Good Food From Small Kitchens

How to satisfy customers’ food cravings in limited kitchen space.

Good Food From Small Kitchens

May 2020   minute read

By: Pat Pape

Richard Speckman knew his Mobil station on busy Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles was a great location for selling fresh foods, but he was hampered by the store’s 1,500 square feet. So, in 2003, he added 500 square feet onto the building, creating 250 square feet for a kitchen and 250 more for a customer waiting area.

“My idea was to build a small working kitchen,” said Speckman, who saw nearby food providers offering sandwiches, burgers, chicken and Mexican food. “I thought, ‘I can sell a little bit of everything they sell but have it all in one place.’ We just ran with it, and it took off.”

Today, the Corner Deli and Grill, with more than 150 menu items, specializes in authentic Mexican food, with chips and salsa made from scratch daily, and has been touted on the Travel Channel and the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Customers place their order on the restaurant side of the store and pay on the c-store side. “They get a ticket, walk through the convenience store and maybe pick up some more stuff,” Speckman said. “They pay in one location. It’s kind of weird, but people get it.”

Apparently, a lot of people get it. The Corner Deli and Grill rang up more than $1 million in sales for 2019. “If you don’t have good food, you can’t be here [for] 17 years,” he said.

Room for Food

Real estate is a challenge for every convenience store. If there were more room inside the store, there would be more shelves and more products for customers, and the kitchen would be adequate for turning out hot meals and yummy snacks.

Speckman believes that a productive c-store kitchen should have a flat grill, oven, charbroiler, fryer and sandwich station with a meat cutter. “You can pretty much do the basics with that equipment,” he said.

His store has a beverage station featuring coffee and soda, plus refrigerators under the grill and a sandwich cart to store meats. “It’s still too small, but we’ve made it work,” he said. “We get a fresh food delivery five days a week. Because everything is made fresh daily, we don’t need a lot of food storage.”

Determine what you want to serve in the space you have, and then look for equipment that does multiple things.

GetGo, the Pittsburgh-based convenience chain owned by Giant Eagle Food Stores, has 265 locations, and 152 of those have full-service kitchens. To maximize space for both its made-to-order and grab-and-go food programs, GetGo avoids one-size-fits-all kitchen equipment, instead choosing tools that do double and triple duty, according to Jon Cox, vice president and chief merchant of GetGo.

“We want equipment that does multiple things, so we’re not locked into buying 15 pieces,” said Cox. “We have two Turbo Chefs, and the items we cook fit into those ovens. We use them to toast sandwiches and prepare appetizers. You can use them for chicken tenders, breakfast sandwiches and pizza. We have a blender that makes smoothies, iced coffees and milkshakes, and we use our panini press to do paninis, burritos, quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches.”

Cox admits that GetGo enjoys the advantages of being part of Giant Eagle and can utilize the grocery chain’s buying team. But he’s convinced other retailers can create similar foodservice programs if they do their homework.

“Start backward,” he advised. “Determine what you want to serve in the space you have, and then look for equipment that does multiple things. Do you want to be full service or grab and go? What equipment do you need based on what you want to sell?”

Turnkey Programs

Another foodservice option is teaming up with vendors offering proven, turnkey programs.

Ted Roccagli is director of partnerships and preferred vendor programs at Empire Petroleum Partners, a Dallas-based fuel distributor that owns Fast Market, a 70-store chain, and serves 1,600 additional gas stations in 32 states. Each week, Roccagli visits dealers throughout the network, suggesting ways to boost store profits beyond fuel sales. Many suggestions involve food.

“Most of our dealers don’t have much space, which is where the challenge comes in,” said Roccagli. “You’re talking about anywhere from 80 to 250 square feet. If we find something that works in our corporate stores, we have proof of concept, and we’ll go out and recommend those successes to the dealer side.”

One successful program is Krispy Krunchy, a Cajun-style fried chicken that gives stores a customizable, branded image. “They fit in a 100- to 150-square-foot space with their hot warmer case and fryers, and that little bit of space can really turn into a money maker,” he said. “Those kinds of programs can generate an average of about $25,000 a month in sales. It’s a nice ROI—after waste—of about 45%.”

Pizza is the No. 1 convenience-store food, he added, and he’s had big wins with both Hot Stuff Pizza from Orion Foods and Hunt Brothers Pizza. “We have some stores with more space than others, and we can do a co-branded chicken and pizza option. That would be two separate companies that don’t mind being side by side, such as Chester Chicken or Krispy Krunchy on one side and Hot Stuff or Hunt Brothers on the other.”

The perception of fresh and clean has to be the core of any foodservice program.

Creating a pizza program isn’t complicated, according to Dee Cleveland, director of marketing at Hunt Brothers. “All that is needed is a three-compartment sink to get started,” she said. “Our branded pizza shops can fit in as little as 59 square feet, and each one is engineered to be flexible and provide a turnkey pizza program. Simplicity is the Hunt Brothers Pizza way of operating, and our program can be operated with a store’s existing labor.”

Empire Petroleum Partners constantly sources different companies as potential additions to its preferred vendor program. Currently, Empire is working with Sonic Corp., the American drive-in restaurant, which recently developed the Sonic Express program featuring a smaller menu and minimal space requirements.

“A lot of companies, such as Sonic, see this big push for food going on in c-stores, and they’re willing to downsize their traditional stores to get in on it,” Roccagli said.

Sweet Talking

Many food companies sell both food and equipment to restaurants and convenience stores. One of those, Rich Products Corp. of Buffalo, New York, also provides culinary and marketing professionals to help retailers create a menu and incorporate existing equipment and tools into the program. The company helps train employees to execute employee training, using the train-the-trainer method for multiple locations.

“For basic foodservice, you could have a cookie program, pizza program or small hot case program,” said Tom Michalewski, customer marketing manager for c-stores at Rich Products. “You can get into a basic cookie program for $355. The convection oven is $225, and the acrylic bakery case is $130. It complements your coffee program and lets you bundle coffee with a cookie or two.”

One moderately priced appliance Rich recommends is a self-serve beverage topping dispenser that uses a bag of non-dairy whipped topping that can sit on the counter without refrigeration.

“Consumers today are looking for customization and value-add, and this allows you to create more of a premium coffee program,” he said. “Push the handle, and the roller pushes the bag. It’s a giveaway, like creamer and sugar on the coffee bar. The dispenser costs $75, and we’ve seen incremental beverage sales by offering this program.”

Rich is big on breakfast, the busiest foodservice daypart. “We have fully finished breads, rolls and flatbreads, but you have to have some prep space,” said Michalewski. “If you have enough people to run the store already, you can probably use them. Most of the time, you’ll be prepping during non-busy hours. Most stores will want to get their bakery case up and running by 4 a.m. That requires someone in the store prepping product or baking from midnight to 4 a.m., or it requires someone doing it in the afternoon the day before. Most of our donuts are ready to finish with an icing or glaze. If you do that overnight, you’ll have fresh donuts in the morning.”

Verc Enterprises owns 31 stores in Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire and relies on Dunkin’ to help satisfy customers’ pastry cravings. Fresh donuts are brought in daily from another location, and Dunkin’, which has its own designated space in the store, is responsible for the cases, displays and signage.

“We chose Dunkin’ because we understand the importance of coffee,” said Courtney Buckley, manager of training, development and fun, for the chain. “Customers need coffee in the morning and throughout the day, and having a good brand of coffee will bring customers in to buy their morning cup of joe, as well as food, cigarettes and gas. Dunkin’ has even expanded into lunch offerings to satisfy a whole new segment. It’s truly one-stop shopping, especially in the morning when people are in a rush.”

No matter the size of a convenience store’s kitchen—big or small—it must be part of an all-around clean store to attract customers.

“The perception of fresh and clean has to be the core of any foodservice program,” said Michalewski. “If someone walks into a place that’s not clean, it doesn’t matter how fresh the foodservice program is. But an operator doesn’t have to execute a made-from-scratch program to give the perception of fresh. We encourage retailers—based on their labor constraints—to do a mix.”

“I tell everyone they’ve got to get into some type of food program, but they have to identify what will work,” Roccagli said. “You can make money in a small space. You just have to know what to put in there.”

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