Convenience stores are always coming up with ways to create new and fresh food items for consumers. In order to make these food options possible, c-stores are bringing in chefs with diverse culinary backgrounds.
CStore Decisions caught up with Lute Cain, executive chef at Wally’s, which operates two stores in Illinois and Missouri, and got the scoop on how he took his classically trained culinary background and put it to use at Wally’s.
CStore Decisions (CSD): How long have you been the executive chef at Wally’s, and what attracted you to the position? What’s your favorite thing about overseeing foodservice for a convenience store/travel center platform?
Lute Cain (LC): I have been at Wally’s for 1.5 years. I’ve always worked in platinum country clubs, and Wally’s presented a new challenge. My thought was, “How can I take my classically trained culinary background working in country clubs and incorporate it into a service center?” My favorite thing about Wally’s is hands down the guest interaction. When they come into the store, they are blown away by how clean it is and all the fresh food options we have.
CSD: Tell me a bit about your background in foodservice as a chef. How does that background serve you in a c-store setting?
LC: I have a culinary arts degree from East Central College in Union, Mo. I trained for 10 years at Old Warson Country Club in Ladue, Mo., which is a platinum club under Aiden Murphy, the only master chef in the state of Missouri. During this time, I competed in several national cooking competitions and also earned my CEC (Certified Executive Chef) certification through the ACF (American Culinary Federation). I then took the executive chef job at Forest Hills Country Club in Chesterfield, Mo. Then I decided I wanted a career change and went into the food-selling business and learned everything about that side of things for three years.
CSD: Tell me about the food offering at Wally’s.
LC: We have several items that are proprietary to Wally’s. We are an 80% scratch kitchen. At the pizza station, we make the dough in-house every day and hand roll it in front of guests. We bake all the pastries in-house, make all the salads fresh and have several seasonal items. Popcorn, hand pies, Italian beef, Mediterranean kale, quinoa power cups and pizza are must-try options for sure. Also, not food related, but the SLOOSH (what Wally’s calls its frozen dispensed beverages) is one of a kind, especially the Wally’s Psycho Orange, which is also proprietary to Wally’s.
CSD: Did you add anything new to the foodservice offering in December or will you in the new year that you can mention?
LC: We just added a fish sandwich: eight-ounce bread cod, shaved cabbage, tartar sauce and melted American cheese on a New Orleans Poor Boy bread. We also do a lot of seasonal items, and the take-and-bake items change every few weeks. Also, we are in the middle of research and development on a few new items for the St. Louis Soccer Stadium.
CSD: What are the biggest challenges when cooking/preparing food in a convenience store/travel center?
LC: The biggest challenge, I would say, is having such a big variety to make sure we cover all guests’ needs. From vegan (and) gluten-free to the barbecue lover.
CSD: In your opinion, what are some of the must-have kinds of equipment for a c-store or travel center foodservice program and why?
LC: Combi oven, hands down, is the best tool we have, besides the team members of course. If it wasn’t for the amazing and talented team we have, no way could Wally’s produce some of the best food in the city.
CSD: What are some of the things you look for in convenience store foodservice equipment?
LC: The equipment has to be durable and multi-use. With so many options and limited space, this is key.
CSD: What do you wish you had known when you were first getting started in convenience store foodservice?
LC: Honestly, how much fun it is. Again, you have such a wide variety of guests that you cook for that you’re always staying on your toes. We look at what we do as a Food Court 2.0 because we have so many options for guests to choose from.
Wally’s is always creating something new and fresh in the culinary world. When you walk in the door, you get hit with all kinds of smells, from freshly baked cinnamon rolls to the freshly popped popcorn we pop every day.