Cheers to the Chilly

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Cheers to the Chilly

By Renee M. Covino

The drink expansion road is paved in ice for some convenience stores. While dispensed beverages of the slush variety have always been a staple of the channel -- particularly in the summer -- they have taken on some fanciful twists and wider turns for today's forward-thinking retailers.

QuikTrip Corp., for example, is a year-round purveyor of all kinds of self-serve fountain and frozen dispensed beverages, including smoothies, Freezonies (its proprietary carbonated frozen beverage) and Rooster Booster (its proprietary energy drink), available in cans and straight from the fountain, when it is often combined with frozen products to create an "energy slushy."

"The drink initiative is definitely a big deal to us," said Mike Thornbrugh, spokesman for the Tulsa, Okla.-based company. "We made a decision to be an industry leader, and we’ve never looked back."

About six years ago, the chain completely remodeled its stores and expanded its offerings on fountain drinks, which included frozen. Thornbrugh described the carbonated fountain heads as the mainstay of the cold self-serve drink area, while the frozen offerings "greatly complement them."

Because QuikTrip is privately held, it will not release any sales figures for the department, however, in both selection and space, "we like to think our total DI (drink initiative) offering is superior to most," Thornbrugh noted. He added that "the back area is totally dedicated to drinks" -- with cappuccinos and a coffee bar that "curves around" to quick shakes, smoothies, Freezonis, fountainheads and iced tea offerings.

QuikTrip prides itself on trying and testing innovative beverage offerings/flavors to keep its customers coming in from the gas pumps and excited at the "drink pumps."

"Customers have come to expect this from us, that QT is always going to enhance and add to frozen/carbonated beverages," Thornbrugh said. "We're continuously mixing it up."

QuikTrip Corp. isn't the only one mixing it up -- the chain's customers are becoming master mixers, too. The company encourages people to "mix and match" from the variety of drinks it offers -- so much so it even has a "mix-it-up" drink recipe menu on its Web site. The original formulas were submitted by QuikTrip employees and customers after a promotion, but people are still encouraged to offer new concoctions.
The Web site includes such masterful drink creations as Kiss the Rooster (Puckerberry Wally Freezoni, White Cherry Freezoni and Rooster Booster Fountain), Yellow Snow (White Cherry Freezoni and Minute Maid Lemonade) and Kitchen Sink (Blue Raspberry Freezoni, Juicy Orange Smoothie, Black Cherry Smoothie and Frozen Vanilla Creme Mixer). But the options are, of course, nearly limitless.

"It's not uncommon to see people put some cappuccino mix in a frozen/carbonated drink," Thornbrugh said. "It's actually fun for us to sit and watch people mix. Everything we do in drinks is self-serve, so they can really have fun with it."

The price of the drink is determined by the cup size, regardless of what's mixed in. "Mixers feel like they're getting more product, or like they're getting more for their money," Thornbrugh said.

And apparently, frozen drink mixers are on the move. Jet Food Stores of Georgia Inc., based in Sandersville, has "just the basics going on" in frozen drinks -- a Slush Puppie machine and Alligator Ice, according to Clint Hancock, vice president of marketing and general buyer. However, they've put a "modern twist to it" by encouraging the "self-mix deal," Hancock said.

"There are probably 10 or 12 flavors on each machine, and for the past six months, we decided to keep them year-round, beside the fountain machine and our coffee," he added.

Beyond mixing flavors, another growing beverage trend is iced coffees and cappuccinos, including frozen versions. A session at the NACS Show late last year revealed that 18- to 24-year-old consumers were the primary target -- they skew higher than average for this type of drink in every region of the country, although iced and frozen coffee sales are highest in the Northeast. The thinking is convenience stores that capture younger adult consumers now with this type of beverage will probably hold on to them as they mature -- when they will most likely take the same drinking preferences with them.

Centennial Express Marts in Dallas has tried a Granita machine to offer up a slushy coffee drink in the warmer weather.

"There's no doubt -- customers expect us to have frozen drinks," maintained Bill Ross, buyer and store supervisor. "We've experimented [with dispensed beverages], and when we see something better out there in the category, we're not afraid to try it."

He added that while he likes to "keep it simple," he does plan on "revisiting the slushy area again in the summer." Beyond frozen coffee drinks, Ross is also intrigued with the idea of frozen energy drinks that he's seen cropping up in the category.

"It would be an addition, a line extension for us, and part of the evolution of beverages. Frozen energy drinks haven't busted open yet, but we're watching them and thinking about planning for them soon," he said.

For comments, contact Renee Covino, Contributing Editor, at [email protected].