Consumers are looking for fast service, fresh ingredients and value pricing when choosing a foodservice solution and convenience stores are answering the call with innovative programs that meet the latest food trends.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.
The number of consumers purchasing grab-and-go sandwiches and other foods is continuing to rise. Retailers have to be prepared to deliver the convenience, speed of service and portability that make grab-and-go customers’ mealtime choice.
In a recently released “Sandwich Consumer Trend Report” from Chicago-based Technomic research company, more than half of the polled respondents said they purchase grab-and-go prepared and wrapped sandwiches. That’s an impressive rise from 39% in 2010.
Younger consumers (18-34-year-olds) are the largest purchasers of grab-and-go sandwiches. Seventy percent of this group said they sometimes buy these products. Forty-eight percent of consumers 35 years old and above purchase them. The report noted that respondents named convenience, speed of service and portability as the primary drivers for grab-and-go sandwich purchases.
At Lubbock, Texas-based United Express convenience stores, a division of United Supermarkets, grab-and-go sandwiches and related fresh products account for 13% of total store sales. And, said Eddie Owens, the company’s communications and public relations director, grab-and-go sales are growing at a double-digit pace. Owens attributes much of this growth to product freshness and breadth of the offerings.
Currently, United Supermarkets has 23 c-stores, 20 of which operate under the United Express brand, and three that are scheduled to be brought under that banner.
Four new stores are planned to be opened this year and another in 2014.
Almost all of the c-stores share properties with the company’s larger, full-service United Supermarkets, Market Street and Amigos stores. Going forward, this is the model the company is intending to follow where space and community need for larger stores make sense, Owens said.
One major benefit to this arrangement is that preparation of the grab-and-go foods, 45 SKUs, half of which are sandwiches and 20% of which are salads, can be done in the larger, full-service stores and delivered to the adjacent c-stores daily or more often if necessary.
“We view our convenience store foodservice as an extension of the foodservice in our full-service stores,” Owens said. “We want to expose our convenience store guests to the same level of quality products they can expect to get in our bigger stores, and we have the ability to do that.”
In the Technomic report, 45% of consumers said they never purchase grab-and-go sandwiches. They said the primary deterrents are their perception that these sandwiches will not taste fresh and that they will not be able to customize them.
The researchers suggested that operators may be able to change this perception by putting toppings, especially moisture-rich lettuce and tomatoes, and sauces on the side to prevent sogginess and ensure that the sandwiches maintain their flavor and freshness longer.
Offering a separate selection of condiments is also an easy and relatively inexpensive way to give guests some degree of the customization options they crave. In a survey of over 2,000 regular c-store customers, Datassential research company found that 40% said they prefer well-known national brands for condiments and salad dressings.
When Datassential interviewed 75 c-store decision-makers, they found that 40% said consumer perceptions are a potential issue affecting their foodservice growth.
Three-quarters of these operators said that creating a more premium perception around their food was an objective of their foodservice program.
About 40% of the operators said they currently offer some kind of pre-packaged/grab-and-go salad and approximately 30% offer fruit cups. Around 20% said they would be interested/would consider adding fruit cups or cut-up vegetables and 15% indicated they would consider adding salads.
Convenience store shoppers are willing to pay more to get the fresh, quality deli sandwiches, wraps and salads they want, the Datassential study showed. When the researchers showed price points for various items and asked consumers to state their likelihood to pay that amount, pay more or pay less, about one-third of them said that $5 was the right price for a sandwich, wrap or salad. Over 40% said they would be willing to pay more for an item they felt was fresh and good quality.
Breakfast, however, is another matter. Nearly two-thirds said that $2 was the right price for a breakfast sandwich. Few were willing to pay any more.
At six of its 44 New York stores, Bolla Market has extensive, 20-foot-long upscale delis that feature both cold and hot made-to-order and grab-and-go selections. Each store has a chef as well as two dedicated prep people on site producing buffet items, such as chicken Marsala, shepherd’s pie, pasta and vegetable sides and more. Large open air cold cases hold prepackaged, ready-to-eat sandwiches as well as accompaniments, such as fresh fruit, salads and parfaits.
Over the past year, Bolla has focused on taking both its made to order (MTO) and grab-and-go sandwich offerings to the next level by increasing the number of full-service delis from two to six, each requiring “a significant investment,” said Director of Marketing, Brett Atherton.
Although the delis are open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., customers can still find fresh sandwich and side selections anytime because large open air cold cases and warmers are filled with a variety of grab-and-go selections from the deli.
Bolla is exploring various ways of handling product preparation internally for stores that do not have the space for a full in-house deli. One possibility is having the sandwiches and other items produced in the stores that have delis and trucked to those that don’t. Another possibility is opening a central commissary to serve these stores.
“We are analyzing every variable from food costs to product consistency to delivery to determine which is the best way to go,” he explained.
In the meantime, Bolla Market stores that do not have a full deli are serviced by high quality frozen and refrigerated sandwich program suppliers.
“We believe that things like our innovative organic coffee program and nutritious, better-for-you snacks make Bolla Market different from our key competitors,” Atherton said. “Customers have come to expect the best, most healthful products from us and that includes sandwiches and other grab-and-go foods.”
Atherton noted that Bolla is placing “a renewed focus” on its breakfast program, looking to add an economy-priced sandwich that is good enough to complement the chain’s pride-and-joy proprietary organic coffee offering. The company is also looking at doing more bundling to bring the breakfast concept together and increase its appeal to new customers who don’t want to spend $5-$6 in the morning.
“We see our coffee driving foodservice and vice versa,” Atherton noted. “Consumers’ breakfast habits are hard to break and we see our coffee and sandwiches charging that hill together.”