July 2018

Feature

An Epic Food Journey

From superfoods to health benefits, today’s consumers expect more from the foods they eat, and retailers deliver in innovative ways.
Chris Blasinsky

Think back to the 1980s, a time when “health and wellness” meant that what you were about to eat was something void of flavor, bold spices and unique ingredients. These foods were all about weight management—low in carbs, fat, calories, taste—all for the sake of shedding a few extra pounds, explained Mark DiDomenico, director of client solutions at Datassential Inc., at the 2018 NACS State of the Industry Summit.

By the early 2000s, health and wellness evolved to “feel-good foods,” he explained, where natural, organic and local became indicators of foods that were both good for you and high in quality and taste.

Today, we’re in the functional foods part of our food evolutionary journey, where it’s all about what foods can do for you, or “do something” to enhance our health and well-being, whether that’s cognitive improvement, smoother skin, muscle recovery or something else.

Datassential research suggests that functional or “superfoods,” containing protein, antioxidants and essential vitamins and minerals, show promising growth as they move throughout the menu adoption cycle from inception and adoption (the excitement stages) to proliferation and ubiquity (the volume stages).

Superfoods like bee pollen, activated charcoal, spirulina and purple corn have breached the early inception stage. In the adoption stage today are ingredients like ancient grains and turmeric, found in trendy restaurants and specialty grocers. Acai, ginger and quinoa are commonplace on the proliferation stage and found in most grocery stores and chain restaurants. Then there’s the foods that have become ubiquitous and are found just about anywhere: avocado, Brussels sprouts and garlic, for example.

“The more application you have for a trend,” Di Domenico said of the foods, “the more likely we are to see it stick around.”

Superfoods, and subsequently health and beauty, have become more commonplace thanks to chains like Jamba Juice, which features add-ins—or boosts—to its menu of whole fruit smoothies and fresh-squeezed juices. The chain specifically markets anti-aging and skin care to females with its “collagen boost”—a protein that’s “great for glowing skin, reducing wrinkles and improving joint health,” per the company’s website.

Rise of Plant-Based Foods

All signs point to plant-based foods becoming less of a trend and more of a mainstay, but it’s not because carnivores are turning into vegetarians. Datassential data shows that 44% of people are trying to eat less meat, while 57% are trying to eat more plant-based protein. And they’re doing so for three reasons: personal health, managing and avoiding disease, and weight loss.

Functional or “superfoods,” containing protein, antioxidants and essential vitamins and minerals, show promising growth.

And while most consumers eat meat, poultry and seafood, nearly one-third identify as either “flexitarian” or say they limit or avoid animal proteins. Younger consumers who avoid animal proteins seem to be motivated by both health and concerns over livestock production methods. (See also “Better for You” on page 60 of this issue for more on why younger generations are so concerned with health and food safety.)

Considering these stats, the challenge food manufacturers and restaurants face is to create a mouth-watering vegan or vegetarian meal that is on par with a juicy steak or cheeseburger. “It has to be crave-worthy,” said DiDomenico, adding that we should still think of a plant-based burger as a burger that tastes great with amazing toppings and flavors. “Substituting tofu for steak is a hard sell, but it’s easier when the food focuses just as much on craveability as it does on health.”

Traditional meat companies are also banking on plant-based alternatives to traditional meat-based products. Tyson Foods’ venture capital group, Tyson Ventures, is investing in Beyond Meat, a company on a mission to replace animal protein with plant-based protein for products like burgers, sausage and chicken strips. Beyond Meat became a household name in 2016 for its meat-like veggie burger that “bleeds” when its pricked thanks to pulverized beet juice, which also gives the patty a red-meat appearance.

Morningstar Farms, a plant-based meatless brand found in frozen food aisles, has become one of Kellogg’s biggest growing brands. Kellogg’s is expanding the brand through traditional retail and foodservice applications, including convenience stores, with meatless solutions like sausage-style crumbles and garden burgers.

Keep Truckin’

No matter which direction food trends are heading, some convenience retailers are relying on a different type of delivery method for building awareness and bringing new menu items to market: the food truck.

California chef Roy Choi is credited with revolutionizing the gourmet food truck industry, launching his Korean taco truck, Kogi, in 2008. Fellow chef and author Anthony Bourdain wrote in TIME magazine that Choi “changed the world when he elevated the food-truck concept from ‘roach coach’ to highly sought-after, ultra-hot-yet-democratic rolling restaurant.”

Many food trucks today transcend food origin, shifting from a broad ethnic concept to a specific food and a simplified menu. As DiDomenico noted when he spoke at the NACS State of the Industry Summit in April, while food truck menus have made this shift, the foods themselves have taken on a culture of their own. For example, a truck that sells lobster rolls isn’t referred to as “The New England Truck,” and the pizza by-the-slice truck isn’t called “The Italian Truck.”

In the c-store space, some retailers are using food trucks to serve as a testing ground for new menu items, or to introduce and trial a new foodservice concept. It’s a cost-effective strategy, especially in markets where people may be hesitant to try fresh prepared food from their local convenience store, or if the store is not currently known for food. However, food trucks have evolved so much from the roach-coach perception that people line up—literally—for delicious, high-quality food.

Ricker’s of Anderson, Indiana, launched a food truck in 2013 to serve as its mobile test kitchen for its Mexican-inspired foodservice offer. Thanks to strong brand awareness, the concept moved inside 28 of the 56 Ricker’s c-stores, and the food truck continues to operate during the summer months at special events.

In the c-store space, some retailers are using food trucks to serve as a testing ground for new menu items, or to introduce and trial a new foodservice concept.

Larry Jackson, managing director of Good To Go Markets in Columbia, Maryland, developed his food truck concept—Bullhead Pit Beef, a 26-foot converted bread truck—as a less expensive way to experiment with foods that would eventually be sold in his convenience store. But as the food truck began to take on a life of its own, it has become an extension of the store brand as well as a brand that locals seek out. (Hear more about Jackson’s food truck in the Convenience Matters podcast, “The Ultimate Good to Go,” episode 11.

Jackson doesn’t fight for parking, then sit and wait for customers to come to him. Instead, he goes to where the crowds are at local events, which allows his crew to determine how much food they need to prep and sell, and who the crowd-driven consumer will be. “Being event-focused also allows me to build a sense of scarcity because we’re not always available,” he said. “And because of that, we have a high-caliber product that customers recognize when they see our truck.”

What’s next for Bullhead Pit Beef? Jackson is partnering with a local brewery to bring his menu into a brick-and-mortar restaurant as a take-out option. He plans to keep the menu simple, although having presence in the restaurant will allow him to test new menu items. After all, Jackson has seen experimentation with the food truck menu lead to success. “We’re known for pit beef, which is a local Baltimore favorite, but when we tested brisket on the menu it really took off,” he said.

Thanks to the food truck business, Jackson said that he learned how to create a menu that’s flexible and readily available to customers—great experience to have before he brings the concept inside a convenience store.

“What we make and serve has to be high quality,” Jackson said. “I’m aware of what others are doing in my market, and I try to be better than the next guy. And we can set a premium price because we’re selling a premium product. You don’t have to discount like you would for hot dogs on a roller grill to attract customers—not when you’re delivering a high-quality menu that customers seek you out for.”

An Eye on Health

The theme for this year’s Partnership for a Healthier America Summit in May focused on innovation and market disruption, and how to make nutritious food more accessible to families. At the event, former Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman commented that food is medicine, not in a functional food and supplement kind of way, but because healthier diets can be a factor in controlling health-care costs.

It’s an impressive dialogue: how food can enhance, change—or save—someone’s life. Krista Anderson, founder and CEO of ESSTAR, a natural foods distributor, battled stage 4 cancer by eating a healthy diet. As she recovered, she found that healthier grab-and-go snacks were not often found in convenience stores and gas stations. This realization led to her vision for ESSTAR: to make healthy, life-giving foods accessible on every corner through convenience stores. Today, “Krista’s Healthy On The Go” endcap provides c-store shoppers an extensive choice of healthy snack options.

Over the past decade many convenience retailers have responded to consumer expectations for healthier options. The alternative snacks category has become a home base for quick, grab-and-go options high in protein and low in calories or to serve as a meal replacement. And in foodservice, prepared foods are ripe for healthy innovation, including the use of more clean, local and sustainable ingredients.

Just last month Rutter’s, a 70-store chain based in York, Pennsylvania, announced a significant initiative to use cage-free eggs for its extensive made-to-order, customizable menu.

This isn’t the first time Rutter’s has been a market leader in healthy choices. In October 2017, the retailer became the first convenience store in its operating area to offer a turkey burger option in addition to its black bean burger. “A healthier burger option has been requested by multiple customers who still crave a meat burger, but want a leaner option,” said Krebs.

At the Loop Neighborhood Market based in San Francisco, California, offering better-for-you foods took time, sampling and promotions before customers began to catch on and learn that yes, they can purchase a healthy meal and a salad in a convenience store. The retailer recently installed “Sally” the salad robot by Chowbotics, an idea gleaned from the New Exhibitor area at the 2017 NACS Show. The robot unit takes up a smaller footprint than a salad bar, and there’s less spoilage. (See Sally in action at the Loop during the 2018 edition of Ideas 2 Go, debuting at this year’s NACS Show in Las Vegas.)

The Journey Continues

While we don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future of food, we know that consumers today expect much more from the foods they eat, whether dining out, cooking at home or purchasing a meal at a convenience store. “The trends are not only ingredients and flavors, but the foods themselves,” said DiDomenico.

Hear more on the future of food and from Mark DiDomenico himself at the year’s NACS Show in Las Vegas, when he leads the education session, “Foodservice Trends: New, Now, Next.” Register today.
Chris Blasinsky

Chris Blasinsky is the content communications strategist at NACS. She can be reached at cblasinsky@convenience.org.