At a time when it seems that every day brings new guidelines and restrictions on restaurants due to the COVID-19 pandemic, savvy convenience store operators are positioning their foodservice as a safe and reliable source of fresh, delicious and convenient meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“While some guests will gravitate toward grab and go, our freshly prepared hot food is especially popular for professional drivers who are on the road for long periods of time and look forward to a warm meal while away from home,” said Brian Ferguson, vice president and chief merchant for Pilot Co., which has 950 retail and fueling locations and 680 restaurants in 44 states and six Canadian provinces.
Ferguson explained that Pilot Flying J stores added back self-service options such as roller grills and soup bars in June, offering single-use disposable paper sleeves for guests to use when handling tongs and ladles. Details like this emphasize the company’s focus on “keeping health and safety top priorities,” Ferguson said.
To encourage food purchases, Pilot Flying J is promoting availability of daypart-spanning selections with daily, weekly and monthly deals, which are communicated via digital coupons through its app, special prices through its loyalty programs and seasonal limited-time offers (LTOs). Among the promotions are ‘Thungry’ (buy one snack get one free with purchase of beverage) and the professional driver-oriented ‘Hungry Driver’ (savings on freshly prepared meal bundles including five-piece wings or tenders meal with beverage purchase).
“Last year, we led the industry with the launch of a delivery partnership with Uber Eats at select locations,” he added.
During the four-week period beginning in mid-June, food sales “exploded” for Kwik Trip and Kwik Star, which operate 700 stores in Wisconsin, Minnsota and Iowa, according to Paul Servais, the company’s retail food service director. Sales from that period were ahead of those during the same time the year before.
Throughout the pandemic, new customers were pleasantly surprised to find that the stores’ shelves were always well stocked with basics such as milk, butter and eggs from their own dairy, commissary and bakery, he noted. This, Servais explained, helped customers overcome their initial impulse to panic buy and come in more often.
“In many cases, we were the only game in town,” he said. “We also offer home delivery in some areas by partnering with two third-party services.”
The stores have resumed normal foodservice operations including self-service condiment bars, dispensed beverages and single-serve bakery. In the works are promotions through the company’s loyalty program and the development of take-home family meal offerings.
Switching popular self-service foodservice items such as pizza and hot dogs to prepackaged or full-service helped Nouria avoid skipping a beat during the shutdown and early reopening periods, said Joshua Clark, category manager for fresh foods at Nouria, which operates 125 stores — 26 with made-to-order foodservice — in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Pizza slices and, in some locations, hot dogs on buns are prepackaged in bags. At some stores, roller grills were moved to the back for service by associates. Clark described breakfast as “the canary in the coal mine.”
“With more people staying at home, morning coffee sales dropped, taking our breakfast business with it,” he said. “Now that the stay-at-home restrictions are easing, each week we’re getting better than the week before.”
To promote Nouria’s daypart-spanning foodservice offerings, the company is promoting its products on social media and offering online ordering. The stores are also featuring favorite summertime food items such as the iconic New England lobster roll.