Customer food preferences have changed during COVID-19, with more customers looking for takeout and delivery options. Savvy c-store retailers like Kwik Chek are listening to their customers and transforming their food offerings to fit the needs of today.
CStore Decisions recently caught up with Benjamin Hoffmeyer, vice president of marketing and food service for Spicewood, Texas-based Kwik Chek, which operates close to 50 locations in Texas and Oklahoma, to learn more about the chain’s latest foodservice initiatives, how it is adapting during COVID-19 and the ins and outs of operating foodservice in a small space.
CStore Decisions (CSD): How has the pandemic impacted foodservice/ food best practices at Kwik Chek?
Benjamin Hoffmeyer (BH): We have seen customer traffic decline by double digits, with much of it happening during the breakfast daypart, which is our biggest daypart. On the positive side, we have been able to adapt and adjust our menu to offer take-home family meals like King Ranch Chicken, tamales and brisket by the pound with sides, all under $19.99. This has helped boost the average ticket to help offset some of the foot traffic declines.
The pandemic has also affected foodservice supplies like gloves, which are a staple item for our restaurant and in short supply for our team members. Being flexible and focusing on getting supplies first became a priority over the cost, as it meant prioritizing our customers’ and team members’ safety first.
Labor sourcing has also been a challenge at our company but in recent weeks has improved. Little things, such as ensuring our team has safety gear like masks, shields and extra hand sanitizer available to protect them and the public, has eased some of the stress in our stores.
CSD: Are there any new foodservice considerations or expectations heading into fall?
BH: A couple of months ago, we surveyed all of our loyalty customers and asked them various foodservice questions about what they wanted and how we were doing. We were very surprised by some of the feedback on what customers wanted, including healthier options and fewer fried products.
In response to our customers’ feedback, we are launching healthier options like grilled chicken tenders, chicken rice pilaf, fresh broccoli, side salads and corn on our menu. On our cold line, we are adapting to allow for fresh, made-to-order salads, or the option to add a salad to their order of fajita tacos or fresh hand-breaded tenders. We were quite surprised in some of our most rural areas that the No. 1 request was for grilled chicken tenders, considering the thousands of hand-breaded fried chicken tenders we sell each week.
Additionally, starting in September, we are adding Monday through Friday ‘Daily Specials’ like Quesadilla Fridays, Chicken Fried Steak Wednesdays and Tamale Mondays as our customers noted menu fatigue. We are also adjusting our marketing strategies and offering quarterly limited-time offers (LTOs). We had gotten away from this to simplify operations, but our customers told us in the survey they want more variety.
This is a balancing act between having the right amount of assortment and being able to execute operationally. For the fall season, we will feature our Smokehouse BBQ Pork Rib Plate for $7.99 and our Family of Four Meals for $19.99, which includes a full rack of ribs, two large sides and four rolls. Customers are tired of their own cooking and the lack of new LTOs in the restaurant market. This is a great time to offer your customers new items that can help deter menu fatigue.
CSD: What new protocols are you using, and/or how are you changing offerings to fit the new normal?
BH: From a safety standpoint, we have additional protocols in place to wash hands more often and for the changing of gloves. In many cases, we have stations where folks do not leave a particular area, i.e. they may do prep for the day where other employee may only serve the guest. This is especially important if you have small, tight kitchen quarters.
During the peak of COVID-19, we had pulled back from new-item LTOs and did very little promoting and focused on simplifying operations since staffing was a big issue and customer counts were down double digits. We also recently cut many dead-weight menu items that sold OK but were not rock-star sellers. This allowed us to bring on different unique items like the Smokehouse BBQ Pork Ribs and Fresh-Made Chicken- or Beef-Fajita Quesadillas.
If you want to introduce new items, something has to come off the menu to allow for operational excellence. Since COVID-19, we have a greater focus on take-home family meal deals like breakfast and lunch six-packs and 10-pack taco deals. Our LTOs are also focused around immediate consumption and take-home family meal deals. For example, our Smokehouse BBQ Pork Ribs can be purchased as singles, plates or as a Family Meal Deal for four. Customers can also buy the whole slab separately.
CSD: What else are you focused on when it comes to foodservice today?
BH: We are also highly focused on maximizing each transaction and building the average ticket to help offset the decline in customer counts. One way we have done this is by developing “Local Faves,” where we created unique names for our fully loaded Add-On Tacos & Biscuits like Bandit Taco, El Jefe Taco, TXB Taco, Boss Hogg Taco, Wrangler Taco, Big Foot Taco or Piglet Biscuit. Products come pre-built, and the most popular add-ons and LTOs and are sold at a higher price and marketed as premium and cravable upgrade options. This has been one of the most successful tactics to build our average ticket and improve speed of service, ordering and taco-building.
Take-home packaging is also a key factor in supporting this initiative. Having the right packaging to allow a customer to drive home 30-40 minutes is key to keep product fresh, crispy or moist, especially when you’re dealing with fried chicken, grilled chicken or handmade flour-tortilla tacos. We are also starting to sign up additional third-party delivery companies and working on mobile app ordering for curbside pickup. All of these little pieces come together if done right to create a truly delicious customer experience.
CSD: What are some must-have pieces of equipment to make c-store foodservice successful in your opinion and why?
BH: It depends on what you want to be famous for in foodservice. In my career I have seen c-stores go through their ‘Food Product Life Cycle,’ where they start off doing roller grills, then graduate to microwave hot-box items, then move on to assembly-type products where proteins, cheese and bread or biscuits are assembled. Then, they eventually graduate to their ‘Famous For’ products. Those couple of key product segments that you want to be ‘Famous For’ really dictate what type of equipment you need.
Our focus at Kwik Chek is on being famous for high-quality, cravable and delicious food, where our ‘Hero Products’ — that’s what we call our most famous products that drive our business — are our hand-breaded fresh chicken and handmade flour-tortilla tacos.
Essential equipment for us includes a flat-top grill to grill our sizzling fresh fajitas or quesadillas. Hot cases with steam and dry-heat controls and sections display our crispy hand-breaded tenders and tacos. We learned very quickly that some cases are better for fried chicken, but not necessarily great for holding taco proteins and sides.
Other key pieces of equipment are holding ovens, which allow you to recover after that 12 p.m. lunch rush. Your ability to recover after each major rush could be limited by the type of equipment you provide to your front-line operators.
CSD: What trends are you seeing currently in foodservice?
BH: Foodservice delivery and curbside pickup are keeping a lot of restaurants open. We currently have partnerships with DoorDash and are looking to expand our foodservice reach to as many providers as possible. We are also looking to add mobile ordering and curbside pickup in the near future to allow our customers more convenience.
We’re also starting to see some restaurants bring back LTOs — some being new items and some being ‘two-for’ options. We are a fan of always leading with quality, new-item LTOs and less with price as it has a bigger impact on our sales and profitability.
CSD: Are there any new foodservice offerings at Kwik Chek you want to tell us about?
BH: Our fajita quesadillas were widely successful in August. For September-October, we launched our new Smokehouse Pork Ribs, which is a great, hearty item for our guests. In November-December we will feature tamales and fresh-smoked pulled-pork tacos and sandwiches.
CSD: What’s your favorite thing about your current role?
BH: Being able to create change for our company. The c-store and restaurant businesses are evolving quickly and being able to adapt to those changes to create a better customer experience is definitely a benefit I enjoy.
The other piece I enjoy most about my role is working with our great food team and our 600-plus team members. Seeing them grow professionally and work toward a common goal is truly something special to see.