Convenience stores continue to elevate their foodservice programs, bringing in chefs to tempt customers with menu offerings that rival those from fast-food restaurants.
CStore Decisions caught up with Chef James Fry, foodservice director for Dandy Mini Marts, which operates 66 stores in Pennsylvania and New York. Sixty-three of those locations offer a foodservice program. Fry, who grew up in the restaurant business and ran his own fine-dining establishment, is now translating his expertise to the complex world of c-store foodservice.
CStore Decisions (CSD): How long have you been the food service director at Dandy Mini Marts and what attracted you to the position?
James Fry (JF): I’ve been a food service director at Dandy for four years. Funny story: I was attending a regional food show, and I ran into Duane Phillips, Dandy’s general manager. I had known Duane for many years in a different capacity. After a quick discussion about c-store foodservice, Duane said, “I might have a position for you.” After a couple weeks of interviews, I took a newly created food service director role at Dandy. It really fell into my lap!
CSD: What’s your favorite thing about overseeing foodservice for a convenience store platform?
JF: My favorite part of working in this industry, which is also often the most challenging, is that every day brings new challenges, especially during and post-COVID.
CSD: Tell me about your background in foodservice and as a chef. How does that background serve you in a c-store setting?
JF: I grew up in my family’s restaurant business, Fry Bros. Turkey Ranch. I always enjoyed cooking and working in the kitchen, but I decided to get a business degree to start my career. I quickly felt unfulfilled, so I enrolled in culinary school at Baltimore International Culinary College (BICC). I came back to the family’s business and set up a catering operation. After my father passed away, I struck out on my own and opened a fine dining restaurant — The Wren’s Nest, in Mansfield, Pa. I operated The Wren’s Nest for 10 years. After a couple of foodservice jobs in between, I started with Dandy in 2018.
C-store food offerings have come a long way from their meager beginnings of self-serve hot dogs and frozen pizza. C-stores now compete with quick-service restaurants (QSRs) and even some entry-level family dining restaurants. That said, I believe my experiences in catering and family and fine dining have given me the tools and a foundation in the food arena to help lead Dandy to grow our foodservice segment through new and flavorful offerings.
CSD: Tell me about the food offering at Dandy. What are some noteworthy meal options?
JF: Dandy’s food program is proprietary, but we do have a few stores with Subways. Our program is a made-to-order concept. Plus, we have a pizza program that is very close to pizza-shop quality, but we don’t toss the dough in the air. Our noteworthy meal options, I would have to say, are our pizzas. We offer 16-inch pies and, in many stores, we offer full-sheet pizzas cut into 32 squares. Pizza is our largest dollar driver in our food segment.
CSD: Are you adding anything new to the foodservice offering?
JF: This quarter we launched a new concept, Flatbread Melts. We have seven different melts: Italian Job, Wishbone, Mamma Mia, Hail Caesar, Wing It, Big Beef and Say Cheese. It was a big rollout for us, as it coincided with an equally large rollout of new rapid-cook ovens. Marrying these rollouts together was perfect timing because our customers were offered a fresh new concept from Dandy, and the newer equipment made our employees’ lives easier in the kitchen, especially when handling a brand-new menu item.
CSD: What are the biggest challenges when cooking/preparing food in a convenience store?
JF: The biggest challenge we face is training, which is the keystone to consistency. When facing any amount of employee turnover, it’s a challenge to consistently keep our standards high and to meet our customers’ expectations.
CSD: In your opinion, what are some of the must-have kinds of equipment for a c-store foodservice program and why?
JF: “Must have” equipment will, of course, be determined by the food concept you choose for your operation. For Dandy’s customer base, my go-to equipment list is a deep fryer (open vat or ventless), a rapid-cook oven and a conveyor pizza oven. We certainly test and introduce healthy options, and signature salads move well, but fried food is still always a hit with Dandy customers from entrees to appetizers. The rapid-cook oven is becoming a mainstay because of its versatility, consistency and faster cook times, while keeping a modest footprint in the kitchen. Because pizza is the largest driver of our food program, we find that the conveyor pizza oven produces the best, most consistent finished product.
CSD: What are some of the things you look for in convenience store foodservice equipment?
JF: The features I look for in equipment are size, reliability and the full spectrum of capabilities relevant to our operations.
CSD: What do you wish you had known when you were first getting started in c-store foodservice?
JF: C-store foodservice operations are complex! We serve so many customer segments and keeping things fresh and consistent with limited kitchen space is always an exciting task. Dallas Tunnicliff, former Dandy’s food service director, played a large role in mentoring me as I started in c-stores. He developed Dandy’s pizza program back in the ‘90s and really put together Dandy’s original food foundation. He taught me a lot about the business. I want to build on that foundation and take Dandy’s food program to the next level.