Reawakening the Morning Daypart

Convenience retailers lean into breakfast with bean-to-cup coffee, breakfast pizza and French toast flavors.

Reawakening the Morning Daypart

October 2021   minute read

By: Pat Pape

Any way you look at it, the year 2020 wasn’t pretty. During the lockdown, c-store visits declined by just over 19% versus 2019, and visits during the profitable weekday morning rush fell 26%, PDI data indicate. But business is on the upswing.

“Morning rush trips are up 6% versus 2020, which is not surprising given the drop in March to May 2020,” said Dafna Gabel, vice president, insights, at PDI Software, an enterprise management software company. “Morning rush is recovering faster than other key weekday dayparts—lunch, afternoon and evening. However, morning rush trips aren’t yet back to pre-pandemic levels. That daypart lost the most and still has the most to gain.”

But one good thing about today’s c-store shoppers is that they’re spending more per trip, and Gabel doesn’t see that waning. “They’re making fewer trips, but they are spending more money,” she said. “That could be due to inflationary pressures or purchasing new items that are potentially more expensive, but we’re definitely seeing more units in the basket.”

Beyond Breakfast

Not all c-stores saw sales decline during the worst days of the pandemic. At Pak-a-Sak, the Amarillo, Texas-based chain, “we actually had record-breaking numbers,” said Russell Barber, district manager. “We saw a lot of changes in categories that were unusual. But where one category was down, it was offset by a large increase in other categories.

“For example, our fountain drinks were down, but our package beverages were way up,” he said. “We also saw a large increase in cigarette and beer sales and assume that people working from home could take smoke breaks all day, and obviously [they wanted beer at home] because of the decreased capacity in restaurants and bars. Honestly, our biggest hurdle the entire year was not a decrease in sales but supply line issues.”

New Options

The way to the consumer’s heart is through the stomach, especially after 18 long months of cooking at home. In September, Casey’s, the Iowa-based chain with 2,300-plus stores, made a major investment in its foodservice program with an emphasis on the morning rush.

“It’s a massive endeavor for our brand, and we’re excited to be lining it up ‘back to school’ and getting back into the swing of things this fall,” said Tom Brennan, chief merchandising officer, Casey’s. “We’ve created a new signature handheld made fresh in our kitchens. The base is our made-from-scratch dough wrapped around warm eggs, savory sausage or bacon and two types of cheese. Our guests love cheese, and I have to say, it’s delicious and portable.”

In addition, Casey’s has created a loaded breakfast burrito stuffed with eggs, potatoes, sausage, bacon and cheese, and “we have an option for guests who don’t want the tortilla,” he said.

Pilot Flying J begins serving breakfast at 5 a.m. daily, and in April added four new breakfast sandwiches to the morning menu. “They include a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit; a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit; a sausage, egg and cheese croissant, and bacon, egg and cheese French toast,” said Jamie King, senior director of food and beverage, Pilot Flying J.

Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, the 750-store chain encourages guests to explore new flavors by offering limited-time menu items. “This summer, our French toast stacker was a popular, sweet and savory breakfast item,” King said. “We promote our newest chef-approved creations on social media and inside the store, as well as offer guests limited-time deals in the myRewards Plus app.”

Atlanta-based RaceTrac takes a holistic approach to the morning menu. “We’ve focused on bringing exciting new options to our morning guests throughout the pandemic, including a French toast breakfast sandwich and a chorizo sausage biscuit,” said Cole Thompson, chef, RaceTrac. “This fall, we’re launching our waffle breakfast sandwich. Providing enticing items has helped us maintain our morning momentum.”

The 670-store chain has fresh Krispy Kreme doughnuts delivered daily to most locations and offers fresh-baked empanadas, breakfast pizza and fresh-cut fruit.

“We also started an initiative where our store teams ensure the hot case and hot food bars are full of fresh product throughout the day,” Thompson said. “With this initiative, we have seen an increase in overall sales, plus an increase in snack sales in the afternoons. It’s important to RaceTrac that our guests know they can count on us to have their favorite breakfast items ready for them when they arrive.”

Last month, Dash In, the Maryland-based retailer with 50-plus locations, introduced the ‘Inside Out’ glazed breakfast doughnut sandwich, a new LTO product “to get customers excited again about the morning commute,” said Barbara Nova, director of food, beverage and retail programs.

The sandwich features thin-sliced Virginia ham, a fresh egg, cracked black pepper and cheddar cheese in a grilled, inside-out glazed doughnut. It’s offered with Dash In’s traditional breakfast menu, which includes breakfast croissant sandwiches with fresh eggs, American cheese, and bacon, sausage or grilled steak; made-to-order breakfast burritos and breakfast quesadillas.

At Circle K, part of the Alimentation Couche-Tard family, a new program called “Fresh Food, Fast” rolled out to 1,500 locations in late 2020 and is scheduled for 2,600 more in fiscal 2022. “Our breakfast sandwich assortment is one of the highlights of Fresh Food, Fast, and we continue to produce offerings for that daypart, including a one-of-a-kind new breakfast pizza with a biscuit crust, country style gravy, egg and sausage,” a spokesperson said.

Morning rush trips are up 6% versus 2020.

Great Upgrades

Food and beverages are key customer missions during the morning rush, but “sales of cold and hot dispensed beverages are still lagging,” said Gabel. “Customers are spending more and often purchasing food and/or beverages during the morning rush, which suggests an opportunity to grow the basket through bundling and pairing across categories.”

To ensure robust a.m. traffic, all of these retailers have updated their in-store coffee programs with new bean-to-cup equipment and are transforming customers into baristas.

“I think it’s becoming table stakes,” Brennan said of the technology. “By having the capability to brew fresh whenever the guest wants, you ensure a quality cup of coffee every time. Combined with Casey’s new breakfast menu items, it’s bringing our guests fast, easy and delicious options during the breakfast daypart.”

Pilot Flying J, meanwhile, touts its program as the “best coffee on the interstate.”

“We have staples like Pilot House and Colombian, and we keep our selection of premium coffees fresh with seasonal flavors and LTOs,” said King. “This fall, our new autumn-inspired beverages will feature Cinnabon pumpkin spice and apple cider cappuccino, bourbon pecan coffee, apple pie cold brew and pumpkin pie spice creamer.”

At the coffee bar, guests will find beverage recipes, including “a decadent apple pie a la mode which combines the apple pie cold brew with Cold Stone Creamery sweet cream coffee creamer and a pump of caramel syrup,” King said.

RaceTrac adopted bean-to-cup coffee because “we believe that’s a factor in the morning coffee decision,” said Thompson. “And we don’t stop with having the best quality coffee. We pride ourselves on our coffee condiment bars where we feature everything from traditional creamers to Silk Almond Milk and even marshmallows, if that is what gets you going.”

Stores have updated their in-store coffee programs with new bean-to-cup equipment and are converting customers into their own barista.”

Circle K’s Coffee on Demand relies on bean-to-cup machines that deliver the freshest cup of coffee possible. “We’ve become the largest retailer to offer 100% sustainably sourced coffee, and we’re driving interest year-round with a variety of limited time offers that enable us to flex to local markets, featuring blends that resonate regionally,” a spokesperson said.

In the past spring, Circle K launched Sip & Save, a beverage subscription program. For $5.99 a month, customers can choose any one of Circle K’s dispensed beverages in any size cup every day. The offer includes coffee, tea, fountain and frozen drinks.

Currently, Dash In has a bean-to-cup program in 19 stores and will double that number by late 2022. Customers can choose from seven varieties of whole beans that are ground and brewed-to-order for hot or cold coffee in less than 30 seconds.

Last month, the company began heavily promoting its Coffee Club Card, which rewards shoppers with a free any-size cup of coffee after buying four cups. “We anticipate this program will be popular among customers and drive considerable units,” said Nova.

No matter which daypart you’re looking at, “the fundamentals are always the fundamentals,” said Brennan. “There’s plenty of discussion about the evolution of the business and technology, but you’ve got to run clean, friendly stores and be in stock. There are a lot of unknowns about the coming months, but more than anything, you’ve got to ensure that the fundamentals are sound.”

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

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