As c-stores continue to grow their foodservice offerings, many are adding excitement to tried-and-true roller grill and pizza programs through limited-time offers (LTOs) and customization, while driving trial and repeat visits through sampling.
To demonstrate the quality of its products and ingredients, La Crosse-Wis.-based Kwik Trip runs a sampling program at its more than 600 c-stores throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
“We hire people just to be food product demonstrators, and their sole responsibility is to sample food to our customers,” said Paul Servais, retail food service director for Kwik Trip.
Despite industry efforts, customers may still be wary of “gas station food.” Allowing them to try before they buy builds trust and, for Kwik Trip, has led to increased sales.
“It’s really helped our stores sell more food,” said Servais. “… if you want to convince people that your food is good, and it’s of quality and value, you’ve got to put it in their mouth.”
At the roller grill, above all, customers want an easy-to-eat option for dashboard dining. Still, roller grill, like all categories, is changing.
“The most popular roller grill items today are not hot dogs, as you would expect,” said Servais.
He said roller bites and egg rolls are some of Kwik Trip’s top sellers.
“We’ll run those on promotion once in a while, like a buck for egg rolls, and we’ll sell over half a million in two weeks,” he said.
Kwik Trip also offers a wide variety of condiments and toppings to enable customization in the category.
“Our goal is, let people buy their hot dog or their hamburger or cheeseburger, and then we have a massive condiment bar, so they can go and finish it (with toppings) however they want,” Servais said.
One of the biggest trends, especially among young consumers, is spiciness, so Kwik Trip keeps several hot sauces available to add to any roller grill item.
“You’ve got to have flavor on your condiment bar,” said Servais. “We’re always playing with different sauces.”
Jordan Holdings LLC, which operates a branded Jordan Mini Mart in Chatom, Ala., and an unbranded Jordan Fillin’ Station, in Wagarville, Ala., also sees how important customization is to customers.
Tiffany Dumas, operations and human resources manager for Jordan Holdings, said the c-store retailer is able to offer the quality, value and customization that customers want thanks to its Hunt Brothers Pizza program.
“For the same cost as a frozen pizza, a family can have a fresh-made pizza customized with fresh ingredients to their specifications,” said Dumas.
Among the toppings and specialty pizzas available, she said pepperoni, without question, is the best-seller.
“A close second is ‘Lotsa Meat,’” she said. “We have many customers associated with the logging industry, and they prefer this hearty option.”
Unsurprisingly, pepperoni is the favorite at Kwik Trip, too. But the chain offers plenty of other varieties through its proprietary program, including Chicken Carbonara, Breakfast, 4-Meat, Chicken Alfredo and the Mac and Cheese Pizza, which started as an LTO.
“For the last few years, we’ve had a really robust LTO program, so we’re constantly rolling new pizzas in and out,” said Servais.
Other LTOs on the calendar include Buffalo Chicken, Meaty Italian and Four Cheese Margherita. Next fall, Kwik Trip plans to offer an Oktoberfest pizza.
“We’re always playing, always having fun with pizza,” said Servais. “Right now, we have a pizza in our stores called a Tailgater, and it’s a football pizza. It’s got sausage, pepperoni and cheese curds on it. … It’s been an annual favorite in the fall. All summer, customers call in, asking, ‘When’s the Tailgater coming back?’”
When it comes to LTOs, the company’s central commissary, which makes the pizzas for all Kwik Trip stores, serves as a big advantage.
“Once we throw it together, we know that over the course of two days, we can run 60,000 pizzas. So that’s how many we make,” he said, adding that 60,000 pizzas takes about four to six weeks to sell. “When they’re gone, they’re gone, and we move on to the next one.”
But if a pizza is really popular, Kwik Trip will bring it back again for a limited time or add it as a permanent menu item.
Despite its LTOs and innovative styles, Servais maintains that, for the most part, Kwik Trip sticks to the basics.
On both the East Coast and West Coast, Servais knows customers often seek out trendier toppings and ingredients. “I know there’s a lot of talk of gluten-free crusts. People are starting to put mozzarella balls on pizza. … But out here in the Midwest, it’s still just comfort foods — what people are used to.”
The same holds true at Jordan Mini Mart.
“We find our customers enjoy the special, limited-time-offer pizzas when they are available,” said Dumas. “But generally, they come back to the classics in the long run.”