Capturing Lunch and Dinner Customers

When it comes to foodservice, convenience store operators must develop the expertise to make smart choices and deliver winning mealtime solutions.

By John Lofstock, Editor

People need food, and convenience stores need people to like their food, which is why keeping lunch and dinner menus fresh, new and exciting is so important.

The food itself is the key point of differentiation for anyone in the foodservice business. Keeping menus fresh requires innovation and a keen eye for new products and emerging consumer trends.

“I think everybody likes variety, at lunch especially,” said Rick Yost, operations manager for Dead River Convenience Stores in Rockport, Maine. “You may get a guy two or three days a week for lunch and he’s not going to want to eat the same cheeseburger two or three times, so it’s important to have a variety.”

Dead River stores offer a standard, core food menu, but the company also gives store deli managers the latitude to add as many as five items on top of those that they feel will appeal to local tastes. There is, Yost pointed out, sufficient geographic diversity to make such flexibility critical to success.

“The optional five items rotate in and out,” Yost noted. “My stores are far apart and we have some coastal region locations that do a lot of lobsters rolls and things like that in the summertime. Then we also have some mountain-based stores where there are a lot of snowmobilers and skiers. They’ll do a lot of chili-type items in the wintertime, which aren’t necessarily big sellers in the stores along the beaches, but they’ll do well there. That’s where that kind of menu diversity is crucial.”

Tracking the Trends
Yost and his Dead River colleagues keep their fingers on the pulse of Americans’ ever-shifting food preferences by studying the retail market and interacting with consumers.

When it comes to identifying new products and food trends, suppliers are also a good source for information. “As long as it’s a two-way street where suppliers are feeding us accurate trending data and not trying to simply sell us something, we will always listen to what they have to offer,” Yost said.

Among the trends Dead River is seeing in its New England markets for the lunch daypart is a surge in Mexican foods, such as mini tacos and burritos. At dinner, customers are seeking value meals and more bundling.

“People are looking for more full meals,” Yost said. “It used to be our entire dinner menu consisted solely of pizza. Now we offer a Chester’s Chicken program in a lot of stores, with an eight-piece meal that comes with potatoes and other side dishes. It’s really a replacement meal, an alternative to the QSRs out there.”

The Dead River menu has expanded over the past two years to include several varieties of lasagna, spaghetti and chicken. “These are the alternative, full-service meals that are providing our strongest growth to date,” Yost said.

This coming summer, Dead River will once again be focusing on meal replacement items. As such, the company is placing a greater emphasis on desserts, such as smoothies and bakery items. “Customers like to end meals with an indulgence. We have found that when we have bundled these items together with a fresh meal, sales have been strong, so we will continue to focus on this growing demand.

Seeking Value
One trend that relates equally to the lunch and dinner dayparts is the move toward value offerings, including both dollar menus and combo meals, according to Kelly Weikel, consumer research manager for Chicago-based research and consulting firm Technomic Inc.

“I think that as more c-stores compete to take business from QSRs and fast-casual restaurants they will take a page from these locations and start offering more value menus—this will also be relevant to the snacking category—and pushing more combo meals that bundle an entrée, side and beverage at lunch,” Weikel said.

Additionally, as the quality perception of c-store foods increases, the industry will become a more viable choice for consumers at dinner. Since their positioning is centered on convenience, Weikel reasoned, and because other retailers are actively pushing them, this could mean more family-style bundles offered at dinner.

Indeed, in October 2011 a Technomic survey polled 500 c-store customers who purchase foodservice items at least every six months at a convenience store about value meals and dollar menus in a c-store setting. To ensure that consumers understood the difference between these two types of value offerings when responding, value meals and dollar menus were discussed separately and clearly defined.

Consumers not only agree that value offerings are appropriate at convenience stores, many have come to expect them and say such offerings influence them to visit c-stores instead of fast-food restaurants, Technomic found. Many customers reported they expect to see value meals (44%) and dollar menus (50%) at c-stores.

Despite the fact that value menus are a fast-food staple, Technomic research suggested more consumers (54%) expect fast-food restaurants to offer dollar menus. More importantly, most consumers said value meals (55%) and dollar menus (54%) can influence them to visit c-stores instead of fast-food restaurants, Technomic reported.

While both types of value offerings are about equally likely to drive traffic and help c-stores compete with fast-food restaurants, the data relating to consumer expectations indicated that consumers think value or dollar menus could be effective in a c-store setting.

Among the overall c-store trends Weikel identified are:
• A focus on stealing business from both quick-serve and fast-casual restaurant operators.
• Continued emphasis on quality,   freshness,  health and made-to-
order foods.
• A growing need to cater to Hispanic consumers, especially with snacks and desserts.
• The expansion of private-label brands to offset a weak economy.
• C-store consumers will push for more adult beverages, specialty/high-quality coffees.

Boosting Meal Occasions
Technomic, which tracks and analyzes all retail segments that serve food and beverages, reported in January that over the past year, 40% of consumers have cut back on away-from-home dinner purchases, largely because they have less money to spend on dining out. This makes it more important than ever that c-stores combine quality with value. If they can deliver on these promises, the industry has a real opportunity to steal customers from other foodservice segments.

When weighing dine-out options, today’s consumers are more likely to choose restaurants based on the availability of frequent diner programs. As a result of consumers’ decrease in away-from-home dinner purchases, it is vital for operators and suppliers to stay on top of dinner and late-night trends, such as combo meals, smaller portions or shareable items, in order to more effectively identify opportunities of growth.

“It’s imperative for operators to recognize the importance of today’s value equation,” said Darren Tristano, Technomic’s executive vice president. “Drawing dinner and late-night traffic now means exploring new ways to underscore value beyond low prices. Operators may be able to boost dinner sales by strengthening their overall value with other pricing strategies, such as specials or combo meals.”

Technomic researchers have also found average unit volumes for c-stores offering prepared food and dispensed beverages jumped to more than $136,000 in 2011, up from $123,000 in 2007. The growth rates were based on approximately the same number of stores offering foodservice, indicating operators are becoming better at foodservice expansion and execution.

Overall, Technomic reported, c-store foodservice grew to $11.5 billion in 2011 (from $10.2 billion in 2007), based largely on the expansion of foodservice items, additional stores adding foodservice and more foodservice experience.

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