CHICAGO — After taking two years off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show returned to Chicago to feature a variety of new products, processes and best practices for this current stage of the pandemic and a future that promises to evolve more rapidly than foodservice operators would have ever previously guessed.
Whatever comes next, one thing is certain: convenience stores will have a place in the new foodservice landscape.
Although the foodservice category was already vital to the convenience store industry prior to the arrival of COVID-19, the early days of the pandemic prompted many consumers to recognize a core aspect of the channel. "We offered solutions," Farley Kaiser, director of culinary and innovation at GetGo Café + Market, said during an NRA education session titled "Lessons from C-stores: Innovations Driving Customer Traffic."
By being open and available when many other foodservice outlets weren't, c-store brands were able to become more well-known in different ways. "We created different behavior habits," Kaiser reflected.
GetGo Café + Market, the Pittsburgh-based operator of more than 470 c-stores throughout western Pennsylvania, north central Ohio, northern West Virginia, Maryland and Indiana, doesn't plan to cede any of the ground it has gained in the foodservice space.
GetGo's culinary team has a "symbiotic relationship" with its parent company and supermarket operator Giant Eagle Inc., working together closely to plan for the future before branching out in different ways.
Kaiser noted that innovative supplier partners within the foodservice category should balance looking at the trends of the future while staying quick and nimble in the present.
"Being flexible is very important to our business because we move fast," she said.
Fellow presenter Jac Moskalik, vice president of food innovation at Des Moines-based Kum & Go,discussed how the c-store chain worked with external parties to determine what was missing in their trade area and what their value proposition should be.
With the goal of being a "fun and funky brand" that also offers quality food, Kum & Go learned a great deal in the midst of the pandemic before rolling out its new fresh food menu last fall.
Today, Kum & Go stores with the new program offer craveable items such as grain bowls, sandwiches with premium meat, and cold brew frappés — all made with clean ingredients. The retailer is even ready to ditch the roller grill in favor of other offerings at its "healthy brand activation" stores.
"Our thought process is trying to democratize healthy while making craveable food," Moskalik said, advising foodservice operators to think in two different timeframes. "You have to understand what people need now and what people are going to need in five years."
In today's competitive market, food-focused convenience stores are looking at quick-service restaurants and fast-casual outlets as their core competitors, not traditional c-stores. Moskalik pointed out that it even helps to divide competitors by core categories, as methods of gaining share of stomach may differ for breakfast sandwiches vs. beverages, for example.
Lessons & Changes From the Pandemic
It's widely known that the usage of mobile apps for ordering food dramatically increased during the pandemic. It is expected to stay high.
However, this is not just because of the convenience factor. The consumer perspective on delivered food itself has changed, according to Kaiser. Today's consumers no longer think only of options such as pizza and Chinese food when they think of delivered food.
"There's options everywhere," she said, noting that GetGo has realized that consumers want a good and consistent offer, not necessarily a broad one, so the retailer scaled back its menu options in order to provide the right experience to guests.
The consumer perspective on food safety is another one that has changed, likely for good. "When you live and breathe food, you know about food safety, but COVID highlighted it for the consumer who is not necessarily informed," Moskalik said.
From offering wrapped cutlery to new packaging options to touchless equipment, these changes not only ensure customer safety, but they also send the message that a retailer prioritizes doing so.
The labor crunch that everyone is facing is a major challenge having an impact on foodservice innovation. New concepts should be planned in multiple ways based on the state of labor when they reach the market, Kaiser advised. Availability of products, ability to execute, and the amount of staff all play a part.
While retailers can't predict the future, they must always remember that what they're planning may not be the ultimate reality.
"A great idea looks awesome on paper until it's in the stores, which is a totally different dynamic," Moskalik said.
The 2022 National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show was held at Chicago’s McCormick Place May 21-24.