As c-stores enhance their coffee and foodservice programs, operators look to fresh bakery to complete the package.
By Heather Henstock, Contributing Editor.
Convenience stores are investing heavily in store remodels and an experienced staff to create a bigger, better fresh foods program for customers. Too often they fall short in the bakery category, but a well-managed bakery program can drive a c-store’s fresh image and boost sales.
Bakery suppliers offer a broad variety of frozen dough products and better quality thaw-and-sell options, which can fit c-stores’ limited food production space and skilled staff. Area specialty wholesale bakeries or company commissaries also produce and deliver fresh product daily to stores.
Whatever the production choice, the key to profitable bakery is managing sales properly, delivering customers the freshest, highest-quality products possible and offering products that represent your c-stores’ brand.
For Jim Schutz, vice president of people assets at Open Pantry Food Marts of Wisconsin, better bakery products were a necessary part of the chain’s revamped Willow Creek Coffee program. The Pleasant Prairie, Wis.-based chain of 28 remodeled stores and upgraded its coffee selection to create a coffee-house feel.
“As a convenience store, we made a decision to become a coffee destination, so we really invested in it,” said Schutz. “We’re building the brand within the brand.”
The coffee area features 16- to 20-foot mahogany coffee counters with marble tops, brick back lays, recessed lighting and a prominent Willow Creek Coffee sign hanging above. The area also features oversized lumber chairs, Wi-fi centers and a fireplace where customers can sit with their coffee and pastry.
Open Pantry offers a variety of pastries, cinnamon buns, muffins and cookies, which are displayed in self-serve bakery cases at the coffee counter, along with a separate display dedicated to doughnuts. Bakery products are thaw-and-sell, and Schutz tested supplier products to find two primary vendors that offered the quality and variety he wanted for the Willow Creek brand.
“Coffee is kind of like wine in the sense that there’s food that pairs with it well. That’s the bakery and pastry program,” Schutz said. “It is vitally important to find products that pair well with upscale coffees. A good cup of coffee and a mediocre pastry just aren’t going to go well together.”
Improved Product Consistency
To achieve quality fresh bakery products in its stores, Rutter’s Farm Stores bakes at the store level in 40 of its 56 stores. The Pennsylvania chain, known for its extensive foodservice offerings, began baking sub rolls from frozen dough nearly five years ago for its deli sandwich line. Store foodservice departments are equipped with convection ovens and a dedicated foodservice team to manage the restaurants, so in-store baking became a natural complement to Rutter’s food and coffee offerings. Along with five varieties of sub rolls, the c-stores bake ciabatta bread, cookies, muffins, Stromboli and recently added a new line of biscuits.
Jerry Weiner, Rutter’s vice president of foodservice, noted the quality and variety of frozen dough and freezer-to-oven bakery products available to c-stores has greatly improved. “In order to be able to drive that fresh food image, you have to have products you can execute consistently. That’s always been the rub for fresh baking,” Weiner said.
Rutter’s new biscuits, for example, come in frozen pucks that proof and bake at the same time. “It was a tough product to find. We needed one that stays moist and doesn’t crack and fall apart,” Weiner said. “Obviously most of our customers are eating while they are driving, which is not a user-friendly situation for a biscuit.”
Weiner found a freezer-to-oven biscuit with the right moisture level and also bakes well in a high-speed convection oven. The biscuits are used for Rutter’s breakfast sandwich line and sold individually.
Focus on Execution
Executing bakery successfully in a c-store takes a commitment to training, not only in production and handling of the products, but also in sales and merchandising. The biggest challenge is training associates that stales are a necessary part of fresh bakery. It is better to throw out a bakery product than to sell a less-than-fresh one.
Attempting to sell a rack of half-priced, day-old bakery products is counterproductive. Especially for c-stores who likely also stock packaged, long shelf-life bakery products in the retail aisle, selling day-old ‘fresh’ bakery products represents a c-store’s brand and is an absolute no-no if your c-store is trying to portray a fresh image.
Full showcases sell products, and customers usually take product from the front of self-serve displays. C-store staff needs to consistently move product forward in the cases and refill it with fresh product. Crumbs are a natural part of fresh bakery, so the bakery area needs to be cleaned and well stocked with bakery boxes, food-handling tissues, bags, coffee cups/lids and condiments throughout the day, and especially during the busy morning day part.
Open Pantry provides a checklist of tasks that associates perform every 15 minutes during the morning coffee rush and every 45 minutes after 10 a.m. “You only need to disappoint me once as a customer. When you disappoint me, I can find some place else to go,” Schutz said.
Position for Impulse Sales
A variety of fresh bakery products displayed in a well-stocked showcase offers the kind of visual appeal customers can’t resist. Bakery is an impulse purchase more than any other food category, and should be positioned accordingly in the retail area.
“When you walk in, it isn’t on your mind that you want to pick up a muffin or a bagel. You come in for the coffee, but the impulse of that morning pastry clicks something else in your head,” Schutz said. “Bakery is highly suggestive, highly impulsive. That’s why it has to be very focally placed in an area where customers can’t miss it.”
Schutz recommends positioning bakery products in a highly visible area next to or as part of the coffee area, while also allowing enough space for customers to take time to select bakery products and prepare coffee to their liking. Positioning bakery too close to the soda fountain area or cash registers, for example, can disrupt customer flow and hinder sales.
C-stores should also take advantage of bakery’s seasonal sales appeal by regularly introducing new products for holidays or special events. Holiday Stationstores, based in Bloomington, Minn. offered a pumpkin spice doughnut this fall, for example.
Bringing in new products maintains customer interest, and developing signature bakery products unique to your c-store can boost bakery sales even higher as customers purchase multiple products to bring back to the office or share with family.
Fresh bakery can be a trendy business. C-stores shouldn’t expect to jump on every bakery trend, but some can apply to convenience retailing, such as muffins and breads.
Opportunities to design bakery programs to fit a c-store’s brand are limitless, and bakery can deliver a fresh message better than most food categories. Fresh bakery has become easier for c-stores to implement consistently across a chain, but sufficient staff training and true dedication to delivering fresh bakery are keys to profitability in the category.
“If you advertise to customers you have high quality, you better deliver your promise,” Shutz said. “You can invest a lot of time and effort into the right product and program, but you need a passionate team of associates in your
facilities to help deliver that promise.”