Foodservice operators must regularly develop new products and tweak old ones to pique consumer interest and attract repeat business.
By Heather Henstock, Contributing Editor.
Nice N Easy Grocery SHOPPES has long offered salads and sandwich melts. But the two menu lines didn’t reach their full potential until the convenience store chain hired three trained chefs to lead their product development team.
“We’ve had salads historically, but to have a chef come in and put their stamp on them and make a few changes really makes a difference,” said Jack Cushman, vice president of the Canastota, N.Y.-based chain.
Changes included garnishing salads to be more visually appealing and allowing customers to customize their own sandwich melts with a wider variety of ingredients. The tweaks boosted salad sales and made Nice N Easy’s Reuben sandwich one of its top sellers.
Menu development can entail simple improvements to current foodservice items or can introduce completely new products. Whatever the degree, menu development should be a regular part of convenience store foodservice operations if c-stores want to compete with quick-service and casual restaurant chains.
Twenty-two of Nice N Easy’s 82 stores house Easy Street Eateries, which offer a broad menu of American comfort food prepared fresh on site. The other 60 stores offer a limited version of the full Easy Street Eatery menu.
“We consider ourselves to be a competitive restaurant,” Cushman said. “We are a convenience store absolutely, but our foodservice is just as high quality as any restaurant.”
Change Menu Regularly
Easy Street Eateries feature a new sub sandwich on a monthly basis, and will offer a completely new item once a quarter, often as a limited-time only (LTO) item. If LTO items perform exceptionally well, such as Easy Street’s Italian sausage wraps, they can earn a spot on the permanent menu.
“New products should be introduced at least seasonally to be most relevant to the consumer,” said Melissa Abbott, culinary director for The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash.-based research firm.
Product development starts with an idea and is essential for keeping consumers interested in a foodservice brand. New products demonstrate to consumers that a business is part of the culinary world—always evolving, keeping up with trends and creating excitement around its food. New items should be current with consumer trends, but also need to fit the foodservice brand.
Rutter’s Farm Stores, of York, Pa., recently introduced sloppy Joes and chicken wings to its already extensive menu line of all-American sandwiches, soups, salads and sides/appetizers. Chicken wings are the latest pub food finding a fit in QSRs as a convenient snack, and sloppy Joes are about as American as apple pie.
Maintaining its healthful fast food approach, Subway introduced a new crispy chicken sandwich that is baked, not fried. The Oven Crisp Sub is part of the sandwich chain’s Fresh Fit line and is an LTO item this fall.
Start With an Idea
The factors that operators must weigh when developing their menus are many, complex and continually in motion. The most important considerations are the lifestyle trends—the psychographics and demographics of the population you are serving.
“Part of what is very important for the c-store operators is to recognize who it is they are serving,” said Paco Underhill, the founder and CEO of Envirosell Inc., a global research and consulting firm. “I think this is one of the most difficult parts of 21st century retailing: what is global and what is local?”
Offering a breakfast burrito, for example, in some markets is smart, but in others may make no sense at all.
“That sensitivity on the part of the operator to his trade area is a very critical piece of the mix,” Underhill said. “I also know that basic behavior patterns in a c-store vary greatly based on the kind of road you sit next to. Menu development will also be colored by recognizing that every visit to a c-store is mission-driven, meaning I come in looking for one thing—I’m thirsty, I need this—and that often, the most important journey in the store is the back of the store to the front as opposed to from the front of the store to the back.”
What is essential for a c-store is getting the customer to at least consider adding on something else. “If it’s a drink, it’s some food. If it’s some food, it’s adding the drink. If it’s coffee, it’s a newspaper. The way in which you conveniently bundle is one of the ways that you raise your average transaction,” Underhill said.
Obviously c-store foodservice operators can’t channel every consumer food trend, nor should they. However, a good idea requires creativity and is most likely borne outside of foodservice managers’ comfort zones.
Nice N Easy looks to its team of chefs to come up with new ideas and initiate the product development process. “We hired these guys for their creativity, and that’s what a chef provides,” Cushman said.
Cushman also gets ideas internally from managers and suppliers, as well as trade journals, chefs and any source with a broad culinary perspective.
Abbott of The Hartman Group noted the two biggest trends in food right now are “fresh, real and less processed” and “global, mobile foods.”
To target the fresh and less-processed trend, c-store foodservice operators might allow customers to view on-site food production or re-evaluate ingredients in packaged to-go foods so labels are clean and unprocessed. Even product names, such as Subway’s Fresh Fit line, and menu descriptions can promote a c-store’s fresh appeal to customers.
The global food trend stems from the recent food truck phenomenon. Chefs are bringing gourmet and ethnic foods to customers in mobile kitchens hawking everything from cupcakes to Korean barbecue. “If you can get an authentic taco from a taco truck, why would you want to go to a convenience store for stale nachos?” Abbott said.
Most c-stores that are serious about foodservice are well above stale nachos, but should note the food truck trend for its convenience and unique offerings. Food trucks are one of many sources bringing new flavors to the masses and broadening consumer palates.
Test New Products
Getting an idea for a new menu item is easy. Incorporating the product into your system and testing its feasibility in the market is more difficult. Ideally, c-store foodservice operators should work with the equipment and staff they have. Nice N Easy had already purchased toaster ovens for grilled cheese sandwiches and now uses them for its full line of melt sandwiches. “You don’t want to buy a piece of equipment and make one menu item,” Cushman said.
The chain is currently testing a breakfast melt sandwich to add to the line. During the test stage, c-stores typically sample the new product in stores and get customer feedback.
Cushman recommended testing products in stores with varying demographics, such as an urban and suburban store or stores with older and younger customer bases.
Vendor and distributor partners are a good resource for ingredient and food production ideas, so they should be included in the menu development process. “Once tweaks are made to products based on customer, management and vendor feedback, staff members need training on how to produce, sell and promote the new product,” Cushman said.