Convenience Foodservice Pioneer Jack Cushman Retires
"Antiquated" is how Dr. Jack Cushman describes the convenience store industry's foodservice presence when he started in the business roughly 20 years ago. Today, as he celebrates his retirement, "opportunity" is the word he chooses to describe the current state of affairs.
"There's more opportunity now than there's ever been," he said. "With roughly 1 million restaurants and 150,000 c-stores in the United States, we should be doing 15 percent of all the food consumed in the U.S. We're only at less than 5 percent. As an industry, we have virtually the whole population going through our doors every few days, and that is an opportunity."
Cushman, who long served as the executive vice president of foodservice at Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes and then as foodservice director at Nice N Easy acquirer CST Brands and finally CST acquirer Circle K Stores, reflected on his industry career in an exclusive interview with Convenience Store News conducted just days before his Dec. 29 retirement from Circle K. He spoke of his journey to c-stores, his greatest accomplishments, biggest frustrations, and what he'll miss the most.
Academia is actually how Cushman got his start in the convenience store industry. In the mid-90s, while attending graduate school at Kansas State University, he ran the campus convenience store for a couple of years while doing research on the business. The gig was his "working laboratory."
After publishing two research articles on convenience retailing, he moved into teaching, but then found himself drawn back into the convenience channel when his wife Linda secured a teaching position at Syracuse University and he came across an ad for a position at Nice N Easy, based in Canastota, N.Y. Having had 20 years of restaurant experience under his belt before going to grad school, combined with his c-store industry research, Cushman thought it was a good fit.
He joined Nice N Easy as vice president of foodservice. At the time, the department consisted of just one other employee, Director of Foodservice Glenn White, who also recently retired. Cushman said he and White proved to be a complementary team as White had the operational skills and he had the administrative skills needed for the tasks at hand.
Together — and with the support of Nice N Easy store managers, a newly hired team of foodservice managers, eventually foodservice district managers, and finally a culinary team and corporate team members — they took the retailer from having mishmash foodservice offerings to having one focused, industry-leading food program.
Cushman cites the creation of Easy Street Eatery as one of his greatest career accomplishments. Once fully developed, the made-to-order program offered a variety of high-quality sandwiches, salads, pizza and meal entrees that appealed to a wide range of consumers.
When Nice N Easy was acquired by CST in late 2014, his role became focused on taking the Easy Street Eatery concept to CST's stores across the United States and Canada. Just as he and his team developed and opened 20-30 of these new store models, Circle K came into the picture and announced its acquisition of CST. The deal closed in late June 2017. Up to his retirement, Cushman was assisting on replicating the food distribution model at Easy Street Eatery into a new national fresh-food distribution system for Circle K U.S.
His decision to leave the c-store industry has been a long time coming. He told CSNews that he has been preparing for retirement since approximately six to 12 months after Nice N Easy was acquired by CST. In fact, around this time, he bought the real estate of a restaurant in Manlius, N.Y., not far from his lake house.
The restaurant, Stingers Pizza Pub, is a sports bar designed for young families. It was previously owned by three guys who were successful in their respective industries, but had no foodservice experience, according to Cushman, a longtime patron of the establishment.
"People love the place. It has a great atmosphere. It just needed a lot of clean-up on its P&L. The previous owners weren't running food costs or labor costs properly," he said, noting that former Nice N Easy Communications Director Ann Ammann-Raynor is co-owner of the business, and they also brought over former Nice N Easy Chef Andrew Franco.
While Cushman is excited for this next chapter, he's not ruling out the possibility of returning to the convenience channel, in some capacity, especially since there's at least one thing he's still itching to accomplish.
"My goal was to see the Easy Street Eatery concept go nationwide. It's going to take Wall Street money to get the right group of people together with the right organizational structure to make that a success," he said.
Call to Action
He also wants to see the entire c-store industry do foodservice on a grand scale. His biggest frustration has been observing all the unrealized potential in the industry as a whole.
"Not enough leaders in the industry are embracing it, which is kind of silly when you think about it. People are there. They're hungry. You're making them go elsewhere to eat," he said.
To be successful in convenience foodservice, Cushman offers the following must-dos:
- You need someone who understands foodservice accounting vs. retail accounting;
- You need someone with experience in foodservice marketing vs. retail marketing;
- You need to have the right organizational structure in place;
- You need to give your employees the tools and resources to do their jobs well; and
- You need to make food the company's DNA, not cigarettes, beer and gas.
"There's so many learnings in organizational structure that the c-store industry isn't addressing. That was the issue with CST. They didn't have the correct structure," he noted.
One final piece of advice he wants to impart: Companies that last continually reinvent themselves. He cites 3M as a prime example of this. "It never ends. You're always continuing to improve," the foodservice veteran explained.
When asked what he's going to miss the most post-retirement, Cushman said it's the openness of the c-store industry and the people. He's enjoyed the presentations and speaking engagements he's done throughout his career, especially at the National Restaurant Association show.
"[Nice N Easy founder] John MacDougall taught us lot about charity. I am thankful that I have had the ability to give back to the industry. Everybody learns things from everybody else," he said. "This industry, unlike other industries, is genuinely open to sharing. It’s full of many great people."