When it comes to foodservice, Rutter’s convenience stores have a leg up on most restaurants. The stores feature open kitchens, allowing customers to see their orders as they’re prepared. “It doesn’t get fresher than that,” said Ryan Krebbs, director of foodservice at the 74-unit chain, with stores in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “Customers don’t even see the preparation of their meals in most restaurants.” That focus on fresh also is on display in Rutter’s cold cases stocked with in-house crafted submarine sandwiches and other food made on-site.
The recently opened Alltown Fresh store in Plymouth, Massachusetts, also is garnering attention for its fresh foods program. All produce at the store—a new prototype of parent company Global Partners’ Alltown shops—is organic. According to Ryan Riggs, senior vice president, retail operations at Global Partners, “Organic produce is a subset of our promise to focus on wellness.” As such, store employees are trained to discern between organic, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and natural items, added Riggs, noting that the store largely hires back-of-house employees with foodservice experience.
Innovation, product assortment and convenience have been major factors driving the healthy snacking category.
In the Southwest, the Kwik Chek chain is taking a page out of the restaurant handbook with its quarterly limited-time-only (LTO) foodservice programs. During the Lent season, for example, the chain of 45 stores in Oklahoma and Texas offered fish tacos, fish plates and fish sandwiches. “Leveraging quarterly LTOs helps avoid menu fatigue and keeps menu offerings interesting and relevant,” explained Benjamin Hoffmeyer, vice president, marketing and foodservice. Like Rutter’s, Kwik Chek stores, in many cases, feature an open-restaurant design.
Indeed, convenience stores are increasingly upping their game when it comes to fresh foods, whether it’s with full-scale foodservice programs or grab-and-go offerings. “Many retailers are continuing to enhance their practices by investing in their success from the top down,” remarked Jennifer Hutto, merchandising manager at McLane Company. “They invest in training, maintaining quality and consistency and enhancing item selection throughout the year. Food safety, training and consistent execution are the keys to success.” These efforts are winning favor with customers, added Jacquelyn Moskalik, director of fresh and foodservice at Core-Mark International, by providing “quality food with the convenience of a convenience store.”
Setting the Tone
C-store retailers are finding that grab-and-go cases in the front of the store help set the fresh tone for the entire operation. “Demand for grab-and-go items continues to surge as consumers seek out fresh, healthy products that support their busy lifestyles,” said Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing at Del Monte Fresh Produce. “Innovation, product assortment and convenience have been major factors in driving the healthy snacking category for c-stores,” Christou said. At Rutter’s, freshly cut fruits and vegetables are delivered to each store every morning, Krebbs noted, while offerings like deviled eggs are prepared in-house.
At other c-stores, produce is cut and packaged on-site and offered as healthy options for customers. Lakeport Market in Lakeport, New York, features fruit cups, fruit bowls, veggie cups, veggie trays, salads, hard-boiled eggs and fruit and yogurt cups in its grab-and-go case, all made in store. “You can taste the difference,” explained owner Matt Paduano. Alltown Fresh, meanwhile, merchandises items like its avocado toast and Fresh Pilgrim sandwich (roasted turkey breast, quinoa, homemade cranberry orange relish and green leaf lettuce) in its grab-and-go cases, along with salads, fruit bowls, hummus and even roasted vegetables. “We try to promote the items in multiple ways,” such as snacks and meal side dishes, Riggs said. The Alltown market in Auburn, New Hampshire, recently transitioned to an Alltown Fresh, and more locations are expected to open later this year, including in Waterbury and Hamden, Connecticut.
Doing fresh food is hard work, but it helps define your brand.
Retailers also are seeing increased demand for whole fruits and vegetables. Food Land Minimart in Mansfield, Ohio, offers a wide variety of loose produce, including cabbage, lettuce, carrots, celery, oranges, apples, lemons, cantaloupes, onions, garlic, tomatoes and bananas. According to owner Raleigh Chaffin, the selection is even wider during the summer months. Krebbs and Riggs note that their stores feature locally grown produce, which has proved popular with shoppers. “Customers will look at the labels and comment that they know the growers,” said Riggs.
Virtually all of Kwik Chek’s foodservice items are prepared in-house, according to Hoffmeyer. “Our goal is to delight our customers with a few core items,” such as flour tortilla tacos, biscuit sandwiches and hand-breaded chicken tenders, he explained. Still, the chain refuses to cut corners when it comes to prep. “Our fajita meat is always cooked fresh and never precooked,” he noted, “and our veggies are always cooked fresh with the fajita meat.”
Commitment to a winning fresh foods program, however, comes with its challenges. “Doing fresh food is hard work, but it helps define your brand,” remarked Hoffmeyer. “Our biggest challenge is that it’s getting harder to execute consistently with the tight labor market. Any type of turnover has a bigger impact on a food business, and the need to simplify operationally but maintain food quality integrity is an ongoing process.”
Other retailers point to costs associated with waste and spoilage as their top sticking points. “Spoilage is a cost of doing business,” said Krebbs, noting that because Rutter’s does a big volume in fresh foods, the chain is “able to manage and budget for it.” Paduano agreed that it’s important for c-store operators to keep an eye on costs associated with fresh foods, yet maintained that if produce “doesn’t look good, regardless of the freshness date, it needs to be pulled.”
McLane’s Hutto added that c-store operators’ struggles with understanding spoilage could be related to their conditioning to run higher margins. “Fresh items are excellent add-on purchases that add incremental value to the food selection,” she said. “They may not meet the expectations on turns or profits, but they encourage foot traffic of a consumer who might not otherwise shop the channel.”
The need to simplify operationally but maintain food quality integrity is an ongoing process.
Best-practice tactics also need to be followed when it comes to food safety. Moskalik noted that today’s consumers want to know what’s in their food and how it’s handled and prepared. “Take the time to make sure your staff is comfortable with fresh food,” advised George Bennett, vice president of sales and marketing, at S. Abraham & Sons. “Make sure they understand the importance of rotating product following first in, first out guidelines.” Bennett recommended that c-stores invest in ServSafe training. At Rutter’s, “food safety is priority No. 1,” said Krebbs, noting that the chain adheres to a strict labeling system, checklists, logs and the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HAACP) food-safety management system. Hoffmeyer reported that Kwik Chek enlists Ecolab twice a year to identify ways the stores can improve quality and safety.
Effective marketing and merchandising can go a long way in driving sales of fresh foods, retailers and suppliers said. Rutter’s places stickers labeled “local” on products sourced nearby, while Kwik Chek utilizes promotions such as sampling and couponing to encourage customers to try fresh foods. “Eye-catching POS on shelves, cross-merchandising and improved labeling information about product nutrition are great additions to highlight how the product meets consumer needs,” said Del Monte Fresh’s Christou. “This can be particularly effective when combined with seasonal messaging, such as summer road trips, tailgating events and holiday-themed displays.”
When it comes to doing fresh foods right in c-stores, “visual appeal is important to engage consumers,” so well-stocked shelves in brightly lit cold cases are necessary, Christou advised. “Rigorous first in, first out practices when stocking products are essential to ensure that only fresh, premium-quality products are available to consumers, which makes staff training a must,” he said. And for retailers just beginning a fresh foods program, Bennett recommended, “Start small. Bring in a few items at a time. See what sells, what doesn’t sell, and add new items as you go.”
Suppliers such as Moskalik and Hutto maintained that winning fresh foods programs could aid c-stores in successfully competing with other trade channels, including groceries and restaurants. “There’s no limit on opportunity for the growth of fresh foods in c-stores,” said the Core-Mark executive. “Fresh foods, if executed properly, will ensure that operators will differentiate themselves in the marketplace and grow sales profitably.” Going forward, Bennett and Christou believe that fresh programs will continue to endear millennial consumers to c-stores. “Younger consumers are increasingly looking to c-stores to meet more of their grocery needs,” commented Christou, and “they don’t want to sacrifice healthy options just because they’re on the move.”
Kwik Chek is one of a growing number of c-stores that is already on board. According to Hoffmeyer, “Our goal is to be known as a delicious restaurant that just happens to sell our customers their favorite convenience-store items.”
Online Training Catered to Foodservice
Today, it is more critical than ever for c-store operators to carry the right product mix to meet their customers’ needs. To help you better understand how to meet this consumer demand around foodservice, NACS offers a Certified Convenience Foodservice Management (CCFM) designation. Retailers can complete a 10-course online training series that tackles the key aspects of developing and growing a successful foodservice offer.
Developed in partnership with restaurant and convenience foodservice experts, each online module addresses a critical aspect of convenience foodservice operations:
- Foodservice Culture and Change
Marketing Foodservice in Convenience Retailing
Foodservice Systems Basics
Hospitality and Guest Service
Human Resources for Convenience Foodservice
- Financial Measurement and Analysis
for Convenience Foodservice
- Food Safety and Sanitation
- Menu Management
Merchandising and Packaging
- Foodservice Equipment Cleaning and Preventive Maintenance
For a complete certification overview and detailed course descriptions, visit www.convenience.org/CCFM.