Universally beloved — morning, noon and night — pizza and fried chicken are the ultimate comfort foods, and consumers have turned to them more than ever this past year.
Waycross, Ga.-based Friendly Express, which offers Hunt Brothers Pizza at 19 of its 34 locations, has seen pizza sales grow about 35% since March, primarily whole pizzas in the evening daypart.
“We’ve always done a very good evening business, a good call-in business, especially in our rural locations, but that business has grown by leaps and bounds since March,” said Gary Sellers, director of marketing and foodservice, Friendly Express. “From a sales perspective, what I love about Hunt Brothers in combination with what we do in our delis is that it’s incremental sales — I’d say 90% of our sales are incremental. It really does not cannibalize any other programs.”
Friendly Express’ new app-based loyalty program, which launched in March, has also helped with pizza sales, thanks to loyalty member offers like a free two-liter of Coca-Cola with the purchase of a whole pizza.
“Our focus is on that evening daypart with the whole pies,” Sellers said. Increased margins and new strategies from Hunt Brothers have pushed the chain to zero in on elevating that evening daypart, including focusing on it within its loyalty app.
The chain also does a “tremendous grab-and-go business” with Hunt Brothers.
“We’ve still got a few stores that are 85-90% grab and go,” said Sellers. “But I love what’s going on with the made-to-order, with the call-in business.”
Friendly Express is also working on a new online ordering system with PDI that’s integrated with Vroom in order to continue growing its pizza business with curbside pickup.
As far as toppings and flavors, while pepperoni may be the favorite for many c-store pizza programs, customers are more apt to try new trends these days than ever before. Limited-time offers (LTOs) are a great way to attract new customers and keep your offer fresh.
Interestingly, according to Grubhub’s “Year in Food” report, which is based on trends gathered from tens of millions of orders on the Grubhub platform, Buffalo Chicken pizza was ordered 226% more this year compared to 2019, and Hawaiian pizza rose a massive 689% in popularity.
“For us, the top seller is the Lotsa Meat,” said Sellers. “It’s the No. 1 pizza that we sell by ‘Hunk.’ I actually think that it probably is the No. 1 pizza we sell in whole pies, as well. I always thought it was Pepperoni, but Pepperoni is in second place.”
Hunt Brothers’ LTOs also perform well, he said, and Friendly Express promotes them heavily on social media.
Kwik Trip, which operates more than 700 locations throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, is known for its pizza, but in 2019 the c-store chain branched out into fried chicken.
By 2021, Kwik Trip has 530 stores with fryers for its fried chicken program, and the rest of its stores, those without space for frying equipment, are still able to offer the program thanks to Kwik Trip’s new Take Home Meal plant.
“Things have not slowed down in Kwik Trip Land,” said Paul Servais, Kwik Trip’s retail food service director. “We met our goal of having all 700 locations with a chicken program by Oct. 1, 2020! Pretty awesome.”
The demand for chicken sandwiches is still strong, even post peak “chicken sandwich wars” hype in 2019, when the Popeyes fried chicken sandwich generated lines around the block and massive sales.
In fact, Kwik Trip rolled out its own fried chicken sandwich in September, which Servais said was met with “outstanding response” from customers.
“Demand is still very strong, and I believe it will stay,” said Servais. “The company average is about 20 (sandwiches) per store per day, with our busiest stores selling 80-100. This is on top of all our other hot food offerings.”
Friendly Express is also serving up chicken in addition to Hunt Brothers Pizza. The chain features a proprietary deli program as well as Chester’s Chicken, which Sellers said has seen an increase in sales since the pandemic started, particularly in the lunch daypart. Its bestsellers are the three-piece and the four-piece tender snacks.
Similarly, the “king of (Kwik Trip’s) chicken program,” Servais said, is the three-piece jumbo chicken tenders. But Family Meal Deals are slowly growing, as well.
Among its goals for the program in 2021, Servais said Kwik Trip is working to become a destination for the dinner daypart.
“Once you have a fryer in a store,” he said, “the possibilities are endless.”