The typical back-to-school shopping list ranges from new clothes and backpacks to notebooks and electronic devices—but don’t forget the takeout food. Whether students are in pre-K or college, there are scores of occasions that require food to go, many of them sporting events.
Traditional tailgate gatherings focus on food as much as football, and many convenience retailers have enhanced their foodservice profits by catering to fans. In West, Texas, halfway between Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth, Slovacek’s convenience store offers game-goers “a tailgate box that includes the whole thing,” said Ray Rabroker, general manager.
“It’s a meal for 10 people, with five pounds of meat, potato salad and beans, a loaf of wheat and white, plates, knives, all the serving utensils, tea and ice,” he said. “The only thing we don’t put in is a tablecloth.
“Customers can choose from a selection of meats. If you like sausage, you can feed 10 people sausage for $79,” Rabroker said. “If you came in [the store] to eat a sausage plate, it would cost $10.99 per person, so it’s actually 15 to 20% cheaper for customers when they buy a tailgate box.”
And the boxes aren’t just for tailgating. They’re good for family reunions and birthday parties, too. “We offer it all year long,” he said.
Scholars and Dollars
Managing a convenience store near an elementary school or university campus provides ample opportunities to establish beneficial partnerships, according to Sarah Whitney, director of marketing for Tiger Fuel Company, owner of nine The Market stores in the Charlottesville area, home of the University of Virginia.
“We’re not your average convenience store,” she said. “We cater, have gourmet to go and pride ourselves for going above and beyond the average gas station.”
The Market has four stores with a full deli that can whip up party platters or individual bag lunches. The deli menu lists 18 sandwiches made from Boar’s Head products and fresh breads baked locally. In addition to trays of sandwiches, the stores can provide tailgaters with ham biscuits, rotisserie chickens, breakfast tacos, veggie and fruit trays, and chicken that is pressure-fried on site. Dessert trays include cookies and brownies.
“Our fried chicken is new, and it’s catching on with our customers,” Whitney said. “It’s a great option for a football game, along with sides like mac and cheese and collard greens.”
The Market also caters meals to the University of Virginia and visiting sports teams that come to town, as well as to public schools for PTO and teacher events.
“We don’t have someone directly responsible for catering sales,” said Whitney. “It’s definitely a team effort, and that’s why we put so much emphasis on customer service in our stores. We have friendly employees who will talk to customers and get to know them. Maybe they find out someone is a teacher at a local school or part of a sports team. We get a lot of business based on those relationships and word of mouth.”
Digital marketing and social media remind football fans to come in and pick up hot foods, snacks and drinks before a big game.
The Market partners with the University of Virginia Athletic Department, and the stores’ signage is posted at university sports venues. Although details aren’t finalized, management hopes to be able to distribute store coupons outside the stadium after every Cavalier victory starting in the fall.
“People would get a buy-one, get-one coupon for a sandwich or meal,” she said. “And we’re exploring some other options with basketball.”
Good relationships with local athletic departments have helped sell a lot of pizzas at the five Ranglers convenience stores located in Hico, Clifton and Hamilton, three rural towns in Central Texas. “We do a game-day special and sell three large, one-toppings pizzas for $24.99,” said Bridgette Haile of her family’s retail chain. “The offer stays the same throughout the football season to keep it super simple for our team members.”
Ranglers gives school sports teams—both home and visitors—$3 off a $12 pizza when there is an in-town game or event. “I get in touch with our athletic director, and he passes it on to the other teams,” she said. “Then, they call ahead, and we prepare pizzas for the kids.”
Marketing to Fans
Rutter’s, the York, Pennsylvania-based chain, relies on marketing to let customers know what foods are available for tailgating and school events.
“A couple of years back, we did game-day specials,” said Ryan Krebs, director of foodservice, Rutter’s. “You could buy an order with 12 wings, 12 mozzarella sticks and things like that. We put it all in a package assuming people would buy it before a football game on a weekend. But that was a lot of food, and we found that people were buying it as frequently during the week for office lunches. We didn’t see the impact of customers buying those items specifically for a football game.”
Now, Rutter’s uses digital marketing and social media to remind football fans to come in and pick up hot foods, snacks and drinks before a big game. “We do more marketing around our existing foodservice versus actually packaging foods we would promote independently,” Krebs said.
There are few colleges near Vinita, Oklahoma, where Chris Carter owns the Shout & Sack convenience store. Shout & Sack will prepare tailgating trays for fans heading to a University of Oklahoma football game, and the store regularly feeds the referees at local home games, but Carter’s main focus is on public school students, from first graders to high schoolers.
Carter prints up “Dawg Dollars”—each one worth $1—that he passes out to kids and gives to schools to distribute as student rewards. “The serial number is my phone number, and there’s a picture of a bulldog on them,” he said. “Maybe it looks like me, and maybe it doesn’t.”
Actually, the image is of Tubby, Carter’s famous English bulldog, who appeared in all Shout & Sack advertising and came to work with him daily for 10 years until his death in March. Due to Tubby’s immense popularity, his passing generated 4,900 comments on Carter’s Facebook page. (If this raises concerns about Tubby’s presence in a store selling food, know that Carter installed a special doggie door that satisfied the health department.)
“When kids come in—and if they want a 99-cent corndog—they hand me a Dawg Dollar,” he said. “I have all the things they like—chips and Lunchables. Yesterday, I gave 160 Dawg Dollars to the library reading program.”
Shout & Sack’s robust foodservice program features chicken, barbeque, street tacos, freshly made salsa, 30 different sandwiches and assorted breakfast items. Carter recently delivered a complimentary breakfast to local school bus drivers and custodians. “The people who really don’t get recognized,” he said, adding that consistent, quality foodservice is his store’s key to success. “If you’re in the convenience store business now, you must sell food,” said Carter. “You can’t make a living hustling Corn Nuts anymore.”
Football season is not the only time of the year c-store retailers can generate business from their local school districts. Rabroker of Slovacek’s recently received a phone call from a school that was organizing a senior trip for 47 students and needed to arrange for a meal on the road.
“We typically charge $5.95 for a sandwich, but we came up with a deal for them. We’re giving them a choice of any sandwich with chips and a drink for $7.25,” he said, adding that he hopes school officials keep that in mind when planning next year’s senior trip.
“That’s 47 people, and that could be 47 potential customers coming back every year if they have a good experience,” said Rabroker.