Your c-store sells the same beer, tobacco, candy bars, soda pop and chips as the convenience store across the street. Even your sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches and pre-fried chicken strips are similar. So, how do you stand out?
Progressive c-stores are increasingly more food-focused to increase revenue and attract customers. Over the past decade, several c-store brands have done an amazing job with their freshly prepared food program, which has brought about a widescale change in customer attitudes toward c-store food offerings. Customers are more inclined than ever to consider buying food from a c-store. This means the table is set for your success.
So, if your foodservice department is looking for ways to take your program to the next level, what’s a good strategy?
I’d like to share three ideas to elevate your foodservice game that I recently shared at an industry conference last June in Savannah, Ga. As you consider these ideas, I encourage you to start small and stay focused. As author Mark Levy says, “You don’t have to be the best. You just have to be different.”
Develop A Signature Product
There’s a little Mexican restaurant in Salt Lake City called The Red Iguana where its molé — a sauce made of dried and fresh chiles, nuts, spices, herbs, fruits and vegetables, originally used in Mexican cuisine — is world famous. It’s served with Spanish rice, refried beans and flour or gluten-free corn tortillas.
They were even featured on American Restaurateur Guy Fiere’s TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Molé is what The Red Iguana is known for, and it draws customers to capacity every day.
What are you known for?
Give customers a reason to choose your locations by offering a signature item that they can’t find anywhere else.
You may want to start by selecting a popular regional food item and explore ways to make it your own. This could be accomplished with a unique recipe, flavor profile or an unusual proportion. Then create a distinct name for it that’s in line with your brand.
If fried chicken sandwiches are popular in your area and your brand strategy includes being a little edgy, don’t take an off-the-shelf chicken recipe and call it “Fried Chicken Sandwich.” Boring! This doesn’t help you stand out — strengthen your brand or give customers a reason to visit your store.
In fact, it might give your customers an excuse to keep driving to Chick-fil-A where they specialize in that signature product.
If your supplier can accommodate you, create a signature flavor profile that the majority of your target customers will crave like a dash of cayenne pepper or a touch of sweet honey and give it a great name like the “What the Cluck!” chicken sandwich.
For example, Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s, with more than 2,000 stores in 16 states, offers a Taco Pizza that’s extremely popular and highly unique.
If your provider can’t create the magic for you, try making huge portions your thing. Salt Lake City-based Maverik, with nearly 400 locations in 12 states, offers the gigantic M.O.A.B. — Mother of All Burritos, which includes huge servings of ham, bacon, sausage, eggs and hash browns. York, Pa.-based Rutter’s, which operates 78 stores in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland, offers the massive Route 30 burger, which includes two grilled cheese sandwiches for the bun stacked with one, two or three burgers.
Create Signature Sides
Starsky has Hutch and Batman has Robin. Sidekicks can pull customers to your side of the street.
There aren’t any Church’s Chicken locations in my area, so the first time I visited one of their restaurants was on a recent vacation in Puerto Rico, where there’s a location within sight at all times.
After butchering my own chickens for family dinners as a boy growing up in Idaho, I now prefer boneless and skinless chicken where somebody else does all the hard (uncomfortable) work. So, it makes sense that I’d order the crispy chicken tenders.
However, due to a supply shortage, the restaurant was all out. The whole island was out of chicken tenders?! So I ordered one of their signature sides, Honey Butter Biscuits.
I make biscuits from scratch at least once a week because they’re fast and freakin’ awesome, but Church’s Chicken Honey Butter Biscuits were next level. I completely forgot about any cravings for chicken because I was chin deep in fresh baked biscuits. I think I ate six of them.
I haven’t had another chance to try their chicken, but then next time I see a Church’s Chicken, I’m pulling in for biscuits and to try their chicken tenders.
I share that story to spotlight side dishes. What can you offer that’s so amazing, different and delicious that nobody else is offering? Not every side dish on your menu needs to be top drawer, but focus on one that will get some acclaim. Then come up with a clever name for it that reinforces your company brand.
Consider The Packaging
There’s a reason diamond rings aren’t sold in paper sacks. Packaging is a precursor to value. It helps customers anticipate an upcoming experience and it advertises to everyone in view.
Unprinted and unbranded napkins, cups and packaging are usually less expensive than their custom-printed cousins, but keep in mind that their ability to draw attention to your establishment outlives the food they contain.
When you understand that food containers are the least expensive advertising you can provide, you’ll join the ranks of world-class brands like Coca-Cola, Apple and Maverik, where even empty packages spread their gospel.
People are considering c-store food offerings more than ever before, so give them a reason to choose yours.
Focus on a sensational signature item and a savory side and remember to give it a name that will reinforce your brand.
Don’t forget to design some packaging that will get attention. Remember, even a barn looks better painted.
Ernie Harker is a brand therapist at Ernburn Brands, and the former executive director of marketing for convenience store giant Maverik. Learn more at https://ernburn.com/.