Sushi in the c-store cooler? Burritos in the food warmer? Mediterranean sandwiches on the menu? Exotic foods are here to stay and becoming more mainstream, spicing up the foodservice section and appealing to a wide audience.
With the growth of the Internet consumers today are exposed to new foods they may not be used to finding locally, and it’s creating a demand, said Brandon O’Dell, president of O’Dell Restaurant Consulting. “It’s an inevitable trend that has just been growing as our world gets more connected.”
On the West Coast, more Asian concepts
—Japanese, Korean, Chinese—are being introduced, while on the East Coast European foods are gaining traction, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president with Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice research group.
Indian, Japanese and Chinese have emerged to become as mainstream as Mexican and Italian dishes. It’s even becoming commonplace in many markets to find Cajun, Cuban, African and Vietnamese restaurants sprinkled among the mainstream restaurants like Applebee’s and Chili’s.
“Mainly when a restaurant or c-store looks to add ethnic they think Asian—Chinese, Japanese—and Hispanic foods, so you have to separate ethnic from mainstream ethnic,” Tristano said.
“Flavors like chipotle are ubiquitous,” said Dean Small, founder and managing partner with Synergy Consultants. “People know what chipotle is—they might not know it’s a pepper, but they know it’s spicy and hot, and it’s becoming more prevalent especially on the West Coast.”
Fast food is leading the way, with chains such as Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr., bringing those flavors into the mainstream. McDonald’s, meanwhile, found success with its Asian Chinese chicken salad.
“Who would have ever thought McDonald’s would be one of the largest users of edamame, possibly in the world? So when you start seeing McDonald’s taking those flavors and making them popular, c-stores have to take that lead and see them as coming,” Small said.
On the Menu
C-stores already are incorporating ethnic food trends, but what they’re adding are varieties depending on demographics. 7-Eleven earlier this year added a new roller grill burrito program and its taquito program has long been successful. At chains across the country flavors like jalapeño and Cajun are finding their way into roller grill sausages. In the Midwest, Casey’s General Store offers a taco pizza with refried beans, salsa, beef, cheddar cheese and nacho chips.
Stripes Convenience Stores offer freshly-prepared Hispanic foods including a flour tortilla rolled by hand and grilled right in front of the customer. Its extensive menu includes chicken and beef fajitas, burritos and a variety of traditional Hispanic fare. For added value, Stripes offers combo meals, such as two breakfast tacos and a cup of coffee or two burritos and a fountain drink at a reduced price point.
While the stores serve a large Hispanic population, customers of all demographics are demanding the offering, said David Wishard, vice president of business development for Susser Inc., which has 521 Stripes stores in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, 304 of which offer foodservice.
Across the country, customer demand for Hispanic foods is another story. “We’ve heard a lot about (the ethnic food trends), but we’re not pursuing anything right now,” said Paul Servais, foodservice zone leader for LaCrosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip Inc., operator of 350 stores. “We do offer egg rolls and tornados, but here in the Northern Midwest it’s not as predominate as it is when you get down south or out on the coast.”
Meanwhile, ampm is incorporating Japanese maki on the West Coast where they have more of an appeal to Asian consumers and also consumers looking for Asian food, Tristano said.
Millennials, or Generation Y, are the most experimental of all demographics and that includes the way they view their food choices, according to Chicago-based research firm Mintel International. As these students come of age, c-stores and restaurants need to be prepared to cater to their adventurous palates.
Kimchi, a Korean food, can be found emerging on college menus. “Millenials in college are looking toward Asian and other ethnic foods,” concurred Technomic’s Tristano. The foods meet their demand for more natural and organic sourcing. Many colleges and universities have different ethnic nights, such as Asian night or Mexican night, to spice up the dining areas for students.
Another trend Tristano sees emerging is the rise of street vendor food. “It tends to have a stigma in that we don’t know where it was prepared or whether it’s healthy or if we’re going to get sick from it. But because of the recession people are looking for lower priced alternatives and it’s become more popular,” he said. “Those foods, because of their price point and portability, could become important from the bottom up, driving demand for fresher foods into c-stores.”
Mintel noted new ethnic foods are dominated by two core trends: health and convenience. “All natural” and “microwaveable” claims ranked among the top claims for new ethnic product launches.
Ethnic foods tend to have a healthy stigma, Small noted. “I think it’s a big area of opportunity,” he said, adding ethnic foods could also be offered in value meals to drive traffic with price-conscious customers. Getting creative with pizza toppings and roller grill condiments are also effective ways to add ethnic variety into a foodservice program.
Being the first to provide something can go a long way. “If no one is offering Indian food in the neighborhood, but there is a market with a demand for Indian food, then whoever is first to meet that demand is going to have a distinct marketing advantage,” O’Dell said. While he wouldn’t suggest a c-store go as far as to open up an Indian restaurant inside their convenience store, he suggested starting by testing a couple ethnic items or flavors and evaluating the response.
If there is a local mall near the convenience store, a good way to gauge what might be popular with consumers is to look at the style of ethnic food that has been available in the food court—particularly stores that have been open more than a year. “Chances are there is a demand in that area for that style of food,” O’Dell said.
But most importantly, Small said, the food must be fresh. “Make sure any offering looks like something customers will want to buy because people buy with their eyes. If it doesn’t look good, no matter the taste, the first response is, ‘I’m going to pass.’ Presentation and packaging has to play an important role.”
Susser’s Wishard agreed, “People eat with their other senses long before they get to taste. Food is being prepared in our grills all the time. You constantly have this aroma in our stores, so customers smell it, then they see all this fresh food in an upscale display case and think, ‘Wow, that looks good.’”