Retailers don’t have to wave goodbye to their roller grills to put a fresh face on lunch and dinner foodservice menus.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.
One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to lunch and dinner foodservice. Not everyone has the capital to invest in a proprietary commissary or the in-store space to prepare made-to-order meals.
With the proliferation of third-party commissaries, just about any convenience store chain can offer high quality, freshly-made sandwiches, said Tim Powell, director of convenience store programs for Chicago-based Technomic Inc.
“There are different tiers of foodservice. For example, the Sheetz, Wawas and Rutter’s are as much fast-casual restaurants as they are c-stores,” Powell said. “But we’re seeing more and more convenience stores successfully expanding their grab-and-go fresh offerings by using third-party commissaries.”
One tremendous differentiator between convenience stores and quick-service restaurants and other retailers such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks is that customers come to c-stores for a wide variety of reasons, many of which are not food related, said David Morris, owner of Kaleidoscope Research Consulting, a foodservice and financial services market research firm. “That means there is ample opportunity to cross-pollinate by homing in on non-foodservice items customer come in for—let’s say potato chips or even gas—and tying in an offer on a lunch and dinner sandwich or entrée,” he said. “It helps the retailer make foodservice more top of mind, can help drive revenue across product segments, and a location-based deal incents the customer to try it immediately.”
Even a roller grill can communicate care about foodservice when the items on it are fresh and appetizing, according to Rachel Tracy, managing director of Chicago-based Culinary Visions Panel, a foodservice research company. Unless the store has its own well-established and well-regarded proprietary foodservice brand, customers like to see brand names they know, such as Johnsonville Sausage, she said. To tempt more adventurous palates, there should also be an interesting and unexpected option next to the more familiar food on the roller grill.
“Next to the standard sausage, maybe you could have a smoky cheddar sausage; this way you can satisfy your regular customer who knows what he wants when he comes in, and can still intrigue a new customer who is not quite as aware of your foodservice offerings and may be looking for something different to try,” Tracy said.
Ingredient versatility allows companies such as Wawa to take a single protein, most recently hot turkey, and make it into three distinctively different seasonal meal offerings. It was available as a “Shorti” sandwich with gravy; a larger “Gobbler” sandwich filled with cranberry sauce and stuffing; or as a bowl, served over mashed potatoes and covered in gravy.
Wawa also offers various “Hot-To-Go Bowls” on its year-round menu. Customers can choose from meatballs, chicken strips, prime rib in gravy and beef stew, and have it served over mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese.
It is up to the retailer to read his customers as far as what flavor profiles to add to the mix. In its new Upmarket Café concept in its flagship Chicago store, Walgreens is now selling hand-rolled sushi and sashimi along with wraps, sandwiches and salads. Some c-stores offer Indian food, but Powell noted that the most common ethnic flavors on c-store menus are Latin or Asian like those offered by Starbucks in its Chipotle Chicken Wrap, Sesame Noodles and Chicken Lettuce Wrap Bistro Boxes.
Fresh Food On the Go
A recent survey of 400 Millennial consumers who frequent c-stores by Culinary Visions revealed that 69% of those between the ages of 18-35 are in search of roller grill items, such as hot dogs, sausages and taquitos, while shopping in the store. The top reasons for purchasing food off the roller grill are good value for the money (75%), convenience and speed (66%) and like the taste or flavor of roller grill items (54%).
Almost half of the respondents said they look for pizza. Forty-two percent said they come to the c-store for hot foods, 41% for combo meals. Thirty-eight percent said they ate hot food from a c-store three or more times a week.
More than half of the respondents said convenience and time-saving are very important to them when purchasing hot food at a c-store. Half of the customers polled named price as another important attribute.
Once you focus your store on foodservice, make sure your offering lives up to its hype, said Pat Kelly, director of purchasing for High’s Dairy Stores, which operates 50 locations throughout Maryland. “We keep our grab-and-go cases well stocked all day; in the hot case we go by the daypart and switch from breakfast to lunch/dinner, which takes us through the evening. We also have pizza and hot dogs all day.”
Using the same premium ingredients on grab-and-go sandwiches as on made-to-order also says a great deal about a program. “We have both options available at many of our stores and our customers know they’re going to get the same quality ingredients whether they choose a premade sandwich from our grab-and-go case or if they have it made to order at the deli,” Kelly said.
In the Culinary Visions Panel survey, 47% of the respondents said they are willing to pay more for a product if it looks appetizing; and about just as many said they are willing to pay more if it looks fresh. Forty-four percent said they will pay more for high quality.
On the Moove, High’s daypart-spanning concept which includes a full deli for made-to-order, a grab-and-go cooler and a hot case, is currently operating in 15 (soon to be 16) of the company’s stores. “Any store we remodel will have all of the On the Moove components as well,” she said.
Kelly explained that High’s is currently working to develop a more extensive meal replacement program for its stores. “We want the woman who runs in to grab a gallon of milk to see that we have entrees, side dishes, salads and fruits, drinks and juices that will allow her to build a healthy, square meal to take home for her whole family.”
Having fresh cut fruit and salads signals to these customers that a store is serious about foodservice, Powell said. Something as simple as a slice of tomato on a sandwich sends the message of freshness. “Winning over the female consumers ages 24-34 is an incremental battle; you do it one at a time. It’s the soccer mom who notices you have fresh salads when she comes in to get hot dogs for the kids or the professional woman who sees that you have fresh-cut fruit when she comes in to pay for her gas.”
Packaging is key because it not only has to protect the fresh grab-and-go food, it also has to merchandise it, Powell said. Clear clam shells or clear wrap allow the freshness and appeal of the food to show through much better than Styrofoam. The packaging must also be restaurant quality, i.e. strong enough to prevent leakage. “C-store retailers are beginning to realize that, in many ways, the packaging is as important as the food itself.”