By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
Folks in New York don’t take their deli lightly. So when Harry Singh, president and CEO of Bolla Oil Corp., decided to pilot a “gourmet” deli program in one of his company’s Brooklyn Bolla Market convenience stores in 2007, he knew that he could not just give people what they might expect from a gas station food offering. He had to give them an authentic high end New York deli experience.
Today, with the program in 10 of the total 28 Bolla Market locations in New York and New Jersey, Singh is more focused than ever on building his stores into deli destinations, according to Brett Atherton, director of marketing for Bolla Management. Atherton noted that everything about the deli—from the custom-milled wood gondolas and LED-lit menu screens to the made-to-order sandwiches featuring premium deli meats and house-made hot buffet lunch—has “upscale New York City flair.”
Bolla’s delis are staffed from 5 a.m.-4 p.m. During that time period, sandwiches are made to the customers’ specifications right in front of them. In addition, lunchtime customers can choose made-on-site hot items, such as chicken marsala, tilapia and shepherd’s pie from the abundant lunch buffet.
Shoppers who are in a hurry or come in after 4 p.m. can pick up house-made sandwiches and salads as well as fruit, yogurt parfaits, fresh fruit drinks and other accompaniments from an eight-foot open-air display case. A four-foot hot case holds packaged items as well.
For the management of Bolla Market, figuring out how to provide a diversified selection and consistent quality while managing waste has been a significant learning curve. Also, finding the right personnel who have the technical skills to prepare the quality-centric foods as well as the people skills to interface well with customers has been a unique challenge, Atherton said.
Being in highly competitive markets such as New York City, Long Island and New Jersey, getting the pricing and value propositions right is also of paramount importance.
“We were able to set ourselves apart from the coffee competition around us when we introduced premium organic coffee at a competitive price,” Atherton said. “And we’re taking the same approach to food.”
Sampling is a constant inside the Bolla stores. Customers can always try something new from a tray in front of the deli. Store personnel also go outside to the pumps to distribute coupons and samples to customers.
Once customers become familiar with the quality of the stores’ deli offerings, they come back, Atherton said.
“We feel that we have taken foodservice to a whole new level, combining convenience and high quality food.”
The big challenge is getting those customers to take that first walk from the pump into the store. To capture them, Bolla posts attractive signage at the pump that changes every 60 days and usually promotes a special deal on a particular item, such as a selected breakfast or lunch sandwich. The company is also finalizing an app that will download targeted food specials directly to customers when they pull up to the pump.
Bolla plans to open three additional sites in the near future and has 20-25 more in the pipeline, Atherton said. At least half of those planned stores will have delis.
“Going forward, we want to do delis everywhere we can,” he said. “We’ll also continue to look at existing stores for retrofit opportunities where it makes sense.”
In a recent survey of more than 400 convenience store food and beverage shoppers ages 18-64, General Mills Convenience & Foodservice found 59% of consumers at locations offering made-to-order food were “very satisfied” with lunch at convenience stores compared to 34% of shoppers who ate at c-stores that don’t offer made-to-order food.
Satisfaction levels for c-stores with made-to-order foods also trumped fast food–only 47% of respondents said they were “very satisfied” with quick-service restaurant lunches.
York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Farm Stores has offered a deli program since it opened its first stores in the 1960s. Between 1998-2003, three other separate foodservice offerings—pizza, bakery and a grill—were also introduced. Each had its own menu and product line.
That changed in 2008.
“We took the best parts of each program and consolidated them under one overall Rutter’s foodservice heading, said Jerry Weiner, the company’s vice president of foodservice. “We upgraded our offerings to include more fresh foods, began to bake our own bread, added fryers to allow us to produce fresh appetizers and snack foods and began introducing items targeted to the dinner daypart.”
Forty-five of the 59 Rutter’s Farm Stores in south-central Pennsylvania now have kiosks where customers can get foods made to order. The other stores also produce their hot and cold sandwiches on site primarily for grab and go.
According to Weiner, the program is a big part of the company’s business, separating it from the competition and making it a food destination. He noted the major challenge of running a large deli operation is achieving consistency, the importance of which he learned by watching some of the major quick-service restaurants like McDonald’s.
“The first thing I think about with any new product is can I deliver it consistently every single day in every single store,” Weiner said. “If I don’t feel that I can, I don’t even go there no matter how great the product might be.”
Know Your Customers
While the food offering is extensive at Rutter’s, Weiner plays it smart in terms of the SKUs that the stores carry. Just about every major SKU has multiple
Chicken strips, for example, are the basis for at least seven different menu items.
Customers can order them grilled or fried in offerings from a garden or Caesar salad to a chicken Parmesan sub or club sandwich. The chicken is also available in orders of three pieces with barbecue, buffalo or hot sauce, as well as in snack wraps and tacos.
“Each of these chicken-based items appeals to a different demographic,” Weiner said.
When he introduced hot pastrami in the delis about a year-and-a-half ago, Weiner found that customers were coming up with their own ideas for using the deli meat beyond the basic sandwiches and Reubens that were on the menu.
“People were putting it on their breakfast sandwiches,” Weiner said.
Weiner is also making sure that brisket and corned beef, two of the latest menu additions, are more than one-hit wonders. They are both available alone—the brisket with barbecue sauce already has a following—and in several sandwich variations, such as Reubens, and the corned beef/pastrami-pairing sandwich: the New Yorker.
Weiner is constantly looking to expand the stores’ foodservice offerings. “Minimally, we roll out five or six items in a year,” he said.
The chain’s loyal customers are kept apprised of new offerings through social media outlets, such as the Rutter’s Website and special promotions delivered on the company’s app.
But, Weiner said, nothing can beat sampling. He pointed out that even if customers didn’t come in for food, there’s no better way to show them what they’re missing.