By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.
Foodservice continues to serve as a key point of differentiation for convenience stores. Keeping the menu fresh requires innovation as well as a keen eye for new products and emerging consumer trends. This is especially true when it comes to sausages and brats as hot and savory items are helping retailers spice up their menus throughout the day.
Sausage in its many forms, both on the roller grill and elsewhere, continues as a versatile mainstay on c-store menus. Bernadette Noone, director of product management for Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic Inc., said that her company found a 2.8% increase in sales of sausage and brats over the past two years.
The top-selling types of sausage, according to Technomic, were beef, pork, turkey and chorizo. Technomic also found that bacon is the most popular protein at breakfast, appearing in 30.1% of sandwiches, followed by ham at 23.7% and sausage at 22.9%.
For c-store operators, who have always taken their foodservice cues from trends in the restaurant industry, there can be no greater proof of the popularity of sausages and brats in the food category than the burgeoning popularity of food trucks, whose business model is strikingly similar to their own.
Like c-stores, food trucks operate in small footprints at high-traffic locations with minimal equipment packages and staffs, relying heavily on impulse sales and turning out popularly priced food designed to be eaten on to go.
Indeed, in nearly every city across the nation, Americans looking for hot, convenient and portable foods in a hurry are searching out savory sausage items, which are being presented in a dizzying array of innovative styles. What’s more is that these food trucks are emerging as viable competitors for c-stores’ share of stomach. The model is one that c-stores can emulate with minimal food, labor or equipment cost or additional space. For example:
• The Uber Sausage in Denver is serving up Swiss sausage, buffalo bratwurst, bison hotdogs, chicken apple sausage and charred Kielbasa.
• Sausagefest in Las Vegas offers Chicago Polish Sausage, Sausage and Peppers, Baja Chicken (chicken sausage topped with chipotle sauce and avocado), Sage Apple Sausage (sauerkraut, grilled onions, and grain mustard) and the Smokey Robinson (spicy chipotle sausage with barbeque sauce and grilled onions).
• Seoul Sausage Co. in West Los Angeles is handling long lines for its Korean BBQ-infused street food like Galbi/Beef Sausage.
• In Detroit, a food truck called The Grindhouse is gaining national attention for, among other items, its Vietnamese-style chicken sausage with cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon, sprinkled with fried shallots and Sriracha aioli.
• In Columbus, Ohio, the Schmidt’s Sausage Truck launched last September with a menu featuring bratwurst, knockwurst and the Fat Daddy (thick German spicy bologna).
• The Louisiana Territory truck in San Jose, Calif. is serving a variety of Cajun-style foods, including shrimp and sausage Creole over rice and Louisiana smoked sausage.
Tom Pirko, president of BEVMARK LLC, a retail consulting firm in Buellton, Calif., said the convenience store industry shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss these food trucks as competitors. They have a strong repeat business, low overhead and make food fresh to order. That’s a pretty good value proposition for time-pressed customers. He offered a variety of strategies for selling more brats and sausage products in the convenience store channel to boost a chain’s competitive viability. They include:
• Promote freshness and quality ingredients, “it is always what your customers want,” he said.
• Do combo sales, a beverage—especially beer or chips with a purchase. “Provide chili cheese fries and then stand out of the customer’s way,” he said.
• Added condiments can be a draw. Southwestern, Chicago and New York City styles add both interest and flair.
• “Customers are younger guys,” he noted. “Business slows after the arthritic age of 30 when fat becomes a heart-stopping issue. Market your program accordingly.”
The best time of day for brat/sausage sales, Pirko said, is what he called “the hunger hours. Near lunch, drive time, late afternoon, dinner time and the very wee hours when guys are driving around both bored and hungry.”
Among the creative things that operators have been doing with sausage of late: Enon, Ohio-based Speedway SuperAmerica is notching strong sales with, among other things, Polish Sausages, Pork Egg Rolls and Cheeseburger Links, both priced at $1.49 or two for $2.22. Another popular item is a pepper and sausage dog.
“Roller grill is one of our largest foodservice segments,” said Josh Krupa, foodservice operations supervisor for York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Farm Stores, the operator of nearly 60 c-stores in York, Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin and Lancaster counties.
The chain, which is known for its foodservice program, offers half a dozen varieties—including regular franks to an all-beef jumbo hotdog, cheeseburger dogs (which, to management’s surprise, have not cannibalized sausage sales), smoked sausage and country-style sausage—for guests to choose from. They sell year round for $1.99.
The trend toward upscaling everyday items has reached sausages as well, with one manufacturer having rolled out a pair of more upscale smoked-cooked sausage products: pepper jack cheese and mushroom and Swiss cheese.
Promotions, of course, always help. “Occasionally what we do is drop them onto our customer rewards loyalty program, which is handled with our gas,” Krupa said. The Rutter’s Rewards program lets customers earn cents off gasoline by purchasing one of more than 1,600 everyday items bearing a special display icon. The more food customers purchase, the greater the fuel discount they are eligible for.
Rutter’s doesn’t currently bundle its sausage products with other menu items, but that may well change, Krupa revealed. “We’ve been playing around with some ideas.” One that might eventually work its way onto the menu could be turning the chain’s popular roller breakfast sausage into a breakfast wrap or something similar. “We haven’t finalized anything yet, but it makes sense.”
Expanding the number of sausage items on the Rutter’s menu is another idea that management is currently mulling. “We’re playing around with the idea of adding some new, exciting items because there is such a strong demand,” Krupa confirmed. “We’ve had some items in the past that haven’t worked out, and we’re always up to trying new items and seeing how they fit into our overall foodservice strategy.”
This spring, Rutter’s rolled out a value menu with breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack items priced from 99 cents to $1.99. Among them were a sausage slider, sausage and egg snack wrap, and a sausage, egg and cheese tornado.
“The roller grill and any hot, freshly-prepared item is going to have a loyal following if you do it right and take care of your customers,” Krupa said. “That means it’s always fresh, it’s always hot, it’s always considered a good value. With all the foodservice competition these days, you cannot afford to cheat your loyal customers.”