Never before has consumer demand for healthier (and more convenient) food and beverage products and meal solutions been as great as it is today. Nor has the competition for share of their food dollar and stomach been as fierce.
January is a great month for convenience store retailers to capitalize on the health-and-wellness food trend by offering healthier menu items and self-serve, grab-and-go prepared food products.
Your customers will be looking for it, especially after all the indulgent eating and food celebrations that occur during the holiday season.
So, how can you capture your market share of the health-conscious consumers’ foodservice dollars?
Here are five tips to get you started:
1. Evaluate the health profile of your current foodservice menu items & prepared foods
Even if consumers aren’t counting calories, they still want to know what is in the foods they are purchasing. Stores with 20 or more units are required by law to provide this information, but even if you only have one store, you can and should calculate the calories and nutritional data of both the foods you prepare in-house and the ones you source, as a service to your customers.
Calories and the information found on the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Nutrition Facts Label — like fats, carbohydrates, sodium, protein, etc. — are relatively easy to figure out, but remember if the health profile looks too good to be true, recheck those calculations because data entry mistakes are known to happen.
Next, check the list of ingredients used to prepare your foodservice menu items and packaged prepared foods. Consumers want cleaner ingredients that are more natural and organic, and with a healthier profile, too. They want to know if the ingredients used are free from hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, additives, sulfites, nitrites/nitrates, artificial food colorings, artificial flavorings, preservatives, MSG, irradiated ingredients, trans fats and rBGH.
They want to know the allergen profile as well, especially consumers with food sensitivities and allergies. Do these foods contain milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), peanuts, wheat or soybeans? Are they meat-free, dairy-free or gluten-free?
The cleaner, simpler and healthier the list of ingredients used in preparation, the happier the more health-conscious consumer will be.
2. Offer items that meet your customers’ dietary lifestyles, food trends & demands
What do you know about your customers’ dietary lifestyles? Are they following vegetarian, vegan, raw, pescetarian, flexitarian, paleo or ketogenic dietary lifestyles?
Do they have any medical conditions — heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. — and are seeking foods that are lower in salt, sugar, cholesterol or fat to prevent, control or reverse a medical condition? Do they have acid reflux (GERD) and need to eat less spicy foods?
Are they trying to lose weight or maintain their weight and looking for foods that are packed with flavor and great taste but won’t pack on the pounds? Are they practicing different dietary lifestyle food plans like Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, Atkins, Whole 30, South Beach, Mediterranean, Dash, Mayo Clinic or other dietary plans? If they are, what type of foods are part of these dietary plans and do any of your menu items currently fit with these food plans? Label them to draw attention to the fact that these items may fit within their current dietary plans.
They also want to know where their food comes from, who grows it, and how it was grown or raised. They want to know if the food is locally or regionally sourced and its country of origin. Other factors that could be affecting your consumers’ food purchasing decisions are the traceability of the food from farm or sea, the animal’s welfare, if it uses fair trade ingredients, your sustainability practices, and the environmental impact of these foods and their packaging.
Finally, “Food as Medicine” is a popular food trend, so find out if the ingredients you’re using to prepare your store’s menu items or prepared foods have extra health-promoting benefits like antioxidants, omega-3 fats, vitamins, minerals or phytonutrients, for example. Plant-based foods, foods high in protein, prebiotics and probiotics are particularly high in demand with today’s health-conscious consumers. So are foods that will increase their energy, longevity and serenity, and help aid their digestion.
3. Develop proprietary, signature fresh prepared foods & menu items with a healthier profilE
Do your market research first. What is your c-store competition preparing and selling? What are their signature items and point of differentiation?
Check out new convenience store food formats like Locali Healthy Convenience, The Goods Mart, Choice Market, Foxtrot and Amazon Go and see what foodservice menu items or packaged prepared grab-and-go foods they’re selling, the quality and variety, how they’re packaged and priced, and who is eating and shopping in their stores.
Check out the food halls, pop-ups, vending machines, quick-service restaurants, fast-casual, family and fine-dining operations in your market area or any other establishment selling fresh prepared foods.
Visit other market areas across the country and outside the country to see what’s on their foodservice menus. Sample these food products and evaluate their taste, quality, health, presentation and price profile, and compare them to your own c-stores.
Use healthier methods of cooking like grilling, roasting, baking, wood ovens, rotisserie, smoking, steaming, stir frying or sous vide. Try healthier methods of preparation or processing like using food processors, blenders and spiralizers. If you don’t have this type of preparation, processing or cooking equipment, consider making an investment in one or more types.
What are you selling for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks? What’s their health profile? Review the health profiles of your sauces, marinades, spreads, condiments, dressings, dips, salsas, toppings, fillings, breads, salads, bowls, entrees, sides, soups, sandwiches, pizzas, pasta, appetizers, snacks, cured meats and fish, fermented and pickled foods. See what changes you might be able to make that will create a point of differentiation and be a signature food that delivers on taste, quality and a healthier profile. Spices and herbs can make flavors pop without added calories.
Review your beverage selections, too, for their health profiles and see what changes you might also want to make there.
4. Offer made-from-scratch, made-to-order, restaurant-quality menu items that your customers can customize
Capitalize on the consumer trend for personalization and customization. Give your customers options to build or create their own add-ons, mix-ins and toppings, and select their own breads and grains for menu items like salads, sandwiches, bowls, flatbreads, pasta, smoothies, yogurt parfaits and more.
Source or prepare foodservice menu items and prepared foods that cater to ethnic groups, popular food and flavor trends, regional or global cuisines, and dietary lifestyles.
Increase the freshness appeal with made-to-order foods. Let your customers make special requests, especially if they have food sensitivities, allergies, medical conditions, dietary limitations or dietary restrictions like kosher or halal. Give them options to have their foods cooked to order, too.
One way to cut down the calories, fat, sugar and salt is to cut down the portion sizes. Instead of supersizing it, mini-size it. Offer customers half-size or bite-size portions. Half-size portions don’t have to be half the price either, so they can add to your bottom-line profits.
5. Prepare or curate local and artisanal food and beverage products to complement your foodservice menu items & prepared foods
Take advantage of the different seasons and holidays. Develop seasonal LTOs (limited-time offers) and menu items for daily specials, holidays and special occasions that have a healthier profile. They can create excitement in your stores and increase your sales.
If you don’t already have one, consider offering a catering menu. Offer foods that smell, taste and look great. Use food photography that has great eye appeal.
Support and curate specialty and artisanal prepared food products from local food makers, especially ones with niche food products that can also be unique to your stores.
Consider offering online ordering, pickup and delivery services to increase the convenience and availability for purchasing foodservice and catering menu items, prepared foods, and other additional impulse or specialty items from your c-stores.
And finally, don’t forget to market these healthier foodservice menu items and prepared foods with in-store signage and merchandising. Create media buzz with social media and on your company website. Highlight their health benefits, calories, ingredients, descriptive information, local suppliers and food makers. Create in-store excitement with tastings and demos.
If your food tastes great and it’s priced right, they are sure to come back!
Dr. Marcia Schurer is president and founder of Culinary Connections, an international food consulting and training company providing services to foodservice operators, retailers, manufacturers, food entrepreneurs, investment firms and organizations. For more than 30 years, she has forecasted and tracked the major trends in the food and hospitality industry, from farm to fork, and successfully adapted these trends to meet the needs of her clients and their customers.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.