By Kate Quackenbush, Managing Editor
An American Express MarketBrief produced byTechnomic Inc. entitled “Ethnic Foods are in Fashion,”showed that more than half of consumers (51%) reportedpurchasing prepared, ready-to-eat foods from conveniencestores. Convenience stores also showed improvement inthe taste expectations of customersmore considering conveniencestore food as “excellent” than they did in 2005.
So now that the convenience industry has established itself asa foodservice destination, it’s time to take the training wheels off.Cut passed self-doubt, trust that the convenience channel is winningand one can get to the business that really matters: wowingthe customer. Having the customer’s trust is one thing, but keepingthem interested is a whole new ballgame. And spicing thingsupliterallycan make programs so tantalizing that c-store operatorscan get that essential leg up on the competition, and make anice profit in the end.
Ethnic on the Rise
The May 2007 MarketBrief found that the appeal of ethnicfoods is trending up. Seven of 10 consumers report ordering ethnic-influenced dishes from non-ethnic restaurants at least someof the time. Many consumers report that they like to “try somethingdifferent” when dining out. It should come as no surprisethat Italian, Mexican and Chinese were tops with those surveyedin terms of what they find most appealing.
Dash In Food Stores has strove to become a foodservice destinationfor its customers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, andis no stranger to taking risks with its flavor profiles. But since addingBrian Grabarek to the team as category manager, corporatechef, the La Plata, Md.-based chain has taken its program leapsand bounds.
“Without a doubt, the industry must look to maintain customersthrough foodservice. It will be Dash In’s main initiative to drawin new and maintain old customers through consistent samplingat the store level of all new food products we intend to introduce,”said Grabarek. “We must, more than anyone, attempt to stay inthe mainstream of the trends in cultural and ethnic dining.”
The company first explored ethnic flavors on its roller grill,where most retailers can experiment with pre-made productswith very little investment, thanks to companies like Ruiz Foodsand Hot Stuff Foods. Dash In was no exception.
“We began our venture into the ethnic scene with pre-madeproducts and we continue to add new products,” said Grabarek,whose company features five Tornado flavors on its roller grill along with a line of fresh and premadeburritos. The Sante Fe breakfastburrito supplied by the company’sfresh food supplier is among theDash In’s top sellers. “But we willalso expand our line of proprietaryitems to incorporate many ethnic flavorprofiles.”
Seeing that portable meals area point of differentiation for convenienceoperators, Dash In wanted toput something out there that no onein the convenience industry had beenoffering. So it teamed with its freshfood supplier and Sara Lee Foodsto offer an Italian sausage with peppersand onions, and it immediatelybecame a top seller.
“No one is offering a product likethis, with fresh peppers and onionswarmed, and the sausage dressed to order,” said Grabarek. “It’s agood Italian dish that appeals to many different customers.”
One way Dash In has made its products approachable to customersis by fusing different ethnicitiestaking a common ethnicitem and blending it with flavors from another culture. It’s been abig success for the company and has made broadening its menueven easier with proven items in new flavor profiles.
Dash In first began expanding its definition of conveniencefood to include more exotic flavorswhen it introduced its Zoli, a crossbetween a calzone and a stromboli.While this item has Italian roots, thecompany immediately introduced aBuffalo-style chicken with blue cheesesauce, along with its spicy pepperoni,marinara and ricotta cheese variety.
“Our Zoli is one of our most popularitems,” said Grabarek. “We’recurrently working on a SouthwestZoli, which will include chorrizosausage, Mexican cheeses and pintobeans.”
Meals, Not Just Snacks
Dash In has recently introduceda new line of heatable meals calledDash In Take Home, which elevate thecompany’s offer with high-end disheslike grilled chicken in a pesto cream sauce over fettuccine and apenne pasta with meatballs and marinara. The dishes have beena big hit and Grabarek is working to stretch his culinary legs withnew dishes that answer customers’ calls for more ethnic flavors.The MarketBrief showed that customers’ third tier flavor favoritesinclude Indian and Sushi, which could stem from consumers seekingmore interestingflavor profiles, andGrabarek is heedingthe call.
“We are definitely in tune withthe culinary world andare developing many new items based on traditionalethnic dishes. We have tested everything from cous cous,pad Thai noodles, empanadas and Vietnamese summer rolls,” saidGrabarek. “I have been working closely with our fresh food providerto get into a number of Thai and Asian style dishes. We arealso experimenting with Shepherds Pie and a Mediterranean kebaband rice dish.
“With the population growing increasingly more aware of itsheritage and culinary customs, and the development of the publicpalate as the Food Network and other media outlets get the culinarymessage out, the bar is constantly being raised for menus tobecome more creative and meet these demands for better quality,more exotic, more exciting and flavorful ingredients,” Grabarekadded. “While the c-store industry may be slightly behind thecurve, it is our job to rise to the occasion and meet the requests ofthe public and help educate them that c-stores can do it too, andwe’re in it for the long haul. Because, while the nation wants moreexotic food, they’re also busier than ever and convenience is thekey to the future.”
Price Plays its Part
While consumers are looking for more exotic flavors, thequestion arises: Are they willing to pay for them? According toGrabarek, it’s a question his company has struggled with for sometime, but has come to the realization that customers are supportingwith their dollars.
“Price points can be moved upward, but it must be a slowprocess,” he said. Dash In offers a variety of price points for itsdishesranging from $1.99 for its Italian sausage with peppersand onions, to $3.99 for some of its breakfast burritos, to $6.79 forits Asian chicken salad and $6.99 for most of its pasta dishes. “Ibelieve there are those willing to pay more for better and newerexotic items, however, there are also those who want new items atthe same price point. We’ve attempted to garner all these customersby sprinkling price point changes, while also making some newitems with no price point changes. It helps to keep everyone happyand gauge what they’re willing to pay.”
One way Dash In assures its customers is by having thoroughlytrained employees who sample all of the new items so they canintelligently converse with the consumer about their purchaseand explain the benefits of these new exotic and ethnicflavors. It’s part of the company’s ‘Convenient Hospitality’ initiativeto help make the consumers visit to Dash In both a quick andenjoyable experience.
“It is also our job to educate the consumers to help them understandthat a certain number of new exotic items may not alwaysbe cheap, but they will be rewarded for their investment,” saidGrabarek. “Dash In will always attempt to be at the forefront of theculinary world in trying to maintain and convert customers to th
enew exciting flavors that can be found on the culinary scene.”
Building blocks of taste sensations
“If you own the morning, you own theday, and coffee has been a driver for us,”said Greg Dean, director of foodservice forCircle K’s Southeast business unit. “Now thatwe have a customer believing in our productand it’s credible, we don’t want to put in justany sandwich or bakery program. You haveto have the right product to complement andgrow from there.”
Circle K worked in conjunction withHouston-based Great American Marketingto develop the signature recipes and flavorprofiles for the proprietary program. Circle Kinsisted on high-quality breads, meats andcondiments that would allow them to delivera variety of high-end sandwiches and morediverse menu offers such as pork Carnita andstuffed breakfast burritos. By working closelywith the manufacturer, they can change themenu offer quickly and also have the flexibilityto potentially expand distribution to itswide-ranging 364-stores stretched across sixstates.
“The customer has become more demandingas they eat out more and are exposedto a greater variety of flavor profiles.Tastes change and quality levels have tomeet their demands,” said Dean, who pointsout that regionalism plays a big partwhilehis customers are looking for Tex-Mex/Hispanicflavors, customers in the Southwestor Northeast divisions have completely differenttaste profiles. “Ethnic foods have beengrowing in popularity for years, since everyonerealized burritos and egg rolls are notjust a trend driven to new customer tastes, itaddresses changing pallet. New flavors andtastes tare needed to mix it up, rather thanoffering customers the same old hot dog.”
The program has been in tests for just ashort amount of time and its initial reactionhas been strong. But Circle K faces a similarproblem as its convenience counterparts:getting customers to taste it. It offers samplingprograms all day with the hopes ofmeeting the customer’s expectation.
“You have to do a good job of gettingcustomers to try your product,” said Dean.“Convenience is a different environmentthan a grocery store where customers areleisurely shopping. Our customers want tobe in and out fast, so you need to give theman opportunity to try something and make itmemorable so the next time they’re in they’llremember it.”