CHICAGO — The May 18th kickoff of the centennial National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show marked a milestone for the U.S. restaurant industry, but it also drove home the major changes within the convenience store industry as c-store representatives joined NRA CEO Dawn Sweeney on the Grand Ballroom stage for the event's most prominent session, "Signature 2019: The Future of Dining."
Panelists gathered to discuss how dining segments have changed and what, where and how consumers will dine in future years. The panel included Chris Gheysens, president and CEO of Wawa Inc.; Randy Edeker, CEO, president and chairman of the board at Hy-Vee Inc.; John Cywinski, president of Applebee's Bar & Grill; and Tim McEnery, founder and CEO of Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurants.
Following a decade-by-decade overview of the restaurant industry's notable triumphs and challenges over the past 100 years, the panelists talked about where they started and how they have evolved to achieve their current success.
The continued growth of Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee — which operates both grocery and convenience stores in a variety of formats in eight states — comes down to continual growth and change, and "a sense of following the customers where the customers are moving; what the customers demand, their lifestyles," Edeker said.
By responding to where the customers are and providing what they want, Hy-Vee is keeping pace as Americans diversify where they're willing to eat.
"We've evolved with our customers as best we can. That's how you speak to survival as a brand," he said.
Wawa's Gheysens pointed to the convenience store chain's people-centric approach and its eye for the long view as the growth foundation for Pennsylvania-based Wawa, which operates more than 800 stores in six states and Washington, D.C.
The chain's model of service and status remains the same across the organization and has the uniting goal of elevating the customer experience above all else, according to Gheysens. Additionally, offering benefits such as Wawa's employee stock ownership plan allows the retailer to make employee investment a part of its long-term strategy.
Increasingly, foodservice operators today need to consider their approach to both on-premise and off-premise dining and determine how delivery must factor into their plans, the panelists agreed.
Cywinski noted that Applebee's delivery business, operated in partnership with third-party companies, is "exploding" and driven primarily by millennials, Generation X and women.
How well c-stores succeed with delivery will likely depend on location, Gheysens said, noting that university-area stores that offer it will certainly do well. Still, he doesn't expect delivery to be as big for Wawa as it will be for some other foodservice players, but the company is learning from its data how to best roll out the option.
"We still intercept customers going from point A to point B, but getting into delivery ... is a convenience play," Gheysens said. "If you're getting to be a convenience store, it's not just residing in your four walls."
Edeker stressed that the key to delivery is maintaining a focus on excellence and delivering quality. He noted that the off-premise business is evolving in many different ways at once, and he expects the development of meal kits/meal solutions to be a big part of it as well.
C-stores, grocerants and full-service restaurants can all learn from one another, the panelists said. "You reference inspiration, we just call it stealing shamelessly," Cywinski joked, while Gheysens pointed to the quality and consistency in restaurant operations and the overall guest experience as things he watches.
Edeker recounted once reading an article that mentioned "gas station sushi" in a disparaging way. Today, however, Hy-Vee offers 100 percent sustainably sourced sushi, made by authentically trained chefs.
Above all else, the panelists agreed that execution is what's most difficult on a daily basis.
"Our stores have gotten incredibly complex," Gheysens said. He compared a typical Wawa to a set of LEGO blocks, where each component makes sense but depends on everything else. The rapid pace of change in foodservice and the c-store industry at large also add to the challenges of execution.
The best brands are those that execute consistently well, according to Cywinski. "One guest, one shift, one day at a time — you earn it with them," he said.
Looking ahead to the next 10 years, the executives predict that leadership skills and emotional intelligence are going to be very important. And in terms of product offerings, natural/organic and clean-label items are likely to keep growing.
Overall, the panelists said that the one thing all foodservice operators can be certain about is that nothing will stay the same.
"There's a natural evolution happening throughout all aspects of food," Edeker said. "The rules that used to exist don't exist anymore."
The 2019 National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show continues through May 21 at Chicago's McCormick Place.