Are C-Store Customers Ready For Ethnic Foods?

FoodTruckAs the “foodie” culture skyrockets in the U.S., convenience stores are looking for innovative ways to implement new retail trends.
By Erin Rigik, Senior Editor

Ethnic foods and flavors are booming in popularity, but are your convenience store customers ready for these exotic and trendy tastes?

According to the market research firm Mintel Group, some 62% of adults who have eaten ethnic foods are confident in their ability to prepare ethnic and international food, and 66% of parents, who eat ethnic, say their children also enjoy eating ethnic or international food. As such, the ethnic food trend is expected to increase in the U.S. throughout 2014. Retailers can expect to see more of a demand for Brazilian, Russian, Vietnamese, Argentinean and African cuisine.

Diversifying the Menu
While restaurants are hopping on the latest trends in an effort to attract customers, convenience stores trying their hand at ethnic fare are mostly still focused on Mexican and Asian foods. “They’re easy to make, easy to create in a variety of cold and hot forms, and they’re easy to eat in the car,” said Nancy Caldarola, education director for NACS CAFÉ.

Many of the hot ethnic food trends, by contrast, might not jive with the dashboard-dining concept c-stores traditionally build their foodservice offerings around. Still, a lot of ethnic foods are similar to items c-stores already offer in the form of a handheld pie or sandwich wrap.
“Every ethnicity has a handheld pie,” Caldarola said. The pierogi, Welsh pie, empanadas and kimchi-filled dumplings, for example are handheld pies that share much in common and can be eaten on the run.

“When we talk about ethnic foods we sometimes fail to realize that some of these things have already crossed boarders into our culture,” Caldarola said. “What’s different about all the foods comes down to the spices. The spices are the key. So if we’re looking at foods, what spices are going to be appealing to the demographics we serve or want to attract?”

Transforming something familiar, like a handheld pie, by adding new flavors is a good place to start when branching into trendier foods. But, depending on your location, if you take it too far, you could drive away your foodservice base. While it’s true that America’s palate is maturing and a “foodie” culture is encouraging even more food exploration, at the c-store level, most people are still more focused on fresh and healthy.
Not surprisingly, consumers who reside in California, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago and New York are more willing to try new flavors because of the diverse neighborhoods and communities found in such metropolitan areas.

“But if you look at the heartland of America, you tell me if Nebraska is going to be able to sell some Russian products,” Caldarola said. “You can’t offer the trendiest stuff in areas like Dallas, because people will look at you like you have four heads. Some of the flavor profiles just are not appealing to them. And when we try to take it out of fine dining and add some of these ethnic items to our format, we can’t replicate many of the foods.”

C-Store Solutions
For convenience stores with more adventurous customers, consider easing into ethnic foods by including different bread carriers, cured meats or new types of cheeses to your existing sandwich line, or adding ethnic spices to a dish in a line you’re already offering. More sandwiches and salads with different flavorings is also a means in which conservative customers might feel comfortable testing their taste buds. But Caldarola advised providing customers samples first.

“To have the experimentation you have to be willing to have taste tests—and days where customers get to try things. If you’re going to have new product you have to sample,” she said.

Other options include Latin foods and barbecue Asian noodle products that can be purchased frozen and made on site, if the equipment is available. Caldarola also suggested carne tortas, Mexican sandwiches that are soft, oval-shaped rolls prepared with meat and cheese.

“These are heated before eaten. They definitely are not new, but they are also not common in the U.S., Caldarola said. “They are as common as street tacos in Mexico. They are an easy addition to the menu as an item, and by adding spicy cheeses you have a great carne asada torta.”

The condiment bar can also be an ideal place to offer a chance for adventurous customers to experience new flavors. Consider adding sriracha and other South American hot sauces or adding chipotle cheese or pepper jack for flavor, Caldarola ventured.

If your stores already have a barbecue offering, a simple spice change can add a Korean, Brazilian or Argentinean menu item. “These have to work in the area, but the food trucks are making them popular,” she said.

Food Truck Trend
Another solution to adding exciting ethnic fare is to actually partner with a food truck to bring locally popular ethnic foods into your store.
Husband and wife team Anna and Jon Goree opened Seoul Food D.C., a food truck business in August 2011. After making a name for themselves around the D.C. area, they opened a permanent restaurant inside an Exxon Tiger Mart in Wheaton, Md., in June 2013.
The menu that greets gas station customers features a variety of Korean /Japanese recipes, such as maki rolls, kimchi quesadillas, and an assortment of Asian fusion dishes.

The most popular offering is the bibimbap, Jon Goree told CSD. The bibimbap is a large bowl of sticky rice topped with veggies, a cage-free sunny side-up egg, and a choice of meat or tofu.

“It’s a big gas station, so our restaurant is on one half and the gas station business is on the other half of the building,” said Goree, who leases his restaurant space from the gas station. Gas station customers don’t seem surprised to see the diverse offering.

“We already had a solid reputation. The D.C. area is known as being very diverse, when it comes to food offerings, and there is about every ethnicity you can think of in a seven-block radius, so a lot of people knew about us from our food truck business,” Goree said. “So we converted over our following from the food truck business that we already had, and they started coming to us here, and then business just built from there.”

His advice to convenience stores interested in adding more ethnic-style foods, is to consider partnering with a popular food truck in your area.
“Food trucks have such low overhead compared to a regular restaurant, and 90% of food truck owners would love to have a restaurant—partnering with a gas station could make it possible for them,” Goree said. “Look for a food truck business with a solid reputation that has been around for at least a couple years.”

Partnering with a food truck could especially solve one of the biggest issues in adding ethnic foods—sourcing. “It’s an easier opportunity if popular local restaurants are doing things in the town or a store’s area. Ethic additions take time to catch on, like any new item,” Caldarola said.

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