Ring the Dinner Bell

The evening daypart offers opportunities to enhance your foodservice business.

Ring the Dinner Bell

February 2022   minute read

By: Pat Pape

“Become an alternative to restaurants and QSRs” was one tip convenience retailers received last year when executives from IRI and Crossmark presented a webinar on reviving business post-COVID lockdown. Besides adopting new technologies and offering contactless service, the panel recommended enhancing the dinner daypart to attract more shoppers.

“Everybody is trying to build back their foodservice business,” said Kennith Fries, vice president of c-store for Crossmark. “Commuting traffic has dropped off, particularly in the morning, and retailers are looking at different menus and ways to expand. We encourage them to do some in and outs—be a little creative with the menu and find different ways to get consumers to try your food. For customers worried about health and safety, a c-store can get them in and out quickly.”

During the 2020 lockdown, c-store traffic declined just over 19% compared with 2019, and during weekday evenings (6 to 10 p.m.), trips were down nearly 16%, according to Dafna Gabel, vice president of strategic insights at PDI Software.

“The evening daypart gained back some of the trips after the shelter-at-home mandates were lifted, but they were still down about 10% versus the second half of 2019,” she said. “And evening trips year-to-date are still down today—about 4% versus 2020, unlike the morning rush that is by now doing better versus 2020. However, trips during all key weekday dayparts, including the evening, are still behind pre-pandemic levels.”

Trips during all key weekday dayparts, including the evening, are still behind pre-pandemic levels.


When commuters nationwide began working from home and morning traffic declined in 2020, some retailers turned their attention to the dinner daypart. Despite the challenges of foodservice during COVID-19, management at Rutter’s, the York, Pennsylvania-based chain, recognized an opportunity.

“We put a focus on dinner with large frozen meal options—mac and cheese, lasagna items and bulk chicken strips that customers could take home and cook,” said Chad White, category manager for foodservice at Rutter’s. “We’ve tried to take what we have on our menu and expand that during dinner. We want to increase our menu; however, we haven’t brought in a ton of new items because of the way the supply chain is right now. It’s been a challenge to even get the products that we already use, so we’ve tried to utilize what we have.”

The frozen family meals sold well at stores near residential areas before Rutter’s discontinued the offer in late 2020. But the emphasis on providing quality comfort food continues.

“Comfort food is a staple of our business,” White said. “We have plant-based items on our menu, but customers have gone back to those comfort foods—pizza, eggrolls, mac and cheese and fried sides. We’ve upgraded our mac and cheese to shells instead of macaroni noodles, and we’re using white cheddar. We’ve seen good sales from that.”

Fresh bone-in chicken and chicken tenders—either hot or cold—are customer favorites at Spinx stores based in Greenville, South Carolina, and to attract evening shoppers, the chain offers value-priced family-size meals to go.

“Customers can choose from family-size chicken packs, both fried and oven roasted, along with sides like macaroni and cheese, green beans or our homemade banana pudding,” said Chris Faneuf, director of foodservice at Spinx. “Fresh-brewed tea and lemonade are available in half-gallon jugs to complete the meal. Our sales results have been satisfactory with 10% to 15% increases per month since last May.”

Several of The Market convenience stores owned by Tiger Fuel Co. of Charlottesville, Virginia, have full operating kitchens with two or three ovens, stove tops with griddles, deli sandwich units and plenty of walk-in space. Several stores are equipped with fryers for the chain’s fried chicken menu.

According to Pat Pitts, foodservice manager for Tiger Fuel, “during COVID, we haven’t pushed a dinner menu per se. We offer takeout foods throughout the day with an assortment of freshly prepared gourmet sandwiches, soups, chili, rotisserie chickens and specialty salads. At our fried chicken stores, we sell chicken meals all day and for a quick dinner pickup.”

For the past two decades, The Market kitchens have offered pre-order holiday meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In addition to roast turkeys with all the sides, customers can pick up ham biscuits, fruit and cheese trays, assorted pies and desserts to round out their celebratory dinners. “Customers start ordering around the first week of November for the holidays,” Pitts said.

In August 2021, Pennsylvania-based Wawa began testing a new dinner menu at hundreds of stores throughout the chain. The selection ranges from an all-natural Angus burger on a lighter bun, pasta with a choice of toppings and braised chicken to pork roast, pot roast and rotisserie-style chicken. Special kid’s meals feature Junior Hoagies and “small fry” sides, such as mac and cheese, and time-crunched commuters can grab six different heat-and-eat meals to warm and serve at home. The menu aims to meet diners’ need for variety.

“We always strive to listen to our customers, so we’ve spent time testing menu items in select stores, gathering feedback and perfecting our recipes with the goal of providing a family, group of friends, etc. the ability to select their preferred dinner while still enjoying a meal together,” said Mike Sherlock, chief product marketing officer, Wawa.

If customers stop at the stores after work, they can sit and play slots and get dinner.


Giving each daypart individual attention has paid off. “We remerchandise three times during the day,” said Pitts of Tiger Fuel. “We start with breakfast—breakfast tacos and biscuits. Our lunch specials are chosen daily by our cooks at each location, and we offer our chicken menu in our hot cases for dinner.”

At Spinx, the hot grab-and-go displays change with each daypart. The new cold chicken meals take up about 40% of each store’s refrigerated case space and are available around the clock, providing shoppers with a quick, easy meal.

“Our cold chicken offer has impacted sales all day, including the early morning daypart when we’re not fresh frying chicken,” said Faneuf. “About 10% of grab-and-go cold chicken units are sold during the morning daypart and for consumption at lunch. The quality of the chicken is maintained when reheated at home, and the cold chicken provides a great picnic-style meal. Dinner sales have increased 15% versus the previous year, and late-night sales are up 30% due to these programs. And all of it is incremental to the food business. Cold grab-and-go meal replacement is a flexible offer that can be expanded for future growth to include a variety of family-sized entrées, side dishes and desserts.”

Rutter’s has the benefit of in-store restaurant seating and wants customers to stop in and stay a while during after-work hours.

“We now have beer in a lot of locations, and we’re doing gaming and slot machines,” said White. “If customers stop at the stores after work, they can sit and play slots and get dinner. The dinner daypart is a challenge, but at Rutter’s, we strive to give customers a reason to stop and try our food.”

Unfortunately, current supply chain issues challenge foodservice operators to meet customers’ needs.

“Forecasting is a bit of a struggle,” said Pitts. “We don’t have adequate help in the stores and are dealing with the uncertain availability of everyday products. But we continue to give our customers the fresh, wonderful food they are accus- tomed to. We are always working on introducing new ideas to keep our menu options fresh, and we hope to implement more in the coming months.”

Attracting the dinner-daypart diner is the goal, but retailers shouldn’t let them eat and then leave empty-handed. Keep in mind the items that evening shoppers most often purchase, says Gabel. “Evening customers are seeking beverages and snacks,” she said. “Nonalcoholic packaged beverages, beer and both sweet and savory snacks are the most heavily trafficked categories, and if evening-relevant foodservice items are offered, surely the combination can help lift the evening daypart.” 


5 Tips for Boosting Evening Daypart Sales

  1. Remerchandise your foodservice by daypart.
  2. Change out grab-and-go displays.
  3. Offer different heat-and-eat meals to warm up and serve at home. 
  4. Give customers a reason to stop and try your food. 
  5. Introduce new items to keep menu options fresh and meet customers' need for variety. 
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 patpape.wordpress.com.

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