food for thought

By Ross Markman Retail Relations Editor

Highlighted by a theme dinner that mimicked the Food Network’s popular Iron Chef television program, the National Convenience Store Advisory Group (NCSAG) foodservice conference was a success, particularly for the more than 300 retailers and suppliers in attendance.

The three-day event, held in Atlanta, was the first NCSAG show devoted solely to foodservice, and offered convenience operators a chance to meet and conduct business with foodservice suppliers both on the trade show floor and in private business exchanges. The oneonone format was facilitated by ECRM.

The event also featured a half-dozen workshops and presentations, each focusing on specific elements of achieving foodservice success.

The Cast Iron Chef event pitted Keith Boston, director of culinary development for Sheetz Inc., against Marc Waltzer, founder of Premiere Culinary Consulting Group, in a three-hour cooking duel. Each chef used the secret ingredient—Ruiz Foods’ Tornados—to prepare several dishes for judging.

Judges included Cassandra Bailey, foodservice director for Dalton, Ga.based Favorite Markets, and Franco Harris, the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers running back, Super Bowl MVP and pro football Hall of Famer, who is the founder and CEO of Super Bakery Inc. in Pittsburgh. The match ended in a tie.

Throughout the show, sentiment among many retailers was the same: They came to the show to garner new foodservice ideas and to check out new products—and they got them.

“It’s been very informative,” Debora Lindsey, foodservice manager for RH Foster, said while perusing the show floor.

Hampden, Maine-based RH Foster operates 10 convenience stores, and has plans to build six more in the next two years. The chain now offers foods such as hand-tossed pizza and fresh-baked sub rolls.

“I’m always looking for something new in terms of equipment, something better. Faster is always better,” Lindsey said.

Don Alberts, who owns one store – Get ‘n Go—in Three Hills, Alberta, near Calgary, said he attended NCSAG to stay ahead of the competition and to keep with the latest in foodservice.

“We’re just looking for an edge over the other guy,” Alberts said. “And I really felt like this show helped us get a leg up.”

And it wasn’t just the smaller companies that gleaned valuable information from the show. Large chains, such as Salt Lake City, Utah-based Maverik Stores, also found the event exceeded their expectations.

“I’ve definitely seen things here I’m interested in pursuing. It’s really been helpful,” said Renee Ross, who manages foodservice at the 175-store chain. “Really, just coming to the opening session was well worth it.”

Food Trivia
The opening session—a fun take on foodservice—featured Maurice Minno, David Brewster and Peter Rogers, of consulting group ISUS (Innovative Strategies, Unique Solutions), who educatedretailers on the multi-faceted attack they need to have when considering foodservice operations via a game of Jeopardy. ISUS has helped craft successful foodservice offerings for Wawa, Circle K, BP and other major chains.

“Foodservice isn’t about whether you have the money and the space to add a branded program,” Minno said. “It’s about operations and embracing the change in corporate culture that’s required to make the program fulfill your customers’ needs.”

Minno suggested retailers follow eight tips to delivering a profitable foodservice program: make the offering fresher and healthier; focus on local needs; offer real choices that the customer wants; sell quality items; stock bold, original flavors; consider the fusion of various ethnic foods; offer functional beverages and sell organic, healthier products.

The show’s second full day kicked off with a keynote presentation by Thom Crosby, CEO of Pal’s Inc.—a 20-store chain of quick service, drivethrough restaurants in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia. The company’s philosophy of empowerment has cultivated a crew of store-level strategic thinkers, Crosby said, propelling this relatively small QSR chain to the top of sales charts in its market.

Crosby, who joined the 50-year-old Pal’s in 1981, related a story about a young customer who one day had only 94 cents in her pocket and couldn’t afford to purchase a milkshake. The employee working the window, Crosby said, decided on her own to sell the girl the milkshake for her 94 cents.

“It’s all about loyalty,” Crosby said. “If you can keep your loyal customers, then your marketing is just about luring new customers.”

Crosby’s wasn’t the only advice cstore operators were treated to on this day. Several workshops were offered, including a talk given by Dr. Peter Bordi, director of the Penn State University Center for Food Innovation, who informed retailers why fifthgraders make the best taste-testers—and what implications that has on product development efforts.

Employee-retention expert Mel Kleiman, president of Humetrics, spoke about the importance of employee quality and dubbed it the single most significant ingredient in retailing and foodservice success.

Perhaps one of the most interesting sessions, “Healthy Foods, Healthy Eating,” focused on how retailers can influence consumers’ eating habits by selling healthier foods. Speakers Ken Dunkley, president of Quick Food Consulting; Tom Vierhile, editor of Datamonitor/Productscan Online, and Sally Lyons Wyatt, an analyst for Information Resources Inc. (IRI) talked about the changes impacting food service-—from lifestyle trends to the key drivers of food choice among Americans.

Other educational sessions included an update on labor law that discussed new overtime regulations in the c-store industry; innovations in speed cooking, a workshop that spotlighted the latest in cooking and holding technologies; new strategies for loss prevention, a look at new systems and mentalities for reducing shrink; and a glimpse of the National Association of Convenience Stores’ (NACS) State of Industry report presented by John Lofstock, editor-inchief of Convenience Store Decisions.

“Overall, the industry produced strong foodservice sales in 2005, increasing nearly 9% to $17.2 billion,” Lofstock said. “But the numbers also indicate that other retail channels are gaining on the convenience industry’s market share. Retailers must continue to develop innovative strategies to bundle meal solutions and boost the overall ticket, especially for the morning daypart. This segment represents the highest growth potential in 2006.”

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