C-stores are succeeding with deli programs with careful attention to customer demands in each market area as they work to attract customers away from the competition.
In May, six out of the 11 full-service delis at Clifford Fuel Co.’s Cliff’s Local Market stores in New York broke their all-time sales records, reported Derek Thurston, the chain’s director of foodservice operations. Cliff’s made-to-order operation, which accounts for 40% of the company’s foodservice sales, is an assembly-line set-up where customers point out what ingredients they want on their sandwiches and assemblers behind the counter put them together.
Sourdough, Italian herb and cheese and other breads are baked fresh on-site for subs and melts. The menu also includes tomato basil, white, honey wheat, spinach and jalapeño cheddar wraps.
The deli is always the center of foodservice activity with staffers preparing foods for the grab- and-go cases when they are not building made-to-order sandwiches, Thurston noted.
“We make a ton of grab-and-go products at the deli,” he elaborated.
Thurston pointed out that retailers thinking about adding a deli to existing locations should be aware of the challenge of changing customers’ food purchasing and eating habits. He explained that probably the hardest habits to break are at breakfast.
“You have to offer an outstanding product at a good price and provide a high level of service to get customers in and out quickly,” he said.
He added that sampling is a good way to get products in customers’ hands and mouths. Sampling works particularly well when the product is a limited-time offer (LTO), something fresh and new to garner attention.
“We just did an LTO breakfast sandwich with sausage or bacon on a Belgian maple waffle,” he said. “Now we’re working on a premium chipotle-turkey- bacon sandwich on ciabatta.”
Cliff’s tests its new products in a handful of stores before it rolls them out. The company also emails monthly coupons to its customer base.
Another way Cliff’s promotes its delis is through social media including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“Food pictures really tell the story,” Thurston said. Cliff’s Local Market has a total of 20 stores in New York state. Delis are set to be added to existing locations as they are remodeled.
Evaluate Deli Offerings
In most of Englefield Inc.’s 120 Duchess convenience stores in Ohio and West Virginia, deli sales have grown close to 10% compared to pre-COVID sales, according to Nathan Arnold, director of marketing for Englefield Inc. He attributed this increase to Duchess’ commitment to innovation and constant analysis of the deli offerings.
The delis offer freshly made cold subs, sandwiches and salads along with hot grab-and-go items including select subs, chicken tenders and hamburgers. Many of the stores feature cold wells that provide numerous toppings that customers can add to their sandwiches.
Even though deli-made grab-and-go options are the most popular at the stores, many of the locations have open sight lines directly into the kitchens, so customers can see the team members making fresh food. Aromas from the ovens are also key to getting customers to equate the stores with high-quality food, Arnold noted.
Arnold advised retailers who are planning to roll out a deli program to study each market carefully to determine which flavor profiles are preferred.
“What works in one market may not work in every store,” he said. “We do extensive testing of products before we launch, with test markets and focus groups.”
Retailers planning to sell hot foods from their delis should invest in a fryer (with hood if required) and walk-in freezer large enough to hold a week’s worth of inventory, advised M. David May, director of food services for Kwik Stop Convenience Stores. The company has a total of 27 stores in Nebraska and Colorado, 13 of which have proprietary delis.
“People are generally not looking for healthier choices when they come to a convenience store deli, the flavor of fried foods is better than baked and they take half the time to prepare,” he explained. “Having a fryer also offers a wide range of product options from appetizers such as mozzarella sticks and mini tacos to dessert items such as fried cheesecake bites.”
May also recommended making up a menu that uses the same basic ingredients in multiple ways. As an example, he mentioned chicken breasts, which can be offered mesquite-grilled on a bun, as a club sandwich and with provolone and mushrooms (the mushrooms come from the stores’ pizza program).