By Pat Pape, Contributing Editor
Competition is getting tougher in the foodservice arena. Convenience stores and QSRs now go after the same targeted demographic: households with incomes below $50,000, according to Bloomberg Industries, a business research organization. That means a convenience store with a foodservice program must look more like a place that serves good food than it does a gas station.
An old adage claims that diners tend to “eat with their eyes” before they actually take a bite of food. This element of human nature can be a plus for the c-store retailer who knows how to showcase foodservice offerings and encourage customers to try new products.
Just visit one of the 58 Rutter’s Farm Stores in central Pennsylvania. The outlets bake their own bread, cookies and muffins in the store, sending appetizing aromas wafting into the air. Customers can grab meals and snacks to go or place an order that is prepared by foodservice professionals while they wait.
“We have black boxes on the back wall with beauty shots of the food, and that sets the tone,” said Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice for Rutter’s. “Customers can watch their food being made, which really drives the fresh imagery. The opportunity is built on the visual.”
Bright, colorful food photos on a c-store’s walls serve as a visual communications tool that can capture customers’ attention and subtly pass on a message. But while pictures of yummy looking sandwiches and steaming bowls of soup may entice new customers, the actual offerings must live up to their visual promise.
“Everybody is showing beautiful food,” said Nancy Caldarola, education director for the NACS Center for Achieving Foodservice Excellence (CAFE), which is based in Alpharetta, Ga. “But if I see a photo of a sandwich, it better look that way when I open the package.”
Because c-stores are battling with QSRs for the customer’s foodservice dollar, a clean, bright store with an attractive décor and pleasant color scheme helps create an eatery atmosphere.
“Make the area where the food comes from look appealing and obviously have the food look appealing,” said Weiner. “Especially if it’s packaged or hot and cold grab-and-go.” And broadcast a message that says “freshness.”
“We always talk about the importance of checking quality in a variety of ways, and one of those ways is freshness,” said Caldarola. “People today want fresh. They want to know they can trust you. If we have a trust relationship with a company, then we know that no matter what we choose, it will be as fresh as it can be, and it will be tasty. The customer always comes in with expectations of fresh, wholesome, quality food, and we have to meet that. There is a trust relationship there.”
Often c-store retailers are lax in letting consumers know about fresh items available at their stores, Caldarola believes.
“We don’t do a good job of educating people about what we have to offer,” she said. “We don’t say ‘fresh’ or say this was made today or made right here. We don’t talk about those attributes that really sell a product. There are folks out there grinding beans to make a pot of coffee. It’s freshly made, but they may not say that. When it comes to fresh, we don’t use that message enough, and we’re missing a big opportunity educating people about the qualities we have to offer.”
One way to spread the word is to merchandise sandwiches, yogurt and packaged salads with garden-fresh fruits and vegetables. “Put a row of apples or a basket of oranges in the case to break up the rows of sandwiches with these brightly colored items,” she said. “When people see these items with sandwiches, they understand there is a freshness connection.”
“A lot can be done to create the image of freshness,” said Weiner, such as in-store bread and cookie baking. “That drives a fresh image.”
For several years, surveys have reported that customers want healthier fast foods. According to Mintel, a global market research organization, the latest trend in food consumption focuses on prevention, with shoppers selecting products they believe will help prevent illness and slow the aging process.
The company’s research found that half of all juice drinkers aim to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables with every sip, and about a quarter of all consumers who take vitamins and minerals do so to make up for poor eating habits. Mintel expects grocery stores to profit from the healthy snack demand by offering more better-for-you options in 2014.
According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), three out of four adults— including 80% of women—said they want to see healthier items on QSR menus, and some leading chains are taking action. Late last year Burger King launched “Satisfries,” a lower-calorie version of the chain’s conventional French fries, and McDonald’s recently rolled out a new breakfast sandwich, the Egg White Delight, made with cooked egg whites, white cheddar cheese and lean Canadian bacon. McDonald’s also announced plans to reduce sodium by an average of 15% across the menu board by 2015.
Veteran convenience retailer 7-Eleven, with more than 8,000 North American stores, now offers fresh foods, including fruits, cut vegetables and commissary-created salads and sandwiches. The La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip chain distributes nutritional information on its roller grill items, creates and distributes fresh foods from its own commissary and is famous as a source of fresh bananas.
Meanwhile, Green Zebra, a Portland, Ore., health-oriented c-store that opened in October, serves fresh juices and features a yogurt bar with unique toppings. The store’s lunch and dinner menus change daily, with offerings ranging from Indian cuisine to a healthier version of lasagna.
What was once a consumer concern on the West Coast is spreading across the nation, with shoppers expressing concern about food packaging. “I have a problem with constantly using plastic, Styrofoam and things that don’t say real,” said Caldarola.
She prefers the way European retailers package foods, relying on recycled cardboard and cellophane, which is made of regenerated cellulose from wood, hemp or cotton. “That screams fresh,” she said of the natural materials. “But they aren’t going to hold food that long.
Today, there are stylish, environmentally-friendly plastic products in the marketplace than maintain food quality, but the costs are daunting. “It’s very upscale, but costly,” she said. “And it just adds to the price of the product.”
Caldarola predicts Styrofoam will become even more controversial in the future, although Styrofoam containers still hold hot foods best. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get away from it, because we haven’t come up with a replacement for it,” she said. “You have to use the right packaging to serve a great product. I’m always concerned about that piece too.”
Keep It Consistent
In the highly competitive foodservice industry, c-store retailers must to do everything possible to entice customers to try new products and return for more, without negatively impacting the main reason the stores exist: to provide convenience. “Whatever level of food you feel comfortable delivering—the simplest or the most complicated—just deal with fresh, quality and value,” said Weiner. “But the ultimate piece is consistency. You just have to be able to do it consistently,” he added. “Whatever you feel you can do consistently, that’s what you should go about doing the best you can. It’s not an easy task, but this is where our industry is going to wind up.”