Meeting the Demand for Fresh Foods

Rx for Dinner


Walgreen’s drug chain recently announced that it will test market chilled foods at a dozen of its 7,500 stores this fall to determine if busy consumers are willing to stop at a drug store for a grab-and-go lunch or dinner. While full details of the test have not been made public, offerings are expected to include sandwiches, fresh cut fruit, soups and wraps. If results are positive, industry observers expect the chain to put additional entrees on the menu. The test, the company said, is aimed at attracting on-the-go convenience customers.

Everyone has to eat, but few people have time for the planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning that always accompany homemade meals.

Fortunately for time-challenged Americans, there are plenty of choices when it comes to fast, no-fuss dining. And some of the newest, healthier and most original meal solutions are coming from convenience operators.

Cut Calories, Not Flavor
Traditionally, on-the-go dining has been a calorie-heavy experience. But the full-service restaurants in TravelCenters of America (TA) are giving customers extra options. The restaurants recently rolled out a line of meals with less than 600 calories each. Marketed with the slogan “Stay Fit with Flavor,” the four new offerings include chicken stir fry, shrimp stir fry, grilled chicken dinner and a grilled chicken sandwich.

“Since we have an executive chef on staff, we were able to develop several food options for our full-service restaurants in a relatively short period of time,” said John Ponczoch, senior vice president of restaurant operations for TA. “Each of these items was designed with our entire audience in mind. We wanted the items to be flavorful and fit, yet approachable and without the stigma of diet food.”

The new meals are for everyone, “not just those who are trying to be good,” Ponczoch added, and customer response has been positive. “We have received wonderful feedback from our guests—from ‘thank you’ to ‘it’s about time’ to suggestions for more options.”

Ethnic Eating
Ethnic food sales are expected to grow 20% through 2014, according to Mintel International, the Chicago-based marketing research organization. While Mexican/Hispanic food owns two-thirds of that market, the Asian and Indian segments are growing. Thanks to the nation’s increasingly diverse population, foods with international flare are showing up in some unexpected places.

At first blush, Memphis, Tenn., doesn’t seem like a Mecca for sushi lovers, but in fact, the home of Graceland is also home to more than 35 sushi restaurants. One of the most popular sushi sources is located in a BP convenience store owned by the family of J.J. Lee. With a sushi chef on staff, Lee’s Fresh Sushi offers everything from handmade barbeque eel rolls to shrimp and vegetable dumplings, all served 12 pieces per grab-and-go plastic container.

The Lees purchased the gas station in 2002 when they moved from Michigan to Memphis. “In Michigan, you can pick up to-go sushi at Target and Kroger, so we said ‘let’s try it,’” said Lee. At first, sales were slow, but soon customers came to crave gas station sushi. “I have about 1,500 to 1,600 people come through the door every day. About 20% actually purchase sushi,” he said.

Sushi consumers range from construction workers to doctors and lawyers. “At 6 a.m., we have customers in here asking for sushi,” said Lee. “We have a lot of people who come here to buy gas, cigarettes, drinks and sushi.”

Convenient Cuban Cuisine
Want to ensure that your customers get super food at your store? No problem. Simply build a restaurant next door. That is what Miami businessman Antonio Vilariño has done. His 140-seat restaurant, Las Vegas Redland Grill, is connected to his convenience store and some of the restaurant dishes are offered as grab-and-go items in the store.

“We come from Cuba,” said Nolan Diaz, Vilariño’s son-in-law. “We have a mix of Cuban, Mexican and American foods. Customers can sit down for a leisurely meal or pick up many of the same items in the convenience store. ”

A dinner favorite is churrasco, a grilled Cuban steak with rice and beans, but customers also enjoy soft ham and cheese croquetas (fried rolls of minced meat and mashed potatoes), vaca frita (fried beef with onions and lime) and crispy mariquitas (plantain chips). For an after-dinner treat, customers may choose between creamy flan and a pastelio, the Cuban version of a sweet fruit pie.

“Our crowd likes to try all our dishes,” said Diaz. “We have a lot of people who come in every day for lunch.”

Do Regional Right
Being known for regional specialties is a great way to keep customers coming back. Just ask Linda Dupont, diner manager at Billy’s Mini Mart in Krotz Spring, La., 40 miles from Baton Rouge.

While Billy’s sells the usual array of chicken tenders and hamburgers, the diner is famous for its boudin, a southern Louisiana food traditionally made of pork, rice and assorted vegetables that are mixed together, stuffed in sausage casings and fried. A filling meal, boudin is sold by the link and considered by some to be the Cajun answer to burritos. While recipes for boudin vary, Dupont describes her store’s version as “real crispy” and “very spicy.”

When boudin links are placed in the Mini Mart’s hot box, “they don’t stay there long,” Dupont said. “A lot of people eat it for lunch or a snack. Some put it in between bread and eat it as a sandwich.”

And when local families go out of town to visit relatives, they always stop by the store for some boudin to take with them. “We’ve had our boudin go all the way to Nevada, California and Michigan,” Dupont said.

“Locavores” at the Table
A new food buzz phrase is “eating local.” Unlike the strict standards for organic foods, which include legal definitions, inspections and labeling, “eating local” can mean anything from growing your own food to eating only produce from your own community or even your own country. People who “eat local” are sometimes dubbed “locavores.”

One California couple is taking that concept to the masses. Greg Horos and his wife, Melissa Rosen, opened Locali Conscience Convenience in Hollywood, Calif., in January 2009 with the commitment to operate a green and local chain of stores.

“The cornerstone of our business model is to promote as many local food artisans as possible and be as healthy as possible,” Horos said. “We want to benefit the community and offer customers dietary options.”

The couple was inspired by a neighborhood farmer’s market that is open each Sunday. There, merchants offer everything from organic produce and free-range poultry to bison meat and freshly baked breads, much of which Locali purchases and uses to create unique meals. Customers can nosh on a wide selection of tofu dishes, sustainably farmed meats, vegan egg rolls and tamales, organic sandwiches and fresh soups and salads.

In addition, Locali offers hard-to-find food products, such as dairy-free cheese made from soy, fermented mushroom-based teas containing probiotics and a locally produced ice cream. The store owners even discovered an area popsicle maker who creates frozen treats from combinations of seasonal fruits, avocados, orange blossoms, vanilla and wheatgrass. Thanks to Locali’s location, customers from the entertainment industry, as well as landscape crews and municipal workers, make the store a mealtime destination.

There can be a few hitches in the local-only concept. “Local vendors are not always as streamlined as large vendors,” he admits, but it’s not a deterrent. In fact, Horos has kicked off plans to franchise the store, and potential investors from outside the state have expressed interest. “We’ve gotten inquiries from as far away as the East Coast,” he said. CSD


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