By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.
With their in-store kitchens already producing made-from-scratch pizza and cake doughnuts, it was a natural progression for Casey’s General Store locations to expand into made-to-order sub sandwiches.
Since the first location began serving the sandwiches in 2008, the program has spread to more than 600 of the company’s 1,750 locations and plans are to include it in all new builds and remodels, said Bill Walljasper, the Ankeny, Iowa-based company’s senior vice president and chief financial officer.
“Our customers gravitate to our made-from-scratch items, so we figured the made-to-order subs would hit home, especially since we even bake our own bread throughout the day,” Walljasper explained. “They might walk into the store thinking ‘gas station,’ but the smell of the baking bread tells them there’s fresh, high quality food available here.”
He pointed out that they also like the fact that the subs are made to order, so they can customize them with everything they like. The kitchen also prepares subs for the stores’ grab and go cases. Alongside the house-made subs and in stores without the program, Casey’s offers Deli Express pre-made sandwiches.
Forty-three percent of the participants in a study published by Technomic last year said they eat at least four sandwiches each week, compared to just 39% of those polled in 2010. Additionally, half (49%) of the sandwiches they consume are purchased at restaurants or other foodservice locations, up from 44% two years prior.
Creating Brand Value
Brentwood, Tenn.-based MAPCO Express has quick-service brands, such as Quiznos and Subway, in its stores but, two-and-a-half years ago, the company decided to also create its own proprietary deli program with everything made on site from the meats to the bread. They call the concept MY Deli (the MY in capital letters to give customers a sense of ownership in the brand), said Category Manager Rickey Theel.
The MY Deli program is in 15 MAPCO stores, which have kitchens fully equipped with convection and conveyor ovens by Alto Shaam. The kitchens are open so customers can see their food being prepared. MAPCO calls these NTI (new to industry) stores that are designed to “change customer perceptions of what c-store foodservice is about, and capture a completely new audience while keeping traditional c-store customers,” Theel said. “It’s all about captivating the senses with theater and aromas,” he explained.
Every new store that is built going forward will have a similar deli program.
“We see these stores as being 50% c-store and 50% restaurant,” Theel said. “We’re being very selective about where we choose to build so that we have schools and businesses in the area to support this deli concept,” Theel said.
MY Deli features six signature subs. “We like to keep things familiar, but with a twist so our customers know what our products are, but can be a little adventurous if they choose,” he noted. The best-selling “Fugetaboutit Sandwich,” for example, features traditional Italian meats and cheeses with a New Orleans-style muffuletta spread on an “everything” baguette. The “Gobble Gobble” turkey and cornbread stuffing (“It’s like the day after Thanksgiving”) on a baguette gets a kick from cranberry mayonnaise. “But if a customer wants regular mayonnaise, that’s the way we’ll make it,” Theel said.
MY Deli offers a wide assortment of proteins, dressings and toppings for customizing sandwiches. All of the options are spelled out on an order form that the customer or counter person fills out. The company is also looking at expanding its selection of breads.
Only about one-third of the customers choose to tinker with the stores’ original recipes, Theel said. Most seem to like—and come back for—the surprising taste combinations in the signature selections.
Subtle tweaks on traditional flavor profiles give retailers an opportunity to experiment with new and on-trend ingredients, the Technomic report said. A third of consumers, and nearly half of those aged 25–34, said they are more likely to try new or unique flavors on sandwiches than on other foods. Half of the consumers polled reported they would be highly likely to try new or different breads offered at restaurants, and nearly as many would be likely to try unique cheeses and proteins.
Customizing the Menu
While the usual lettuce, tomato and onion remain the most-preferred sandwich toppings, many participants in the Technomic study indicated a “substantial” interest in options, such as avocado, black olives, cucumber and green pepper. Mayonnaise, mustard and ranch dressing are the major condiments of choice for most consumers. Roughly one-third mentioned honey mustard, barbecue sauce or ketchup as a preferred condiment. Although mainstream condiment preferences do not vary much by daypart, consumers prefer more robust and spicy flavors for sandwiches eaten for dinner.
Southwestern- and Asian-style condiments are gaining ground with consumers. Roughly three out of 10 consumers said they would order avocado spread or guacamole and teriyaki sauce on their sandwiches. Chipotle, Cajun and sweet onion sauce were also cited as favored condiments.
Customized (except for double meat) or not, MAPCO charges a flat $2.79 for a slider, $4.99 for a six-inch sandwich and $7.99 for a foot-long. The deli also offers a selection of five fresh, made-on-site salads to go with the sandwiches. In the grab-and-go cooler, pre-made subs are displayed with salads, sides and desserts.
Giant Eagle opened its first in-store Sub Shop in 2010. The program is now available in 43 of the company’s GetGo fuel and convenience store locations.
“We continually look for ways to create points of difference for our customers, and believe that our made-to-order Sub Shop program is one way we accomplish this,” said Dan Donovan, a spokesperson for Giant Eagle.
Customers have the option of choosing from 14 hot and cold sub varieties, or can create their own by choosing from a selection of breads and wraps, meats, cheeses and numerous fresh toppings. Giant Eagle also varies the menu to reflect seasonal preferences and growing trends.
Most of the sandwiches sold at the 50 locations of Fayetteville, N.C.-based Short Stop Food Marts are grab-and-go varieties made by a South Carolina company called Lunch Box, said Short Stop Vice President Mary Neal Morketter. The distributor ships the wedge sandwiches refrigerated and ready-to-heat cheeseburgers, biscuits and chicken sandwiches frozen.
Keep it Fresh
Short Stop used to work with a direct service delivery (DSD) supplier until that company closed. Now the c-store chain gets its sandwiches through a wholesaler. “The prices we get from our wholesaler are just really hard to beat; I believe we have sold more wedges since we’ve been with the distributor because of the lower prices,” Morketter said.
The only downside of going with a distributor rather than with a DSD is that the stores’ employees have to keep up with dating the sandwiches, pulling out-of-dates and monitoring which varieties sell and which don’t. “Our wholesaler service is monthly and the sandwiches have to be looked at weekly,” she said. “The last thing you want to do is sell someone an out-of-date sandwich.”
While the chain has around 30 sandwich SKUs in its system, each store carries around 15. The variety is customized to fit each store’s needs and customer preferences. For years, the best seller has been the ham and cheese wedge.
According to Technomic, more than half (55%) of today’s consumers sometimes purchase grab-and-go sandwiches, compared to just 39% of consumers polled in 2010. Among younger (ages 18-34) consumers, seven out of 10 said they sometimes purchase grab-and-go sandwiches.
Two of the Short Stop stores have their own delis. One was inherited when the store was bought. The challenge, Morketter said, is that the company is a small, family-owned chain that is not in the food business in most of its locations. She said that Short Stop relies heavily on its wholesale grocer and its deli manager to keep up with what is selling and what isn’t resonating with customers.
The second deli was put in by the company to meet the needs of workers at a factory across the street from the store.