Warming Up to Soup Sales

This is Foodservice 101: when the weather turns cold, consumers want warmth—often in the form of soups and hot convenience foods.

Giving your consumers what they want is Convenience Store Success 101.

Putting hot soups and other ready-to-go items on the menu this the fall only makes sense, and isn’t all that hard to do. In fact, some operators have made a name for themselves by doing it well. Quick Chek Food Stores in Whitehouse Station, N.J., for instance, is known for having one of the industry’s best soup programs. The innovative selections, all of which are rotated by the day of the week, include:

• French Vegetable: Made with green beans, butter beans, carrots, peas, spinach, potatoesl, rosemary, thyme and other spices.
• Baja Enchilada: A Mexican-style soup with chicken pieces, black beans, corn, zucchini, tomatoes, onions, chilies, and red and green peppers in a spicy orange-brown sauce.
• Mushroom & Brie. Mushrooms and brie cheese mixed with cream, butter and spices.
• Spicy Chili: Includes beef, crushed tomatoes, onions and green chilies.
• Sweet Potato Bisque
• Italian White Bean with Italian Sausage
• Roasted Tomato and Garlic

A Little Heartier
While soup sales surge in the winter months, they have proved to be a year-round option for consumers when sold as a meal solution with other side dishes like a salad or buttered roll. Other convenience foods have also gained a loyal following based on local flavor.

“When it gets colder we have a tendency to do a little heartier type of food,” said Cherie Witchell, general manager of seven Aztec Market convenience store locations on the campus of San Diego State University. One of the most popular is a $2.89 twice-baked potato merchandised out of the stores’ hot food cases, which was added to the menu about three years ago.

Another strong menu addition has been its hot ciabatta (an Italian white bread made with wheat flour and yeast) sandwich. “We do those in varied flavors from breakfast on through lunch and even dinner,” Witchell said. They sell for $3.99.

Chili is a popular cold-weather item, and Aztec sells 12-ounce bowls paired with corn bread for $3.19. “That is a huge hit here on the campus,” Witchell said. “Cornbread in general, for all cultures that come to our campus, is popular. We have microwaves in all the dining areas and convenience stores, so they have the option of heating it up if they want to.”

Just as important, cornbread is extremely cost effective, retailing for 99 cents per slice.

Driving Breakfast Sales
Like in traditional c-stores, campus stores are targeting the morning daypart. Hot and waiting for students and faculty every morning as well are oatmeal and cream of wheat, which rotate daily and sell for $1.49.

Witchell and her staff recently added a product called Bagelfuls, which is marketed by its supplier, Core-Mark. Available in cinnamon and raisin varieties, they frequently sell out well before 11 a.m.

A campus bake shop adds a variety of items like croissants and cheese Danish. “They make us what’s called a stuffed croissant with ham and cheese in it. We serve that hot in the wintertime. It sells for $2.69,” Witchell said.

The university started serving hot soup and entrees year-round at one of its locations recently.

“We offer our customers a six-pot soup bar and a hot entrée every single day, all made fresh from our kitchen,” Witchell said. The menu items are presented on a rotating schedule for maximum variety. Among the most popular choices are dishes like chicken and rice, beef stroganoff, cheese ravioli, and a vegetarian option like penne pasta with marinara sauce and vegetables. “We also do homemade vegetarian soup each and every day.”

With a close eye on what’s happening throughout the convenience store industry, Witchell and her team have introduced a variety of $5 deals. “That’s a big trend right now. Everybody is doing $5 deals, whether it be Subway or Taco Bell. Everybody seems to have a value meal out there,” she said. “We started doing these $5 deals to appeal to students. It is more economical for commuter students when they come on campus so they don’t have to carry a bagged lunch.”

As autumn arrives Aztec is beginning to offer a small soup or entrée with a drink and a piece of cornbread for $5, or a ciabatta sandwich and a drink for the same price. “We’ll also do two hotdog specials or value deals with corndogs, taquitos and chicken out of our warmers,” Witchell said. “We take different items and put them out there as specials.”

The value deals are supported with signage that is posted all over campus to let students and faculty know what’s available and where.

The reaction, Witchell reported, has been nothing short of overwhelming. “These deals have evolved to become all-weather foods,” she said. “After all, they are comfort foods. Kids are away from home, so they have a tendency to go more towards warm, comfort foods.”

Hot Grab and Go
Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes, with more than 80 stores in Canastota, N.Y., is known for having one of the more extensive hot food offerings in the industry. The chain only sells soup in the winter, but recently turned a trio of hot dishes—macaroni and cheese, macaroni and beef and chili—into grab-and-go items that are packaged and held in a warmer unit. They retail for $11.99. A related item, a macaroni and cheese pizza, is sold year round. Nice N Easy pizzas sell for anywhere from $6.99 as specials to $13.99 for deluxe pies.

The mac and cheese items gained some solid footing this summer when the chain converted it to the grab-and-go format. “Before that,” said Vice President of Foodservice Jack Cushman, “you had to order it at the sub line and they dished it out for you.”

Also promoted during the winter months are items such as a premium brisket sub priced at $7.49, which is available daily till 10 p.m. “It’s made in less than 60 seconds. We dip it in au jus and heat it up and sell it that way. It is a true brisket,” Cushman said.

Also available is what he calls an authentic Italian meatball sub and a northern Italian marinated chicken sub, priced at $5.99 and $7.49, respectively. The subs are necessarily made to order, Cushman explained. “Otherwise you get a real soggy bun.”

The made-to-order items are available year round. “But it’s like anything else, if you don’t do a lot you don’t need to carry a lot of inventory,” Cushman said. “In the winter we put promotions in place and we’ll discount them and promote them as necessary because that’s the best time to move these products.”

To greet the winter months and trumpet the additional hot items, team members adorn the stores with signage. No additional equipment is needed—soup wells that lie dormant during the summer are pressed into service. In addition to the in-store element, marketing includes direct mail and, increasingly, text messaging. “We have a social media arm,” said Cushman. “Everybody is just beginning to get into that in this industry.”

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