When the COVID-19 virus first reared its ugly head in the U.S., reducing the number of places customers had to touch became job No. 1 for convenience store retailers. And, for many of them, that meant changing the way they dispensed self-serve coffee.
To make matters more challenging, requirements often varied by location. One state in which Clark’s Pump-N-Shop operates required full service for beverages; so, in stores with room to accommodate it, the company moved its coffee equipment behind the counter and prepared each cup to order, said Jessica Russell, Clark’s food service director. Five of the company’s 10 locations in that state could accommodate the change. To streamline the service at these stores, Clark’s downsized the varieties of coffee it offered from three or four choices to one.
“Since the restrictions were lifted in that state, coffee sales in the stores that could not accommodate the relocation of the equipment are rebounding,” she said.
Clark’s operates 68 stores in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Florida.
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Meanwhile, all 265 GetGo convenience stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Maryland had to change the way they offered self-serve hot coffee under COVID-19 restrictions. In March, during the initial shutdown, the chain closed the seating in its cafes and sus- pended self-serve coffee availability.
When the restrictions lightened, GetGo moved all the coffee cups and lids behind the kitchen or register, said Jon Cox, vice president and chief merchant for GetGo. Customers who wanted coffee were given a cup, a lid and a piece of tissue paper to allow them to avoid making direct contact with the self-serve equipment.
Creamers, formerly offered in cold wells, were switched to single-serve containers, and sweeteners and stirrers were individually wrapped. To reduce shrink, coffee was brewed in smaller quantities — one-third of a pot at a time — and more often, Cox explained.
“We created a safe process to enable us to sell coffee and protect our customers; the hardest part was the inconvenience customers experienced having to ask for a cup from behind the counter,” he said.
During stay-at-home orders — which ranged from four to 10 weeks in the areas where GetGo operates — lack of commuter trafﬁc hurt coffee and accompanying breakfast business for the chain. Made-to-order coffee drinks available at some GetGo locations were severely impacted as consumers prepared their own beverages at home or chose to go to drive-through retailers.
Now, cups and lids are back on coffee counters, but for dairy condiments, the company partnered with Good-West in Pennsylvania to introduce a no-touch, GetGo-branded refrigerated machine to dispense milk and half and half. The equipment is cleaned and sanitized multiple times every hour. “We used to offer ﬁve different milks — such as soy and almond and seasonal creamers — and hope to go back to that, particularly for our millennial customers, maybe this summer when the vaccine is widely available and the pandemic under better control,” Cox said.
GetGo’s coffee supplier is also working with the company to provide seasonal ﬂavors in quantities that make sense during the slower volume time. “We normally would have to run 1,200 cases of a seasonal ﬂavor that we would want to feature as a limited-time offer (LTO),” he said. “They cut that in half for us.”
The stores are promoting their java with a Coffee Rush program, offering a 99-cent cup between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. for customers who spend $20 on gas. An Afternoon Rush promotion also offers coffee at half price between 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
“Hot and cold dispensed are the slowest categories in the stores to rebound from COVID-19 impact,” Cox said.
Fast Break, with many of its 31 convenience stores located in summer travel areas of southern, central and eastern Oregon and northern California, felt more impact on its fountain sales than on its coffee when travel was restricted during the early months of the pandemic. Now that coffee season has arrived, sales are pretty steady.
“We depend on our local customers for the coffee season, and they continue to come back in, besides the ones that prefer a drive-through, which we only offer in one location,” said Oliver Herting, beverage category manager for Fast Break.
To offer maximum variety while minimizing potential virus spread, Fast Break is offering LTO seasonal creamers in individual cups.