Give customers some fresh ways to start their day and they’ll keep coming back for more, according to savvy c-store operators who are driving a.m. loyalty.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.
Two years ago, Nashville-based Tri Star Energy took at good, hard look at its Daily’s convenience store operation and decided the 80-unit chain needed a kick in the branding to make the transition in consumers’ (particularly female consumers’) minds from merely a gas stop to a food and beverage destination.
That was the impetus for Twice Daily, which has brought a fresh new contemporary look, feel and foodservice offering to 13 of the company’s locations so far, with plans to roll the concept out chain-wide over the next three years at a rate of 10-20 per year.
Launched about 16 months ago, Twice Daily will also be the branding the company will use for future ground-up stores, according to Vice President of Marketing Ken Hagler.
Anchoring the new concept are greatly expanded hot dispensed beverage and fresh bakery offerings.
Twice Daily boasts up to seven different coffee varieties, plus up to 10 flavors of cappuccino and hot chocolate, including sugar-free varieties. Seasonal flavors, such as the recent holiday-inspired “Santa’s White Christmas” also constantly offer customers something new and different.
To make sure the coffee is always fresh, Twice Daily brews new pots every three hours around the clock, setting timers as reminders. A separate dispenser at the tea station aerates water and holds it at 204 degrees, the perfect temperature for steeping the 12 flavors of the upscale Revolution brand.
Hagler described the customization island as “second to none,” with a large assortment of sweeteners and flavored creamer cups, as well as a Sure-Shot Flavor Shot machine that dispenses up to 10 flavors of no-cal flavor shots. “We used to do about 40-50 cups of coffee a day; now we’re doing a couple hundred,” he said.
Own the Morning
Working hand-in-hand with the coffee program to drive Twice Daily’s morning business is an extensive fresh bakery program with an always-well-stocked; custom-made; eight-shelf display case in full view of the customer as soon as she walks into the store.
All of the bakery products the stores carry come in frozen thaw- or bake-and-sell form. “We wanted consistency across all of our stores and believe that frozen products give the best option to deliver on that promise to our customers,” Hagler said.
In the mornings, doughnuts dominate the case, filling between four-to-five of its eight shelves. The stores use Merrychef ovens to heat the prebaked frozen doughnuts (“this releases the oils and brings them back to life again as far as aroma and flavor,” Hagler said), then staffers ice or glaze and decorate them.
Employees begin preparing the doughnuts at 4 a.m. and by 4:30 a.m. or 5 a.m., the case is full, and the tantalizing bakery smell permeates the store.
More doughnuts are added throughout the morning as needed to keep the shelves filled. “And if a customer comes in wanting two dozen warm glazed doughnuts to take to the office, we can have that order ready within five minutes,” Hagler said.
For female customers, Twice Daily offers a selection of three-to-four varieties of thaw-and-serve muffins in upscale flavors such as Peach Cobbler and Jazzy Blueberry Pancake. Popular all day are the four varieties of Christie Cookies, a regional favorite brand that, according to Hagler, is as highly regarded by the locals as Godiva is by chocolate lovers.
Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., doughnuts are phased down, and cookie and dessert bars become more prominent. From 2-3 p.m., the display transitions to one door and four shelves. The other door is covered with a colorful photo of bakery items.
For 30 days after the launch of a new store, Twice Daily gives away free cups of coffee and tea. “It’s a huge investment; we often give out several hundred cups a day. If we can’t give away a few hundred cups a day, how are we going to sell that much? And we have seen that strategy work, Hagler said. “Our fresh, high quality coffee, tea and bakery initiatives are helping us to break through the ‘you can’t get high quality food and hot beverages at a gas station’ mindset.”
Management at the eight-store Open Pantry Food Marts of Wisconsin in the Greater Milwaukee area came to the same conclusions when they were exploring ways to achieve future foodservice growth.
“We offered a typical gas station/convenience store coffee and a nice-looking display of doughnuts, but neither made us into a destination,” said the Pleasant Prairie, Wis.-based company’s Vice President of People Assets Jim Schutz. “For the female customer, we knew we had to compete with the Starbucks of the world.”
To attract this customer, Open Pantry introduced a proprietary Willow Creek Coffee brand. Five varieties of Willow Creek coffee, plus cappuccinos and lattes, are brewed throughout the day.
“Nothing will turn consumers off as fast as if they come for a particular flavor of coffee and it’s either not fresh or not there at all, even if they come in at 2 a.m. or 2 p.m.,” Schutz said.
To go with the premium coffee, the company ramped up its bakery, expanding its offerings beyond doughnuts (the stores feature 12 SKUs) into muffins (six SKUs), including whole grain varieties for customers looking for better-for-you options.
Depending on the demographics of the stores, Open Pantry uses either thaw-and-serve or prepackaged products. Schutz also noted that offering a packaged power bar (he mentioned Kind) in the coffee area is appealing to customers who are looking for a little extra oomph in the morning.
Cookies are baked from frozen dough in front of customers. “This is a highly suggestive item and the smell is sinful, so we bake strategically throughout the day to keep the aroma in the store and ensure that the products are always fresh.”
The cookies are placed into slip bags closed with Open Pantry stickers to be sold on the bakery section shelves…if they make it that far.
“We sell about 10% of our cookies right off the pan,” Schutz said. “Customers have gotten to know our baking routine and they come in when they know cookies will be coming out of the oven. They’re so hot the customers have to eat them with a fork. They are a highly desired item throughout the day.”
Customers jonseing for some good java can start their day at any of the 380 locations operated by Brentwood, Tenn.-based MAPCO Express in eight southeast states, with their choice of five proprietary My Java Coffee blends. Some of the stores use prepackaged bakery products, while others bake off frozen cinnamon rolls, apple fritters and four different kinds of Christie Cookies on site.
For the past six months, some of the stores have also been testing a “Hispanic initiative,” featuring fresh, ethnic-style products delivered by local bakeries in response to customer requests, Pickett said.
Local brands carry cachet among the collegiate crowds that frequent Varsity Markets, operated by Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Dining Services. “The students get excited when they see that we have local names they know like Bongo Java coffee roasters and Christie Cookie,” said the c-stores’ Dining Manager Ashley Young.