Finding Your Foodservice Niche

ProprietaryFrom proprietary programs and co-branded QSRs to no-fee, turnkey foodservice solutions, c-stores have a wide variety of program options right at their fingertips.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.

Having been part of his family’s restaurant for 20 years, David Deddens knows what it takes to build a foodservice brand.

That’s one of the reasons the Indianapolis c-store owner opted to feature two established brands—Blimpie subs and Noble Roman’s Pizza—in his 3-D Mart and 1 Stop Express locations.

“These brands are well known in this area, so customers know what to expect,” Deddens said. “Just calling a concept ‘Dave’s Subs’ or ‘Dave’s Pizza’ wouldn’t have the same impact.”

He likes the Blimpie and Noble Roman’s concepts because they allow him to offer his customers a wealth of choices without overburdening him with product inventory. The Blimpie made-to-order menu, for example, features “a manageable number of key items” such as turkey and ham that can be used to make a wide variety of sandwiches. Deddens also likes the fact that he can slice the meats in-store for maximum freshness.

Noble Roman’s gives him daypart flexibility. “I’ve been able to build a great breakfast trade with their biscuit sandwiches along with fresh, hot seven-inch pizzas for lunch and 14-inch pizzas for dinner,” he said.

Deddens noted that being a franchisee of the two brands also gives him access to a constant flow of new ideas and promotions. He is now looking for other branded concepts to broaden his foodservice offerings.

Building a Brand
Corpus Christi, Texas-based Stripes Convenience Stores chose the proprietary route when the company introduced its Laredo Taco Company brand over a decade ago. Today, the concept is in 363 of Stripes’ 565 locations and will be included in new stores going forward.

“We wanted to develop our own branded concept around hot, fresh and delicious Mexican food that would allow us to cater to our core customers’ needs, taste profiles and total customization on a store-by-store basis,” said Benjamin Hoffmeyer, the chain’s senior category manager for foodservice. “A proprietary brand allows us to have more control over food quality, freshness and authenticity, and it gives us a point of differentiation in the marketplace.”

But proprietary success does not come without a price. “It takes time and effort to develop the products, systems and procedures necessary to operate a proprietary-branded foodservice program, plus it costs money to get the brand name out there,” said John Matthews, founder and president of Gray Cat Enterprises consulting firm. “But for the risk takers, the entrepreneurs, there is the opportunity to build a mystique around their own brand that virtually no one else can mimic.”

Once initial customer trust has been established, maintaining it and growing the brand requires consistent delivery on the brand promise “or the customer will let you know,” Hoffmeyer said. Commitment to foodservice has to begin at the top of the organization, starting out with a focus on quality and freshness before anything else. This top-down commitment ensures every person involved has the support and resources necessary to execute it correctly, he said.

And, he cautioned, the road to successful proprietary foodservice is not always smooth. “Be patient as the concept will go through many growing pains until you figure out what works for your customers, demographics and capabilities,” Hoffmeyer said.

Stick with What Works
Pilot Flying J’s PJ Fresh Marketplace concept is modeled on a fast casual restaurant format, delivering food made on site and, in fact, right in front of the customers, in a “clean, welcoming sit-down-and-eat environment,” said Laura Palenkas, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company’s vice president of marketing.

PJ Fresh Marketplace offers an array of products ranging from made-to-order pizza and tacos to grab-and-go sandwiches. Rounding out the extensive menu are chicken wings, green salads, fruit bowls and full comfort food meals, such as roasted half chicken or meatloaf with mashed potatoes and vegetables. There is even soft-serve frozen yogurt for dessert.

Palenkas noted that Pilot Flying J had to come up with its own proprietary concept to provide the wide-ranging menu the company wanted to offer. “There really is nothing like the PJ Fresh Marketplace program available as a franchise offer. The mix of food options we offer appeals to both our gas customers and our valued professional drivers,” she said.

Pilot Flying J launched the concept in March in St. Marys, Ga. Since then, two additional PJ Fresh Marketplace locations have been opened in Texas and Arkansas. A fourth location is set to open sometime later this summer. Some of the most successful elements, such as the frozen yogurt bar, will also be added to some existing store locations.

Although “the financial returns are very positive” for the proprietary program, according to Palenkas, Pilot Flying J does not view it as a substitute for other foodservice offerings, including Subway and Cinnabon, which co-exist within the PJ Fresh Marketplace footprint. “We have found that giving our customers choice is important,” she said.

When researching foodservice options, West Des Moines, Iowa-based Kum & Go learned that customers look for quick and convenient food items at a good value, yet they are not willing to sacrifice quality and taste, said Roman Stone, vice president of foodservice. “By putting kitchens in our stores and preparing food daily, we are providing our customers with the freshest products possible.”

All Day Fresh
Kum & Go’s made-daily Go Fresh Market products span all dayparts with breakfast sandwiches, made-to-order pizzas, hot and cold sandwiches and bakery items. The concept made its debut about three years ago.

“While Kum & Go has always offered food, the launch of the Go Fresh Market program really put a focus on our fresh food capabilities and products,” Stone explained. Kum & Go is expanding the concept and is working toward having it in 100% of its 423 locations in 11 states.

“The Go Fresh Market program has been received very well by our customers, and we’ve seen a good response with the sales of our products,” Stone said. “Our proprietary food program has added value for our customers, and the program has allowed us to build our brand beyond the gas category.”

San Antonio-based Corner Store has been in the proprietary foodservice business for about nine years and its Fresh Choices branded concept is in about 400 of the its 1,034 locations. “We have placed the program in our units that have both the space to adequately house it and the customer base that supports the morning daypart that Fresh Choices is based on,” said Hal Adams, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for CST Brands, Corner Store’s parent company. The foundation of the Fresh Choices brand is a line of signature kolaches, sweet, soft bread surrounding either a sausage or meat/cheese/egg combination. Also available is a wide selection of freshly baked pastries, doughnuts, cookies and extremely popular whoopie pies. In the afternoon, the menu focuses on hot sandwiches, burritos, tacos and various other “finger foods,” Adams said.

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