“The days of smokes and Cokes are coming to an end,” said Jon Siron, foodservice director for Gier Oil Co., with more than 50 Eagle Stop stores in Missouri. “C-stores are finally understanding that they aren’t just gas stations that sell food; they’re restaurants that sell gas.”
For West Des Moines, Iowa-based Kum & Go, this meant a new, long-term strategy, for a world where “fueling is less and less relevant,” said Stuart Taylor, vice president of business insights and analytics at Kum & Go, which operates more than 400 stores in 11 states.
Its made-to-order offer, currently being tested in select markets, includes grain bowls, sandwiches with premium meat and vegetables layered on fresh-baked bread, blended smoothies and cold-brew frappés. “We want the food to be as good as fast casual,” Taylor said, “but delivered at the speed of a QSR and on the footprint of a convenience chain.”
Rhode Island-based Neon Marketplace, which recently opened its fourth convenience store, crafted a foodservice offer that caters to the “the trifecta,” as Neon’s Director of Operations Peter Rasmussen called it: essentially, the fuel consumer, the coffee consumer and the QSR consumer.
“Although we don’t want to alienate your classic c-store consumer,” noted Neon’s Senior Manager of Product Development & Supply Chain Elise Babey, “we really wanted to grasp that consumer who’s going to fill up their gas in the morning, but then they’ll pick up their order from Starbucks for breakfast, and then maybe at lunch they’ll take a trip to Panera.”
Neon’s menu features c-store classics — burgers, chicken sandwiches, pizza, breakfast — plus craft coffee. But there’s “so much room for innovation,” Babey said. “You might see things like avocado toast or açaí bowls or more elevated and upgraded items that are more traditional to a modern QSR than a standard convenience store. … I like to call our little area a ‘C-QSR’ rather than a c-store because I think of our foodservice program as more of a quick-service restaurant hybrid.”
In some ways, the pandemic really presented the convenience industry with an opportunity to level the playing field as stores remained open amid shutdowns.
“We just kept going,” said Greg Ekman, director of fresh food acceleration for Louisville, Ky.-based Thorntons, “and our foodservice business grew dramatically. We finished 2021 up nearly 30% over the prior year in (fresh food) profit.”
Breakfast in particular has really bounced back from initial dips early in the pandemic, he said, and is Thorntons’ biggest daypart today.
“We’re starting to pick up more business in that pivotal daypart,” said Ekman. “It’s not to say that we aren’t planning things for the afternoon — because we absolutely are — but we really want to make sure that we take care of the guests when they’re most frequently in the store, which is that morning daypart.”
Thorntons, which operates more than 200 c-stores in six states, offers breakfast burritos and sandwiches from 5-11 a.m. And its most popular breakfast sandwich — the sausage, egg and cheese croissant — is now available all day.
Innovations over the past year included the launch of the Sunrise Sampler — sausage, Canadian bacon, egg and cheese sandwiched between French toast slices — updates to its breakfast burritos as well as the addition of the Sunrise Scrambler Burrito — peppers and onions, scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon, and a hint of Buffalo sauce. Morning menu additions in 2022 will include a breakfast burger limited-time offer (LTO) in March: a fried egg patty, bacon, burger and chipotle mayo, with two slices of French toast in place of buns.
“That’s our M.O.,” said Ekman. “We’ll launch as an LTO, and if it does well, we’ll keep it in. The sausage, egg and cheese croissant was actually an LTO back in March of 2020, and it’s now our No. 1 selling item.”
Coffee’s, of course, an integral part of morning sales, too. And some retailers are opting for a full coffee bar experience to further cement that QSR comparison.
“We strive to do everything that you can get at a Starbucks but at a convenience level,” said Neon’s Babey, “and we’ve taken lots of time to really perfect our shot of espresso … from not only the type of bean and the roast, but also how fine it’s grinding and the ideal drip to really make the perfect cup of espresso.
When you come into our store, you can get anything from a latte to a cappuccino, macchiatos and fancy customizable coffee drinks.”
Wally’s, a Pontiac, Ill.-based travel center, also offers a full coffee bar, in addition to an array of food options: a carving station, made-to-order sandwiches, fresh pastries, ice cream with homemade waffle cones, and proprietary jerky and popcorn. Nitro cold brew’s on tap, plus specialty drinks, as well as kombucha and 60 soda flavors.
Wally’s Executive Chef Lute Cain has a background in fine dining and confirmed Wally’s is opening a second travel center in March in the St. Louis area, with further growth plans across the Midwest.
Other c-stores have found success with bean-to-cup coffee machines, which are a relatively low-maintenance, smaller-footprint offer that still convey freshness to consumers. Thorntons worked to retrofit all locations, as has Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s, with over 2,300 stores.
In addition to bean-to-cup coffee, Casey’s recently launched an all-new breakfast lineup, featuring its Loaded Breakfast Burrito and Loaded Breakfast Bowl, plus the newly renamed Toastwich, made using made-from-scratch dough — the same dough used for its pizzas — wrapped around eggs, sausage or bacon, as well as two types of cheese, then baked fresh in Casey’s kitchens.
Breakfast pizza sales have also accelerated, said Casey’s Chief of Merchandising Tom Brennan, and customers are even ordering breakfast pizza for delivery in the morning daypart.
Casey’s has long been known for its fresh-made pizza, but the pandemic drove sales like never before, with growth in both slices (of which Casey’s sells several hundred a day in its stores), and whole pies, which account for about 25% of the chain’s total food and dispensed beverage dollars.
“We saw significant growth (in whole pies),” said Brennan. “It’s probably the biggest growth we saw other than (the initial launch). And that really maintained over the course of the pandemic.”
Eagle Stop’s seen success with pizza, too, and is adding a new format to its menu in 2022.
After the initial launch of its On the Fly Market pizza program at the end of 2020, “sales increased dramatically at all locations and were holding steady for most of (2021),” Siron said. Gradually, though, he noticed a small decline in some markets.
“We started to investigate, and we talked with our customers regularly and got feedback from our associates,” he said. “One constant from our clientele was that they don’t want a traditional pizza slice; they much prefer the mini personal pizzas — a smaller slice, easier to hold on to in the car, visually more appealing. And let’s face it: Who doesn’t love more of that delicious buttery crust like a little treat at the end of your slice?”
Mini or extra-large, whole pie or slice, focusing on freshness and enabling customization are key to pizza in 2022, said Mike Kostyo, associate director and trendologist for Chicago-based market research firm Datassential. And alongside popular mashups like breakfast pizza and taco pizza, c-stores should explore regional styles and global ingredients.
“A lot of operators experimented with and began offering pizza and flatbreads during the pandemic,” Kostyo said, “so c-store operators will need to work extra hard to stand out.”
Neon’s newest stores feature artisan-style pizza with fresh-made dough, prepared in an 800-degree brick oven, which requires additional employee training, Babey said, but really sets it apart from other chains.
Employees have to “learn the language of this oven,” she said. “We have some culinary-trained employees working in that area, and I don’t think you see that a lot in a convenience store.”
Kum & Go is known for its pizza, too, and that’s not changing, said Jac Moskalik, vice president of food innovation, Kum & Go. Alongside the more traditional c-store customer, however, Kum & Go’s identified a new shopper: “the healthy striver.”
This customer is Gen Z, maybe millennial, Moskalik said. They don’t mind spending more for products they view as healthier or an overall better option for them.
It’s important that the menu’s profitable, of course, but also sustainable and accessible. “Democratizing healthy” is the term Kum & Go uses.
Crowley, La.-based Shop Rite/Tobacco Plus’ Bourbon Street Deli is not known for health food; it’s a destination in its communities for fresh, fried seafood and other local comfort foods like boudin balls: pork sausage made with rice and seasoning. Still, the 57-store chain’s Foodservice Compliance Director and Dietitian Angelle Cloud is passionate about making healthier options accessible, too.
“We’ve expanded our grilled options, we’ve expanded our salads and brought in lower- or no fat-dressing,” she said. “We have fresh fruits, and we brought that in as a same-cost side to go with our meals. … In a lot of cases, we find that ‘healthier foods’ are more expensive. I feel like we’ve really done a great job at leveling the playing field; if someone wants to make those healthy decisions with us, it doesn’t necessarily cost more. I think that’s really important.”
Cloud looks forward to the adoption of new food trends in the South. Plant-based foods, for example, aren’t yet mainstream in her area.
But Datassential’s Kostyo foresees overall growth in this area in 2022, with 36% of consumers saying they want to increase their plant-based protein consumption this year. Prepare for “a lot more fragmentation,” too; plant-based chicken, in particular, is poised for growth.
Still, not all plant-based consumers are seeking to replicate the taste and texture of meat. In fact, Kostyo said, 60% of consumers prefer plant-based foods that showcase fruits or vegetables as opposed to mimicking another food.
Neon partnered with a local Rhode Island company called Plant City to offer an array of plant-based items — “essentially a plant-based store within a store,” Rasmussen said.
“I don’t think that the plant-based category is strictly for vegan and vegetarian consumers anymore,” added Babey. “I think that your average Joe might grab a traditional burger from our touchscreen kiosk, but then also on his way out, grab a vegan hummus wrap and a vegan brownie.”
The shift to made-to-order food and kiosk ordering enables customization, noted Kum & Go’s Director of Brand Marketing Matt Riezman, which in turn ensures an offer for any consumer, no matter their preference or dietary needs. It also conveys freshness.
Indeed, “the almighty power of the order kiosk,” Siron said. “Guests want to feel in control, reinforcing the importance of ‘fresh made.’ Many of us are working to change the ordering model and technology in locations to adapt to guests’ needs, and this is just one way we’re looking toward the future in improving our guest experience.”
Technology enables innovation, customization — keeping your retail experience as seamless, or convenient, as possible — whether through online or mobile ordering, curbside pickup, drive-through, kiosk, self-checkout or autonomous checkout.
“Consumer adoption and acceptance of new technologies is growing incredibly quickly, across every demographic group,” Kostyo confirmed. “When we asked consumers about various macro trends that would impact the food industry in 2022, they felt most positively about technology, with 73% saying they felt very or somewhat positive about tech in the year ahead.”
At this point, he said, it’s not a question of if you should adopt a more tech-focused plan; it’s about determining which technologies to adopt for your particular operation.
Thorntons, for example, offers self-checkout at 25 of its stores, and all new stores include this tech, equipped with a proprietary labeling system, which Ekman said will lead to made-to-order, customizable foodservice for the chain, and perhaps other forms of technology down the line.
“Right now, our team’s really focused on simplifying the operations of the current platform so that, as we start to layer in more complexities over time, we have an operations team that’s well-versed in how to make the current products,” he said. “That’s really what we look forward to, being able to deliver a consistent experience to the guests every time, even as technology continues to evolve.”
7-Eleven, with more than 14,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada, first launched delivery in 2018 but recently added a subscription option; similar to DoorDash’s DashPass, with ‘7NOW Gold Pass,’ customers can waive delivery fees in the app for a set $5.95 a month.
Casey’s has offered delivery for over a decade, and it still uses its own drivers at about 450 stores, said Art Sebastian, vice president of digital experience for Casey’s. During the past year or so, though, it’s grown its business with DoorDash and Uber Eats, and it’s expanded delivery hours.
Casey’s also identified a new need-state for delivery that Sebastian expects to grow: grocery fill-ins.
“Our guests order from Casey’s for pizza delivery to meet their dinner needs, then they attach some grocery items to make it more convenient,” he said. “Now we’re observing they’re also using us to fill in a trip between driving to a grocer.”
Further, the retailer’s rewards program is approaching 4.6 million members, more than 50% of which are active on a monthly basis — a percentage higher than “the best in the industry,” Sebastian said: Starbucks, Wendy’s, McDonald’s.
“From a technology perspective, we’re paying attention to completely different sectors and industries,” he noted. “We’re starting to really observe what’s happening in the banking industry, in the fintech startup industry, because they’re setting pace for what users expect in these digital experiences.”
Neon’s newest two stores feature drive-throughs, an area that’s especially challenging for c-stores, Rasmussen said.
“We’re working to find a balance of how to limit the drive-through menu while not being too restrictive,” he said. “You might have a store with a great offer, but then you look across the street, and there’s a Dunkin’ or Starbucks with 20 cars in the drive-through line. We have to figure out how to start to capture some of that segment.”
Neon’s drive-through will feature a limited menu, adjusted over time. But its app, which launches this quarter, will feature all of its SKUs to order for pickup in-store or at the drive-through. The retailer has also partnered with Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub.
“We’re going to roll out an app, and we’re going to put in all the effort in the world to be incredibly successful with it,” Rasmussen noted. “But let’s be real: People are only going to keep so many apps on their phone. When someone says, ‘I’m hungry,’ they open up DoorDash, or they open Uber Eats or whatever’s most prevalent in their market, and we want to be a part of it.”
Wally’s is “led by design,” said Andy Strom, its chief experience officer. That extends to every part of the business, foodservice included. The Wally’s concept is a nod to ‘80s family road trips, which is what the design aesthetic is modeled after and what makes it “Instagram-worthy,” Strom said — meaning it’s photogenic and encourages sharing on social media.
“We have our main, featured, ‘shareable’ zones in the store — an old Winnebago Brave (RV) that we’ve converted to retail display, big murals upon entry, our main sign on the way into the store that says, ‘Wally’s: Home of the Great American Road Trip,’” Strom said.
A Jeep Wagoneer is also parked in front of the travel center for customers to take photos with.
“We have over 60 soda fountain flavors, and all of our badges and logos on all those sodas are the old-school, ‘80s ones,” he added. “It’s just all those little details. At every turn, there’s just little quirks that are really fun, that people like to share (on social media).”
Online or in-store, when it comes to communicating your brand — your offer to consumers — don’t underestimate the power of visuals. This is especially true for foodservice.
“The use of photography is super important,” confirmed Kum & Go’s Riezman, “especially when we’re doing something new that might be a little bit unexpected or might be challenging norms that people have in their minds. … We’ll continue to use photography, especially on the exterior of our store and in advertisements online or on TV, to really showcase this food and help continue to introduce people to it who may not think of Kum & Go as their first thought for food.”
It’s cliche but true: People eat with their eyes. If it looks good, customers are more likely to try it. If the food tastes good, they’ll return for more.
“If you go into (Neon’s) stores, the first thing that will catch your eye is this amazing picture of a slice of pizza, and you see the pepperoni all curled up and filled with oil, and they look hot and sizzling, and then you see the cheese pull,” said Babey. “That is the image that we’re really going for, the fresh food in motion. … People want their food fresh. So that’s what we’re trying to depict in our imagery.”
In 2022, consumers are feeling hopeful, Datassential reported, but we are still in a pandemic; operational challenges persist, from staffing to product shortages.
“Twenty-four years in the industry, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Eagle Stop’s Siron. “I think I’ve had to substitute 40% of my offerings.”
Retailers are taking the opportunity to reassess their operations — and get creative with new menu items: Eagle Stop’s planning to use its existing, fresh-made pizza dough to add pizza rolls, calzones, kolaches and a few desserts. And Thorntons’ Sunrise Sampler breakfast sandwich was adapted to create its upcoming breakfast burger.
“(In the past), the procedures in which we handled food did not always make it easy for our operations team to (keep items) in stock for our guests,” noted Ekman. “So we made a couple of key process changes. This enabled us to do a lot more menu development. Before, our settings were very specific to the products, but now, we have settings that are specific to ingredients, not finished products.”
The goal is to enable innovation while still setting the operations team up for success. Thorntons even created a new field support position — four of them, actually — fresh food excellence coaches, whose jobs will be to help stores execute foodservice programs at a higher level.
2021 was about pivoting. 2022 will be about building on new programs.
“We did a lot of development in the back half of 2021,” Ekman said. ”We’re really excited to see how things shake out.” CSD