By Howard Riell, Associate Editor
When it comes to foodservice, convenience store operators often find themselves wedged unfairly between a rock and a hard place. Consumers want to indulge in food items, but they also want it healthy, affordable and quick. The margin for error is
This is as true on the roller grill as in any other part of a retailer’s food offering.
“I think the prevailing wisdom is that c-store customers are satisfied with the roller grill as an indulgence. The items taste good and they’re affordable,” said David Morris, managing consultant of Kaleidoscope Research Consulting. “But the benefit of the roller grill is that it tends to be more of an impulse-driven purchase for customers that are looking for something quick. That creates a whole new opportunity for convenience stores to target consumers with the roller grill. I think there is significant untapped potential in offering more healthful options at c-stores, at least incrementally.”
Demographics of the c-store shopper, Morris pointed out, tell the tale, specifically when it comes to attracting female customers. “You have women who are underserved by the foodservice offerings that c-stores generally offer, and that’s because women are very clearly more health-conscious than men,” he said. “I think that there can be more of an opportunity to be able to meet that halfway in offering healthier fare.”
Another consumer group that is often more open to healthful food options is teens. “Certainly there is a more developed sense of healthfulness among younger consumers,” noted Morris, a veteran foodservice consultant whose expertise is in consumer attitudes and behavior related to food trends. “But you have to be able to balance healthy items with the more impulse-driven nature of c-store foodservice.”
Looking to Restaurants
The bottom line, according to Morris, is that the c-stores need to look at what the restaurant industry is doing to satisfy the dynamic needs of their customers. “Convenience stores are going to need to follow the trends that are afoot in the QSR side of foodservice, and they have to be able to keep up with experimenting with healthier items accordingly,” he said. “That’s going to play to a wide swath of demographics and, more importantly, it’s simply where the food industry is heading. As an industry, convenience stores are still lagging behind in this area.”
Research bears this out. Technomic Inc., the Chicago-based foodservice research group, reported in Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report that 64% of consumers today—up from 57% in 2010—agreed that it is important to eat healthy and pay attention to nutrition. Other key finding in the report include:
• Half of today’s consumers said that they eat healthy food to have a nutritious and balanced diet;
• Half of consumers also said they would like restaurants to offer more healthy foods, and nearly as many say they would probably order these options if they were offered;
• Slightly more than 38% of consumers—up from 33% in 2010—reported that they are more likely to visit restaurants that have healthy menu options, even if they do not order a better-for-you item. In addition, more than in 2010 said that they consumed local, organic, natural and sustainable foods at least once a week; and
• Half of consumers polled said that descriptors, such as low-salt, low-fat and low-sugar clearly signal health, yet strongly detract from the taste of food. However, foods that indicate a serving of fruit or vegetables, or 100% whole wheat highlight health on the menu, while strongly enhancing consumers’ taste perceptions.
Kwik Trip is an example of a c-store chain that caters both to consumers’ desire for value and healthful dining, as is made obvious by its signature tag line, ‘Big on Fresh, Low on Price.’
The La Crosse, Wis.-based chain happily shares nutritional information on its full menu of roller grill items. For example, its three-ounce vegetable egg roll contains just 150 calories. The chain’s pork and vegetable egg roll weighs in with just 170 calories
Reversing the unfair stigma from which c-stores have suffered for years—food prepared by gas station attendants, hot dogs laying on the grill all day—begins by communicating to consumers that fresh, healthy food is a store’s priority. More chicken, turkey and vegetable items, lower-fat meats, making sure items on the grill are fresh and attractive, and communicating with consumers about nutrition and health issues all play a roll in building consumer confidence—and sales.
Chains like RaceTrac and Chevron understand this message and emphasize fresh food in billboards local media and, of course, at the point of sale.
Chevron began rolling out its ExtraGood To Go foodservice program at its ExtraMile stores, which makes foodservice a strong destination within the store.
Banner advertising with beauty shots of daypart items greet customers at the pump. Inside the store, uniform signage and strategically placed spotlights draw customer focus to the roller grill, food warmer and menu board.
The oil company has focused on emphasizing the brands consumers know, and all roller grill items have a designated place on the roller grill, so customers can locate their favorites quickly during repeat visits. In addition, all roller grill items are precooked, which ensures the meats are served safe and heated to the optimal temperature.
As a result, what customers see is ready to eat rather than a sign asking them to come back in 15 minutes, as some chains do when cooking items directly on the roller grill.
Share of Stomach
Restaurants are keenly focused on food trends and have answered the consumers’ call for healthier food choices—from Burger King’s lower-fat Satisfries to McDonald’s ‘Favorites Under 400’ calorie menu. Others have begun to offer fresh-baked breads or, like Chipotle Mexican Grill, organic and natural meat and produce.
Other notable examples include:
• Dunkin’ Donuts has lowered the salt content in its English muffins and biscuits and cut sugar from its Coolatta beverages.
• Au Bon Pain has cut sodium levels in its soup several times, most recently this past June. Subway Sandwiches has also cut back on its use of sodium.
In Morris’s view, the c-store industry has fallen behind in serving the needs that their restaurant competitors are addressing regularly. “I think you would be hard-pressed to find major chains putting health first. There are a number of them that are lagging, and they are going to need to catch up or risk becoming irrelevant.”
Effectively marketing healthier fare is a matter of being able to market an intrinsic health benefit of the individual food items you’re serving.
“No one is turned on by the traditional health moniker because of the association with not being tasty. So it’s a matter of positioning any of these items from the standpoint of an intrinsic health. Maybe it’s whole grains, for instance. Maybe it’s gluten-free. These are monikers that are not necessarily associated with a diminishment with a consumer’s expectations for taste,” Morris said. “And I think that is especially true at convenience stores, which have to weigh the need of meeting general consumer expectations on health with the impulse-driven decision that most of them are making. When you purchase on impulse, health is not as top of mind.”
This, incidentally, also applies to packaged items and ready-to-eat foodservice items, Morris added. “The average c-store is still littered with a swath of unhealthful items, and again I think the solution here is incremental change,” he said. “I think there is more than enough room to do that with packaged goods, as well as the ready made or made-to-order offerings.”