that shows harvest date and growing region, Q1’s Heseman said.
Retailers can reduce the spread of foodborne illnesses by implementing programs that ensure employees practice food safety best practices.
Meanwhile, a demand for authentic flavors is impacting equipment trends. For example, customers want coal-fired pizzas, and while it’s not accessible to every operator, one could use such an oven as a differentiator, Rodriguez pointed out, even in a convenience store.