Healthy Options Driving Foodservice Demand

Many convenience store retailers are cognizant of the trend toward healthier foods and are adding better-for-you items to their menus.

By John Lofstock, Editor.

More salads, fruits and vegetables are finding their way onto convenience store shelves—often for purchase in the morning, or as a late afternoon snack—much to the delight of an increasing number of Americans.

Putting healthier foods into c-stores is not a new idea. Indeed, it was back in 2010 that the Obama Administration unveiled its $400-million Healthy Food Financing Initiative, intended to bring grocery and other healthy food retailers to underserved urban and rural communities across America.

The initiatives promotes a range of interventions that expand access to nutritious foods, including developing and equipping grocery, c-store and other small chain retailers with healthier foods in communities that currently lack these options.

While this is a touchy subject for convenience stores—an industry that is time and time again scrutinized by lawmakers
—the need for healthier food options was underscored in December, when Chicago-based research house Technomic Inc. reported that menu items with descriptions that reference gluten, cholesterol, sugar and other health-related topics are expanding.

“Our data shows that certain areas within restrictive diets are growing in popularity, at least from a menu standpoint,” said Technomic Director Mary Chapman. “At the same time, we’re seeing operators trying to accommodate consumers with health-related conditions by being transparent about their menu ingredients and making it easy to see which items include certain food allergens or are lower in, say, fat or sodium.”

Getting the Message
C-store operators are becoming sensitive to the issue and adjusting their menus to meet the demand for healthier items. In December, for example, Westlake, Ohio-based TravelCenters of America LLC opened a second Fresh Healthy Cafe in Livingston, Calif. serving nutritious meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Menu options include smoothies, freshly squeezed juices, organic coffees and teas, healthy wraps, grilled paninis, hearty soups and salads, all made with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Kwik Trip Inc., in LaCrosse, Wis., is notching strong sales in bananas and a host of other fruits and vegetables at its more than 425 stores in the Midwest.

Some chains even reported that in addition to their regular menu items, Weight Watchers line of entrees, with items such as Wild Alaskan Salmon Filet, Beef Steak Tips, Chicken Teriyaki and Chicken Curry, are being distributed more widely to c-stores.

Jeff Lenard, vice president of communications for NACS, said convenience stores are responding to Americans’ wants and needs, and should do even more. “We at NACS believe that nutrition is a great issue for us to take the lead on. We feel that there are misperceptions out there. There are opportunities out there too, and good things can happen as a result of that.”

Lenard pointed out that what many see as a near crisis in providing healthy food alternatives to Americans can be a great opportunity for retailers, including c-stores.

“If one looks at some of the chatter that you’ve heard about convenience stores being responsible for ‘food swamps’ or ‘food deserts’ (USDA-coined terms denoting areas in rural or urban settings lacking close proximity to large supermarkets or other sources of healthy foods) or things like that, really what we see is a great opportunity to fill a need in an underserved market.”

A corollary is the fact that, as Lenard further pointed out, according to the federal government, approximately 75% of the U.S. population is classified as overweight or even obese. “So even if one was to solve the problem of so-called food deserts, and everyone within a food desert was within weight, you’re still looking at two-thirds of the population that has weight challenges,” he said.

Officials at NACS and executives across the industry see an opportunity to help Americans get healthier. “We think that it’s great to look at food deserts and better serve them,” said Lenard. “And we think the group that is already serving people in those areas is convenience stores. Providing operators with the skills to sell and profit by selling healthy options is a great idea.”

Threefold Challenge
The challenge for convenience stores, then, is threefold, Lenard suggested.
• How do you get affordably-priced nutritious items? “If you’re a small chain, how do you get access to fresh apples and bananas? That’s challenge No. 1,” Lenard said.
• Challenge No. 2 comes in the marketing and merchandising at the store level. “Once you get healthy food items, how do you sell them? It has to be different merchandising,” Lenard said. “We have seen stores that have done better in merchandising healthy options significantly increase sales. And it can be as simple as having an open-air cooler instead of cooler doors for things like yogurt, and finding ways to bring it throughout the store, or to highlight it more.”
• The third part, of course, is that the demand has to be there, something that, regrettably, cannot be taken for granted.

“While folks talk a good game, the demand has to be there,” said Lenard. “It’s important to note that you can’t just ask people what they want. What people say they want is often different than what they buy. If you ask people, everybody goes to the gym, everybody is a great parent, everybody calls their parents on the weekend. Fewer than that actually do, so that’s the other important element: will consumer demand be there?”

This is born out by considerable research. According to Technomic, 47% of consumers questioned said they want more healthy dining options, but only 23% tend to order healthy foods when dining out.

The whole subject of food has been one with which the c-store industry has had to battle misperceptions from day one. One of the biggest misperceptions, in Lenard’s view, is that it lacks healthy options. The truth, he pointed out, is that outside of health-food stores, c-stores may actually offer more healthy options than most competing retail channels.

“If you’re looking at a 2,500-square-foot convenience store, you’re looking at a selling space that is roughly 50 square feet,” he said. “You go to the center of that store and you’re within 25 feet of everything in that store. And there are a whole lot of healthy options there, whether it’s nuts or jerky or fruit or yogurt, different types of fresh salads, fresh-cut fruits or whatever.”

Other channels, he added, don’t have that. “You go to a fast-food restaurant and the menu is much more limited. You aren’t able to get things like nuts or dried fruit or healthier snack options like that,” Lenard said. “We are providing a lot of healthy options that we aren’t getting credit for.”

Getting c-store operators on board to take advantage of this opportunity, Lenard concluded, is in itself a long-term educational campaign that will be based on new available information, “because with the whole issue of nutrition there is a lot of stuff that is still unknown,” he said. “There is not even an official definition of what is healthy.”

Thus, healthy ends up being whatever consumers think it is. And increasingly, they are looking to c-stores to provide it.

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