food for thought

Product sampling and a thorough understanding of customers helps form an effective foodservice marketing plan.

I remember my first managerial job in foodservice retail. The year was1987 and I was a manager trainee forLittle Caesars Pizza. I had just completed an eight-week apprenticeship andwas named company store manager inNorthbrook, Ill. Northbrook is a well-to-dosuburb of Chicago and the store “was a pit,” according to my supervisor.

When I took over the reins from the previous manager, I quickly recognized thestaff was not trained, the store was filthy,the products prepared were inconsistentand the customer base was dwindling.My supervisor gave me carte blancheto remedy the situation—with no extramarketing dollars.

So, over the course of the next six months,I let the entire staff go with the exceptionof two employees, cleaned the restaurantfrom end-to-end, trained new employeeshow to maintain a clean store and executea consistent product, and started a localstore sampling program throughout theimmediate trade area. Within six months,sales increased 52% and the store becameprofitable. I received a profit-sharing checkafter the third month and I still remembermy supervisor saying “this is the first timethis store has ever made money.” I was convinced that this was the most effective wayto market food.

Execution is Key
A well-executedfoodservice samplingprogram gives you theopportunity to establish a proprietary foodproduct offering thatcan make your storesunique. Conveniencestore items, for themost part, are the samefrom store-to-store. Iknow that pricing, promotion and displaycan add some levelof uniqueness, butessentially a Snickersbar is a Snickers bar from c-store toc-store. Foodservice customers want totaste the product.

Foodservice marketing for c-stores hasto take a different form than simply putting up a sign in a window screaming aprice point. Onsite prepared food is a verypersonal choice for a customer. Be it a sandwich or pizza, we all have our likes anddislikes. While there are a myriad of marketing ideas for promoting foodservice, theones that make or break your success arethose that enable the customer to taste theproduct firsthand.

At Little Caesars, our local store marketing programs were built around the premiseof getting the product in the mouths of customers. Every promotional event attemptedto involve product sampling. A flyer orcoupon only goes so far—customers wantto know if the product tastes good to them.Our group sales programs to schools, fundraisers and sports sponsorships all involvedtasting the product. This product sampling by the customers, combined with thevalue- pricing of “Pizza! Pizza!,” created awinning, money-making combination.

I spent nine fast-paced years withLittle Caesars growing my role to nationalmarketing director before heading upmarketing at Clark Retail Enterprises.

After seven years in the c-store industry, Imade the move back to foodservice. Thisexperience offered me a unique firsthandperspective on the different marketingapproach of c-stores versus the foodserviceindustry. While c-stores price and promote,foodservice companies entice the tastebuds with their products.

When I left the convenience store industry in 2003, I became president of the JimmyJohn’s Gourmet Sandwich chain. No surprise, but this 450-store chain had itsmarketing foundation built upon the samepremise—sampling. Built into daily operations is a sampling program whereby astore operator makes eight sandwiches anddivides them into thirds; then delivers thesesamples with a menu every morning to 24businesses surrounding their store. Day inand day out, its local business communityis reminded of the great tasting sandwichesless than a few blocks away.

Like it or not, foodservice c-store operators are competing for “share of stomach”with fast food restaurants—titans like TacoBell, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s—and itis futile if you try to outspend them—youcan’t. Where c-store operators can succeedis developing foodservice sampling programs for their proprietary products on anon-going basis. This product trial will create a purchasing routine for your customersand help undermine even the biggestadvertising budgets of your competitors.

John Matthews is the founder and president of Gray Cat Enterprises, Inc., a strategic planning and marketing services firm that specializes in helping businesses grow inthe convenience and foodservice retail industries. Matthews has 20 years of senior-levelexecutive experience.To learn more about GrayCat Enterprises, please visit or contact him at


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