The C-store Coffee Shop

Convenience retailers are luring customers with barista-made beverages.

The C-store Coffee Shop

May 2023   minute read

By: Pat Pape

Since 1987, when Starbucks began expanding across the globe, consumers have clamored for coffee beverages created exclusively for them by trained baristas. Today, there are more than 72,000 coffee shops in the United States, an increase of 3.1% over 2022, according to IBISWorld. About 22% of those U.S. locations are Starbucks.

Starbucks isn’t the only game in town. Convenience retailers have upgraded their own coffee bars over the years. Bean-to-cup machines and a generous selection of beverage modifiers—flavored sugars and syrups, toppings and both dairy and plant-based milks—allow customers to create their own custom drinks.

Now, some c-store operators are kicking it up a notch by bringing baristas onboard to create made-to-order beverages.

Healthy Margins

“There are better cups of coffee out there than Starbucks, but you are not going to get the same experience with that better cup of coffee than you will at a Starbucks,” said Arthur Lopez, senior director of marketing for Finlays, a global tea and coffee company. 

We really pride ourselves on being cost-competitive with the chains but pushing the flavor boundaries of the trendy local coffee shop.

“You walk in and that friendly person says, ‘Hello, how can I help you?’ You get a beverage created exactly like you want it,” he said. “They ask your name. Your name is on that cup. That’s something no machine is going to replicate.” 

Lopez is curious why c-store food menus receive more attention than drink offerings, when a sandwich’s profit margin may be half that of a beverage. “Margins on beverages are at a minimum about 60% and sometimes more than that,” Lopez said. “I don’t understand why nobody has stepped up and tried to claim the throne of being the convenient beverage stop.”


In reality, at least three retailers would like to own that title and be the definitive meeting place of convenience and coffee. 

Neon Marketplace, which is based in Massachusetts, Curby’s in Texas, and Rutter’s in Pennsylvania have trained foodservice employees to serve as baristas, in addition to other tasks, when customers request a custom coffee.    

At Neon Marketplace, all kitchen employees know how to make every menu item, from fresh pizzas to drinks in the café beverage program. “There are hundreds of different drinks that associates can make,” said Elisa Babey, senior manager of product development and supply chain at Neon Marketplace. “Anything you can get at a big name chain, you can get at Neon Marketplace. But it will be a little better here, though.”

Recently, employees were whipping up cups of flower-inspired coffee using lavender syrup and a garnish of edible lavender. “You not only get the flavor and aroma, you also get that visual of blooming flavors in spring,” said Babey.

Custom beverages have not cannibalized sales from the retailer’s traditional coffee bar.

“We really pride ourselves on being cost-competitive with the chains but pushing the flavor boundaries of the trendy local coffee shop where all the hipsters hang out,” she said. “If you want Gen Z and the millennials, those people who aren’t your traditional c-store customers, a big attraction is the barista bar.”

Curby’s cross-trains employees on four key functions: kitchen, made-to-order beverages, the chain’s iced-tea program and grocery.

“We hire people specifically for each function and then cross-train,” said Tony Sparks, head of customer wow. “It takes around 60-90 days to completely cross-train an employee. Our made-to-order beverage people come from Starbucks, and the kitchen people come from Chipotle. Typically, those people don’t want to work cross-functionally. For example, your Starbucks-mindset employee generally doesn’t want to make pizza. But it works.” 

Rutter’s employees learn every aspect of the company’s foodservice program to ensure they can assist wherever they’re needed. “Training includes reviewing standard operating procedures on food safety and recipes, plus all foodservice duties from cleaning, taking temperatures and making orders,” said Chad White, food service category manager at Rutter’s. 

Benefits of Baristas

Adding handcrafted beverages to the menu has expanded the customer experience at Rutter’s. 

“With the ability to provide hot, cold or frozen options, we reach more than the standard coffee customer,” White said. “It also opens up hot dispensed drinks to more dayparts, as a lot of the handcrafted beverages are seen as an afternoon treat. With these benefits, it makes sense to add a specialty drink program. Even within our handcrafted program, there is room to expand beyond just coffee. When we added our extreme shake program to our already established milkshakes, we doubled our units without losing units on standard shakes.” 

Best of all, custom beverages have not cannibalized sales from the retailer’s traditional coffee bar. 

“We use high-quality products to build our handcrafted beverages, such as Monin sauces and Uporia syrups and custom-roasted beans provided by our coffee partner, Westrock,” said White. “While we continue to source the best quality products, we remain competitive on price. This has allowed us to gain customer traction in this category and build out the program even more.” 

Curby’s considers itself a convenient coffeehouse, but with a more contemporary vibe than the long-established brands. The retailer’s made-to-order drinks are indulgent, with names such as the Winn Dixie (espresso blended with white chocolate, brown sugar, cinnamon and milk) and the Argos (espresso mixed with mocha sauce, caramel, coconut and milk). Both drinks are topped with a generous serving of whipped cream.

“Our menu depth is about the same as Starbucks’,” said Sparks.

Just the Facts

The popularity of specialty coffee is at a five-year high. According to the National Coffee Association, 43% of American coffee consumers chose a specialty drink in the past day. That’s up 4% since January 2020.

Promos and Feedback

Customers want great beverages along with great value. So, keeping prices competitive with name-brand coffee providers is important. “We do competitive shops monthly and price at parity to the market leader by subsegment,” said Sparks. Curby’s also features occasional happy hours with half-priced made-to-order drinks and promotes the beverage program via social media.  

Sparks enjoys reading customers’ online reviews, especially when “they are surprised by the quality and flavor of the drinks,” he said. “Our made-to-order beverage program is the fastest growing segment of our business.”

Lopez added: “As our society comes back from the pandemic, there’s something to be said for human interaction. Being able to treat yourself to an indulgent beverage and see a friendly face make that product for you can only lead to good things. People will always respond better to people than a wall of machines.”

Although a custom beverage program may require extra staff, “In the modern c-store world, that’s the direction stores are going,” said Babey. “If you want that differentiator, you’ll offer quality café beverages.”

Pat Pape

Pat Pape

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. See more of her articles at

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