The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting dining across all categories and demographics, forcing foodservice operators to shift gears and find new ways to appeal to safety-minded consumers who are commuting less and cooking at home more.
Session 6 of the NAG/YEO Virtual Conference invited three industry players with differing perspectives of the challenges facing c-store food operations in today’s environment. National Advisory Group (NAG) President John Lofstock welcomed Tim Powell of Foodservice IP (FSIP), Kalen Frese of Warrenton Oil and Sharif Jamal of Chestnut Petroleum.
Powell, industry consultant and Foodservice IP managing principal, led off the panel. His experience with convenience store clients as well as those operating outside of the c-store space translated into insights that focused on customer behavior.
Powell related research numbers showing that 31% of consumers expect to return to their normal restaurant habits when no new COVID-19 cases are reported. Another 26% said they’d return after the pandemic warning is officially lifted and 20% after schools and workplaces return to normal operation.
Powell also ran down other similar downturns in consumer dining, including the Spanish Flu of 1918, the 1987 stock market crash, Swine Flu and SARS outbreaks earlier this century and the 2008 Great Recession. The latter, Powell said, is nearest to economic damage done during the current pandemic.
One silver lining for foodservice operators is the higher margins on prepared food products. Finding ways to keep those products moving into customer hands is essential to maximizing revenue during the current downturn.
That means taking advantage of the foodservice occasions ingrained in our consuming culture, among them homebound consumers who don’t want to cook 21 meals per week, the simple need to see others outside of their pandemic bubble, prepared food cravings and convenience.
Make Dining Easy
Warrenton Oil Director of Merchandising and Foodservice Kalen Frese jumped in next with the multiple ways that his company is making it easier for customers to choose his 35 FastLane c-stores for food.
Frese oversees not only the company’s c-store foodservice operations in Missouri, but also 13 FastLane Deli locations, a Dairy Queen and a 24-hour diner. Firstly, Warrenton Oil already offered plenty of variety before the pandemic even arose. The company’s program offerings include 10 Chester’s Chicken, six Hunt Brothers Pizza, one each of Broaster’s Express, Blutaco and Swirls N’ Sweets, and three unbranded food operations.
But Frese ran down how FastLane is adding more drive-through features to its locations as well as using more social media to publicize the option, adding LED signage, getting employees onboard and making everything in the store available at the window.
“If you commit to it, and your employees buy in and don’t take any shortcuts, it’ll be very successful,” Frese advised.
Frese said FastLane did the same with a new curbside pickup program and making it available at all locations. The company is even testing a pair of locations to offer self-checkout. If the option is successful, he said FastLane will begin rolling it out to more stores.
Grab and Go is Good
When it comes to consumer options, Sharif Jamal’s New Paltz, N.Y.-based Chestnut Petroleum has plenty. Jamal is director of brand development for Chestnut’s more than 300 company-owned and dealer-operated sites in New York and New Jersey.
Pre-pandemic, Chestnut already had partnership with Dunkin’ at some locations and drew diners with another proprietary coffee option. The company’s newly launched Chestnut Market store branding brought novelty to the chain, too.
“One thing we’ve been able to be really strong in through it all is our grab and go program,” he said.
Not only is having those individually wrapped items a quick and easy solution for hungry customers, but it’s also seen as safer. He said that, throughout the pandemic, many customers have thanked store employees for having a fresh sandwich for them every day.
Chestnut has also offered more foodservice combo options to help move meals and create value. That includes both cold sandwiches as well as hot foodservice, including breakfast.
The overarching message from all three of the day’s presenters underscored that, when things out of an operator’s control make it harder for customers to purchase, it’s up to the store to do everything possible to offset that burden. Offer more, not just in product, but in service and environment, too.
The key? Convenience.
The 2020 NAG/YEO Virtual Conference continues on Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time, with What Is Blockchain and How Will It Affect You? For the entire eight-session agenda, visit https://nagconvenience.com/virtual-series-agenda/. To register click here: NAG/YEO Virtual 2020 Registration. For on-demand access to past sessions visit the NAG/YEO Virtual 2020 On Demand page.
The 2020 NAG/YEO Virtual Conference continues on Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time, with What is Blockchain and How Will It Affect You? For the entire eight-session agenda, visit https://nagconvenience.com/virtual-series-agenda/. To register click here: NAG/YEO Virtual 2020 Registration. For on-demand access to past sessions visit the NAG/YEO Virtual 2020 On Demand page.