Behold the Transformation of C-store Sandwiches
NATIONAL REPORT — The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of convenience store sandwiches is probably ham, turkey or roast beef and cheese. Or maybe egg, tuna and chicken salad.
However, as consumers are exposed to a wider variety of cultures and cuisines, the options and variations for c-store sandwiches are becoming quite literally limitless.
Chef Bob Derian, director of food and beverage innovation at convenience store chain RaceTrac Petroleum Inc., told Convenience Store News that he sees two trends taking place simultaneously in the sandwich category: consumers’ demand for higher quality, and the use of non-traditional breads such as pretzel buns, ciabatta, or even longtime favorites like croissants and biscuits.
“People will make an initial purchase based on price, a promotion or perhaps a suggestion by an associate, but quality is what will ensure they become a return customer,” noted Derian. “For this reason, quality and food safety need to be at the top of the list when developing a sandwich program. This should be considered an industry best practice.”
Indeed, high-quality breads seem to be raising the bar in the c-store sandwich category. Some larger retailers are empowering bakeries to formulate breads engineered to stay fresh longer by avoiding moisture absorption from the other materials used in making a sandwich, according to industry consultant Joe Chiovera, who has held executive foodservice positions at leading c-store companies such as 7-Eleven, Sheetz Inc. and Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc.
“We’re seeing breads being properly engineered for refrigeration. If you’re able to take care of bread’s No. 1 nemesis, refrigeration, as well as absorbing moisture from the produce or deli meat that’s on it, then you’ve got yourself a quality product,” Chiovera continued. “So, it’s important to understand the functional intent of the product — needing production plus four or five days.”
Packaging advancements, too, are having a profound effect on prepackaged sandwiches.
“The quality of products in premade sandwiches has been improving dramatically over the last five years,” said Paul Pierce, former vice president of fresh foods and dispensed beverages at 7-Eleven Inc. and now vice president of sales at convenience distributor Eby-Brown Co. LLC.
One of the main reason for the improved quality is the dramatic improvements in packaging in recent years. This has allowed pre-made sandwich products that include lettuce, tomato and other condiments to hold up in cold merchandisers for up to a week — unheard of in days gone by.
“Artisan breads are being used today,” added Pierce. “Varieties in cheeses, meats and spreads have all drawn greater attention to the category. Chains are improving their distribution, many are adding their own commissaries, and we are seeing more and more made-to-order programs. Additionally, many chains are looking to hot sandwich offerings.”
The packaging also plays a major part in consumers’ perception of that sandwich.
“If the packaging format conveys a handmade look and feel, consumers will view it as fresh,” explained Nancy Todys, vice president of convenience marketing at sandwich supplier AdvancePierre Foods Inc. “Merchandising premade sandwiches near other perceived fresh-made items like salads and fruit cups reinforces the consumer’s fresh perception.”
A POINT OF DIFFERENTIATION
At Wawa Inc., a leader in the convenience channel in sandwich sales, both made-to-order and premade sandwiches are offered. Yet, they are intentionally not offered in the same formats.
“We have a good wrap business, and we’ve added some lighter sandwiches in the last few years,” explained Lynn Hochberg, director of product development for Wawa. “We like to keep our premade and made-to-order sandwiches differentiated so that there’s no duplication or misunderstanding of what you get.”
In response to the “good-for-you” trend that’s been impacting virtually all product categories over the past decade, Wawa has introduced “healthy” sandwiches into its premade program mix.
“Certainly, healthy consumption is important to our consumers,” said Hochberg. “We have a special symbol on our premade sandwiches that are under 500 calories.”
Mathew Mandeltort, vice president of foodservice strategy and education at Eby-Brown, told CSNews that sandwiches should be:
- On trend;
- Customizable; and
“They define what I refer to as ‘road food,’” he said. “My spin on ‘street food.’”
Sandwiches are a perfect fit for the c-store industry for a few reasons, according to Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives for NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing.
“They can be customized for the customer, or they can be featured in the grab-and-go case. There aren’t many food items that can work that way,” said Lenard. “Sandwiches are very versatile and like any convenience store food that sells well, are very portable.”
Portability is especially important to millennial consumers, who are prone to eating on the run.
Sandwiches also offer c-stores an excellent point of differentiation, be it against another c-store in the immediate area or the nearby quick-service restaurant.
“If you offer a unique sandwich that you can’t get from the station down the street, it gives the customer a reason to come to your store, besides the price of gas,” Lenard explained. “It also starts to shift that model from, ‘I’m going to get everything I need from the place with the best gas price’ to ‘I’m going to the place that has the food I like and oh, by the way, I’ll get my gas there as well.’”
For more on the transformation of the sandwich category in convenience stores, look in the April issue of Convenience Store News.