The breakfast daypart has taken a beating since the COVID-19 pandemic forced consumers to shelter in place and mandated that many time-crunched morning commuters work from home.
Lori Buss Stillman, vice president of research, NACS, has analyzed last year’s convenience store transactions compared to this year’s COVID-19 quarantine period. To demonstrate how COVID-19
impacted business, she notes that hot dispensed beverage transactions, which typically peak between 6 and 7 a.m. on weekdays, experienced an average 35% drop between March 23 and April 19.
Later as the nation began a slow reopening, hot beverage transactions rose slightly.
“There has been a recovery of about 7% of transactions, meaning that we are now at about 69–72% of the normal amount of transactions, based on last year’s numbers,” said Stillman, pointing to figures from the week ended June 16.
Jazzing up Java
Coffee drives c-store traffic in the morning, and coffee customers often grab a pastry or breakfast sandwich to go. Because many morning coffee drinkers continue to work at home, stores are launching attractive promotions to entice them inside for a cup of Joe.
High’s of Baltimore has created new offers to attract customers. “We’ll be running a competitive coffee and breakfast sandwich combo to regain sales and drive traffic into our locations,” said Dallas Wells, vice president, foodservice, High’s. “We’ve also begun an overhaul of our reusable mug and beverage refill program. We plan to offer an aggressive refill mug price for one year, along with a competitor mug trade-in program.”
From August through September, Atlanta-based RaceTrac stores sold any size cup of coffee—hot or iced—for $1, and in October and November, stores will move to “$1 Coffee Mondays.”
With many morning coffee drinkers still officing at home, stores are launching attractive promotions to entice them inside.
“This is a sizeable discount on iced coffee specifically,” said Tiffany Plemmons, director of food and dispensed beverages, RaceTrac. “We’ll also feature pumpkin spice creamer for the fall, as well as a Hershey S’mores cappuccino. Coffee is a staple … and we look forward to the aggressive promotion to drive breakfast and correlating category sales.”
At 7-Eleven, the chain’s 33 million loyalty customers can purchase any size coffee for $1 no matter what goes in the cup, said Jack Stout, senior vice president, merchandising and demand chain, 7-Eleven. Plus, select stores are getting beefed-up coffee bars.
“We are rolling out state-of-the art beverage equipment allowing us to dramatically expand our hot and cold beverage menu with the addition of touchscreen machines that brew custom hot coffee drinks like lattes, cappuccinos and espresso shots in just seconds,” said Stout. “Customers can make their cup their way at the expansive condiment station with various toppings, sprinkles and sweeteners, and our competitive prices are a far cry from typical coffeehouse prices.”
The chain’s limited-edition pumpkin spice latte and fresh-brewed pumpkin-flavored coffee will return for the fall. “With 7 Eleven’s special dollar pricing, pumpkin spice lovers can drink three—at morning, noon and night—for the same price they’d pay for just one latte at a coffeehouse or restaurant,” Stout said.
It’s always important to ensure that c-store food and beverage offerings meet customers’ changing tastes and preferences, but after an experience like the recent quarantine, when customers’ morning habits were abruptly disrupted, it may be necessary to tempt them back to the store with tasty, new offerings.
Maverik stores, with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, recently rolled out its first, limited-time foodservice product since the pandemic began. “We’re offering customizable quesadillas for breakfast and lunch in our full-service, made-to-order stores,” said Kyle Lore, corporate executive chef, Maverik. “For breakfast, customers can choose eggs, sausage, chorizo, bacon and cheese on a tortilla. For lunch, they can have chicken, steak, carnitas, guacamole, roasted corn salsa and pico de gallo.”
RaceTrac also has a tangy new breakfast option—a jalapeño biscuit with chorizo and pepper jack cheese, which Plemmons describes as “the perfect amount of spicy with a great authentic chorizo flavor.”
The chain also has a special offer for consumers who are forced to be more cost conscious during this time. RaceTrac recently introduced new breakfast tacos “at $1.29 each or two for $2,” said Plemmons. “We’d developed these prior to the pandemic, as we saw a gap in our current assortment to have a value-priced item. With customers’ increased focus on their dollars, we are well positioned to offer them a delicious new product at a great value.”
If it’s not possible to introduce a new food item, there are simple ways to spiff up an existing menu, according to Mark Brandau, managing editor at Datassential, the consumer insight organization.
“This is a good time to experiment with a trendy new condiment, cheese or bread carrier,” he said.
Innovation in the bakery category has historically paid off for c-store operators, and Brandau believes take-and-bake offerings, such as cinnamon rolls or breakfast bars, could do well in the current climate.
“Customers could get them from the convenience store at a good price and finish them at home while having coffee that also came from the c-store,” Brandau said. “There’s definitely an audience for something like that, and you’d still be convenient for your customer base.”
In fact, 7-Eleven recently introduced a ready-to-bake option for hot breakfast sandwiches and entrees that lets customers choose items from a cold case and finish them at home. The offering also includes a selection of pizzas, wings and taquitos.
With pastry fans in mind, the Texas-based retailer also is tweaking an existing product, its popular apple fritter, by adjusting the proprietary recipe to ensure apple pieces in every bite. The hearty fritter will have a promotional price of $1 through October in participating stores. In addition, 7-Eleven is rolling out new ovens to select locations so sales associates can bake croissants, cookies and other pastries on site up to five times a day. “Customers are loving the aroma it brings to the store, as well as the taste,” said Stout.
Keep It Convenient
Despite pressures of the pandemic, consumers still want the convenience of grab-and-go foods, but they need assurance that those products were appropriately packed in a safe and clean environment.
Despite pressures of the pandemic, consumers still want convenient grab-and-go food items.
All 7-Eleven fresh-food items are prepared in USDA-certified facilities and delivered to stores daily in secure, individual packaging. “To further reassure customers that food safety is of the utmost importance, we recently designed a security sticker for our [food] items,” said Marissa Jarratt, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, 7-Eleven. “Stickers are a small but effective way to remind customers that they don’t have to trade safety for convenience.”
With an eye toward safety and consumer confidence, 7-Eleven helps minimize person-to-person interaction by offering multiple payment options, including contactless checkout via Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay. Participating stores in Utah, Manhattan, Dallas-Fort Worth and Long Island also offer mobile checkout through the 7-Eleven app, while in Orlando, North Texas and Virginia, the 7Rewards app permits contactless payment. As an added safety measure, 7-Eleven lets shoppers choose contactless delivery when they use the 7NOW Delivery app.
Customer counts began to pick up at many c-stores in June. “In fact, we had a few weeks YOY that outperformed June 2019,” said Plemmons of RaceTrac. “We’re hopeful our upcoming promotions and commitment to cleaning and safety will bring guests back inside.”
In early 2020, Datassential forecast that U.S. consumers would spend $39.6 billion on c-store foodservice this year. Now the forecast has been re-adjusted to $33.4 billion, a decrease of $6.2 billion.
“That sounds rough, and it is,” said Brandau. “But it’s comparable [to projections] for QSRs and fast-casual, and it’s a lot better than the decreases predicted for full-service restaurants.”