As spring approaches, it’s always a good time to review the situation of a retailer’s foodservice programs. I have been traveling a quite a bit lately, and from my personal perspective, there have been tremendous leaps in c-store foodservice quality in stores across the country. Still, not all stores under a single banner have fully executed the foodservice basics systemwide – such as craveable food, helpful service and clean stores. Considering these threshold needs should be met – meaning a customer may never return if they are not – I’ve developed a few ideas for c-store operators looking to “tune up” their foodservice perception that will (hopefully) lead to increased traffic, basket and sales.

“Fresh” is the Cornerstone of Foodservice Success

C-store operators have long battled the perception that their food offerings are, for the most part, low in quality and not very fresh. But today, with plenty of customizable, made-to-order foods offered at c-stores, there’s no reason for this expectation to persist. For example, Kwik Trip of Wisconsin not only offers fresh baked goods, but decided to vertically integrate into a baked goods manufacturer. While the use of commissaries has been on the rise over the past five years, Kwik Trip (and others) has capitalized on becoming a manufacturer to maintain quality control. The venture is certainly not inexpensive, but as c-stores compete with Fast Casual, consumers will respond favorably to a variety of fresh fruit, fresh cut steaks, custom-made salads and prepared meals – which are key staples of Kwik Trip’s menu.

Shifting From “Just Some Gas Station” to “My Corner Shop”

In the past, foodservice customers may not have had much of a reason to linger at a c-store location – let alone use the restroom. In my experience, the best convenience stores are those that are called by name. For example, I once heard a group of co-workers say “let’s head over to Wawa,” or “I’d like to go to Casey’s for lunch.” There was no mention of “c-store” or “gas station in either of these cases. Once a convenience store makes this leap, consumers are becoming loyalists. Differentiation has occurred.

A couple ideas on how to do this:

Keep restrooms spotless. It is absolutely true that a dirty bathroom equates to a dirty kitchen and therefore to unhygienic workers. Pilot claims to use cleaning solution up to 1.5 times that required by law because they understand it’s the small things that make a different.
Limited Time Offers. Consumers love change. LTOs offer a point of differentiation and a reason for new patrons to visit your store. This also allows operators to keep up with the “fast feeders” and keep up with what foodservice patrons want.
More than 65% of consumers will consume their foodservice items immediately after purchase, according to our data. This means foods like wraps, sandwiches and even bowls lend a cue to consumers that these items can be consumed in-transit. Ensure spoons, napkins and packaging are well-within reach and durable.

Focusing on the Female Consumer

C-store operators looking to build brand loyalty and traffic among a female consumer base could perhaps focus on what women want when it comes to foodservice: a convenient, time-saving meal solution for their family; better-for-you, healthful offerings for themselves and their family; and an inviting, clean and attractive setting in which to make food and beverage purchases. C-store operators could work to boost appeal among female customers by promoting foods as fresh, all-natural, organic, seasonal or local, if possible. Fresh fruits, oatmeal, salads, yogurt and other better-for-you food items should be front-and-center for this type of approach. This not only provides a menu option for “mom” when the kids just go for the two for two chili dog deals but encourages repeat visits.

(Re)Invest in Foodservice Equipment

Many retailers tend to jump into foodservice before doing some basic calculations that can predict whether a menu or food program will succeed or fail – and one of the key variables overlooked is equipment. The first step operators must take when offering a hot food program is costing out the menu items they wish to offer. Once this is determined, operators are in a better position to identify equipment that can handle the proposed and additional items. In other words, with limited space on the counter and in back-of-house, operators will require equipment that is versatile, scalable, and can be used for multiple applications. A high-speed oven, for example, has multiple functions and can heat or cook frozen food within seconds.

While not meant to be an immediate “To Do” list, the ideas I’ve provided should encourage c-store operators to revisit their food service programs and consider areas of improvement and growth. By investing time and money in even one of these areas, c-store operators should begin to see an uptick in loyal patrons and new customers alike.

Paul Clarke
Business Development Director
Q1 Consulting