Find Your Next Flavor

Where should you look for the next trends in foodservice?

Find Your Next Flavor

September 2023   minute read

By: Christine Blank

Tastes are always changing. The plethora of food and beverage options at any given moment can be daunting for c-store foodservice managers. Where to look to spot trends?

C-store operators should take note of “whatever captures their attention as a consumer,” suggested Jessica Williams, founder and CEO of c-store foodservice consultancy Food Forward Thinking LLC. “Fast casual, quick-service operators and increasingly grocery are all working hard to steal market share from convenience.”

The goal of restaurants and grocery stores is to “make consumers salivate and crave specific items to drive traffic,” Williams noted. “Our goal should be to offer the same items in a more convenient way, so that we take advantage of their marketing efforts and capture the business.”

Williams also recommends maintaining close relationships with equipment providers, distributors and key manufacturers in hot food as well as frozen and hot beverages. “Manufacturers are always looking for stores to test ideas, and typically fully or partially fund tests,” she explained.

Notes From the Field

Executives at York, Pennsylvania-based Rutter’s monitor consumer preferences and “keep a close eye” on the food industry to identify emerging trends when launching new menu items or limited time offers (LTOs), said Chad White, food service category manager at Rutter’s, which is known for innovative LTOs such as Spam mac and cheese and peanut butter burgers.

Rutter’s executives pay attention to top restaurant chains, “observing their new menu items and innovative flavor combinations,” White said. “This helps us understand customer preferences and adapt to changing tastes.”

In addition to restaurants, menu inspiration comes from many different areas, according to White, including Rutter’s store-level team members and management. “While we look at emerging trends and other operators, no one knows our customers like our store-level employees. They know the customers because they work with them every day. ... [They] help provide a look into what our customers are looking for.”

To stay ahead of food trends, Rutter’s executives collaborate with industry experts, attend food and beverage trade shows and analyze market research reports, “keeping a finger on the pulse of consumer preferences and industry developments,” White said.

Executives at Love’s Travel Stops in Oklahoma City use a number of sources to keep up with food and beverage industry trends, including trade publications and data from sources like Nielsen. They go to trade shows, speak to vendors and watch QSRs and grocery chains, according to Bryan Street, deli category manager at Love’s.

We have gained such a following with our fresh-cut fruit; we do such a good job presenting it, and we are reasonably priced as well.”

Collaboration with other foodservice executives is important, Street emphasized. “C-stores can keep up with trends by staying connected to industry resources and by developing and maintaining relationships within the foodservice industry. As category managers and retailers, we all deal with the same hurdles with execution, cost of goods, supply chain and customer service,” he said. “Developing competitor relationships without revealing strategy can be challenging, but doing so is also the key to figuring out a solution that fits your customers’ needs within the capabilities of your business.”

Love’s uses flavor and consumer-trend data and information to identify unique flavor, ingredient and menu offerings to develop new or LTO items. “We use these … to determine what customers are buying and what makes sense for us to continue forward with and to bundle with a deli innovation item and non-deli items for promotion opportunities,” Street noted.

Executives at Marcy, New York-based Clifford Fuel/Cliff’s Local Market draw inspiration from grocery stores. Cliff’s can both learn from them and compete well with them, said Jeff Carpenter, director of education and training for Cliff’s Local Market. “We are reaching beyond what they offer and the price is on par,” he noted.

For example, the retailer recently began offering premium salads, such as one with goat cheese and berries. The company’s PowerBlend Salad, launched this summer, has performed very well. The salad features a combination of super foods with antioxidant properties, including broccoli, kohlrabi, dried cranberries and apple cider vinegar, said Derek Thurston, director of foodservice operations.

Cliff’s makes its own bread in-house. “It really makes a difference,” Carpenter said.

The company also offers kid-size fresh-cut fruit cups that are popular with customers of all ages. “People might not grab one of our big cups, but they will grab a small one,” Thurston noted. “We have gained such a following with our fresh-cut fruit; we do such a good job presenting it, and we are reasonably priced as well.”

Top Trend: Spicy and Chicken

Sweet and spicy combinations—particularly paired with chicken—along with street tacos are among the top trends called out by c-store operators and consultants.

Other up-and-coming trends include loaded tots, regional BBQ sauces and throwback menu items, according to Claire Conaghan, associate director of publications for foodservice research and consulting firm Datassential. “Everything that used to feel old is having a resurgence—especially with younger consumers—so things like patty melts, cheesesteaks and more can feel fresh if made with new proteins or served in new formats.”

Many c-store operators have launched or are still rolling out spicy and sweet chicken sandwiches and meals, following the lead of QSRs.

“The growth of chicken-focused concepts like Raising Cane’s and the chicken sandwich wars have certainly generated a lot of attention to chicken,” Williams said. “This will not go away, as fried chicken is relevant globally for all age groups, most religious backgrounds and most people regardless of socioeconomic status. Look for ways to underscore quality, texture and flavor in chicken, and incorporate interesting—even shocking—flavor profiles in complimentary sauces and bread carriers.”

Many c-store operators have launched or are still rolling out spicy and sweet chicken sandwiches and meals, following the lead of QSRs.

After noticing that several QSRs launched spicy Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, Rutter’s executives were inspired to roll out Kickin’ Chicken and Waffles—the company’s take on the trend of sweet and spicy chicken sandwiches. It features a spicy chicken patty on a sugar-coated waffle with coleslaw, pickles and pepper jack cheese. “This is truly an explosion of different flavors, provided in one sandwich,” White said.

While Nashville hot is still a big trend, your new sandwich or meal doesn’t have to be Nashville hot or chicken, according to Conaghan. “If your region has a popular hot sauce, use that instead. If your place specializes in a certain dish, make it spicy and use the protein that makes sense,” she advised.

Still, Street expects spicy flavor profiles—including sriracha and Buffalo—to remain popular.

Hot/spicy flavors are popular at breakfast, too. Cliff’s Local Markets recently added a breakfast chorizo burrito with hot peppers and onions and a chorizo breakfast burrito, which have performed very well, Thurston said.

The c-store operator has also had success with smoked brisket, available as a sub, wrap or melt, with unique jalapeno ranch sauce and jalapeno crisps to top the offerings. “Most people are getting it with the ranch and crisps,” Thurston said.

Other Flavor Trends

Tacos with unique flavor combinations and Mexican street corn have gained popularity, “appealing to customers seeking bold and flavorful options,” White noted. Rutter’s runs a successful BOGO Taco Tuesday promotion that has “catapulted our taco volumes,” White said.

Williams expects to see more street tacos in made-to-order programs, as they are a way for customers to “explore flavor profiles, but in a safe, predictable format,” she said. “Quality tacos are best in a made-to-order program, because they typically do not have great hold times.”

In grab-and-go programs, Williams expects to see more burritos and quesadillas, because the larger tortillas hold better in heat over time and operationally are faster and easier to make.

Unique breakfast items are also helping c-store operators stand apart from the competition. Rutter’s rolled out a donut breakfast sandwich earlier this year. “This item creates a sweet and savory flavor profile,” White said.

Our goal is to provide exciting and unique choices that cater to diverse tastes. Our consumers are looking for new, bold and exciting flavors to try, and we want to provide those options.”

Love’s recently expanded its LTO barbecue offerings to include its breakfast bowls and added a sausage, egg and cheese pancake sandwich, “providing a sweet and savory option during a critical daypart,” Street said.

Love’s LTO barbecue program features multiple proteins and refrigerated sides, creating “different experiences based on customer preference,” Street said. “Bowls have become a huge consumer trend over the past year and mac and cheese bowls have been at the forefront of that. We leveraged that trend by adding mac and cheese bowls and different types of smoked meat, including brisket and burnt ends.”

Rutter’s recently launched grilled mac and cheese—“a comfort-food lover’s dream,” White said.

This fall, Love’s will unveil a new bowl menu that gives “customers the ability to buy something hot and ready to eat or something they can take with them and reheat later in the day,” Street said.

Rutter’s executives plan to explore more plant-based options, experiment with international cuisines and introduce fusion dishes that blend different culinary influences. “Our goal is to provide exciting and unique choices that cater to diverse tastes. Our consumers are looking for new, bold and exciting flavors to try, and we want to provide those options,” White noted.

Christine Blank

Christine Blank

Christine Blank is a veteran freelance writer and editor.

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