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Curby's Express Market Moves Full Speed Ahead With Signature Beverages

Building a better dispensed beverage program attracts repeat customers.
Angela Hanson
Customers drinking dispensed drinks outside of Curby's Express Market

NATIONAL REPORT — As the convenience channel's collective foodservice offering has grown more complex and enticing, the industry has both taken ideas from and become competitive with the quick-service restaurant (QSR) market. However, if you ask Tony Sparks of Curby's Express Market, QSR beverages are what should really inspire c-store retailers.

"If you're talking about the frequency of visit relative to food QSR, they're not even in the same universe," said Sparks, head of Customer Wow! at Curby's Express Market in Lubbock, Texas.

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Sparks, who urged attendees of the 2023 NACS Show to consider the velocity of beverage retail, pointed out that while consumers will rarely visit even a popular QSR brand like Chipotle more than once a week, they have no qualms about stopping at Starbucks for a beverage multiple times a week.

Recognizing and capitalizing on the opportunity found in beverages has been core to Curby's strategy since its first location opened in February 2022 — and that focus is paying off.

The First Steps to Success

Two years after opening its doors, Curby's now features a wide range of made-to-order and self-serve beverages, including a tea bar with roughly 40 different varieties, handmade Zoomies and Red Bull Refreshers energy drinks, and Twisters craft soda concoctions. That's in addition to c-store staples such as milkshakes and hot and iced coffee drinks.

[Read more: C-store Beverage Programs Offer a Point of Differentiation]

Curby's initial beverage menu wasn't small, but the company decided to invest in expansion after observing the segment's effect on sales.

"We added a lot," Sparks told Convenience Store News. "We thought the food was going to be a much bigger driver than the beverage, but [with] our beverages, we're different."

Traditionally, c-stores are more associated with coffee, but Curby's looked into the future and saw a great deal of potential around tea. The chain's tea bar offers a wide array of flavors such as ginger, hibiscus, blueberry pomegranate, apple pie and classic — all available in either sweetened or unsweetened versions.

"We knew tea was going to be a big deal," Sparks said. "Imagine 20 linear feet of nothing but iced tea."

This investment in tea requires an investment in labor as Curby's tea offering has its own dedicated staff and backstock. These employees brew tea all day long to keep up with sales volume, particularly during the warmer months. The effort has paid off in sales as Curby's is now known as a tea destination.

On the coffee side, the retailer partners with a third-party coffee provider. Curby's lack of gas pumps and resemblance t a QSR outlet made it more likely that the chain's customers would connect with a more upscale brewer than if it offered Curby's branded coffee, according to Sparks.

Additionally, having a subject matter expert provides the company with menu development assistance, overall guidance and leadership; "all the things that come along with an expert," he noted.

Curby's also serves up Twisters, which pair popular sodas such as Dr Pepper and Coca-Cola with Torani syrups and fruit purees for a customized, decadent experience.

The Power of Energy

The most eye-catching aspect of Curby's beverage menu, though, is its line of Zoomies energy drinks, which feature layered colors and flavors like the pink and orange Sunny's Set or the tricolored Sparky.

Nonpackaged energy drinks are fairly niche in the convenience channel, but at Curby's, "it was as important as anything else that we did at the very, very, very beginning of the store in the pre-planning," recalled Sparks, who came up with the idea for the line.

The stacked colors are achieved through a combination of hot and cold water plus different powders. "Almost like a science project," he said.

As a small chain, the Curby's team does its own experimentation to come up with limited-time offers or permanent new Zoomies flavors. This involves a great deal of trial and error: Sparks estimates they go through 15 different options for every one that makes it onto the menu.

This development process and the inherent made-to-order nature of the line requires more investment than self-serve dispensed energy drinks, but the end results are worth it as Zoomies generate the most buzz for the company by far, Sparks reported.

"It's Zoomies, a hundred feet of dirt, and everything else," he said. "They're beautiful drinks. People like to hold them in their hands. [There's] a lot you can do with them on social media."

And while Zoomies may not be the most efficient in terms of labor, having them as a signature drink distinguishes the Curby's brand from its competition.

"I think what makes the made-to-order energy drinks different than something that dispenses is the variety. I think that you get more variety in what we're doing," Sparks said. Without being made-to-order, Zoomies' color stacking would be impossible. Made-to-order also allows more customization of the drinks' functional attributes. "If people want a little bit more energy, I can put more energy or dial it back if they want it. You can't do that on dispensed."

The upside of being a smaller company is that Curby's can be more agile when making menu changes or improvements to the line. "We can make changes fast and we can come up with stuff real fast, too," Sparks pointed out.

As time went by, the company found that there was plenty of room for growth and interest in made-to-order energy drinks, so it added Red Bull Refreshers, which offer the twin benefits of major brand recognition and carbonation, which is something regular consumers of packaged energy drinks often crave.

"There was a bit of a disconnect where it's like, 'Well, you're making me an energy drink and it's great and all, but I normally get something that's carbonated.' I thought we were missing a big segment," Sparks recounted.

It turned out to be a good decision as Zoomies sell more units, but Refreshers generate more dollars per ounce. "It's like a win-win," he said.

Picking Up the Pace

To keep its beverage momentum going, Curby's offers regular deals such as $1 Tea Day and Half-Off on Zoomies every Wednesday. The company is in talks to launch a traditional loyalty program, but currently it has a club format through which customers can buy nine beverages and get one free. On an average day, Curby's redeems 40 to 60 club cards.

The retailer hired a "badass" social media person to run its accounts, where it nearly exclusively pushes special deals. The key is to offer consumers consistency. "Every month, we have some type of beverage promotion that we're doing," Sparks said.

To succeed in beverage retail, he advocates for commitment to what's being offered. For example, tea requires more than just a couple of metal dispensers. The segment demands significant variety or else "it just looks half-baked," he cautioned.

A wide range of flavors, bubblers, and the choice between sweet and unsweetened demonstrate to customers that the offering is more than just an afterthought. "You've got to show people you're actually in the business," he said. "You can't be half-in, half-out with tea."

Made-to-order beverages should also have sufficient diversity to cater to different preferences without overextending. For Curby's Twisters, eight is the sweet spot, but it will vary by brand. Sparks also sees a shift in coffee demand that could affect what c-store operators should view as must-haves within the segment.

"All the action is no longer in hot coffee, all the action is no longer in lattes and cappuccinos and all of that," he said. "It's all in the flavored sweet coffee-based [drinks]; whether it's a Frappuccino or an iced coffee drink, it's all on the flavored side."

Regardless of what types of beverages a retailer offers, they need to execute their program at a high level to be as successful as possible. "You have to offer and execute at that level to be taken seriously by the customer and to be a competitive alternative to the top QSRs," Sparks advised. "We also only hire people with QSR experience."

The prepared food segment of Curby's foodservice offering is not an afterthought — the chain offers a delicious range of quality traditional items and unique products and flavors. But if Sparks were in the position of putting capital investment into making his kitchen bigger or creating a made-to-order beverage line, "no question" he would choose beverages.

"I say let the beverages drive the food, not the food drive the beverages," he said.

About the Author

Angela Hanson

Angela Hanson

Angela Hanson is Senior Editor of Convenience Store News. She joined the brand in 2011. Angela spearheads most of CSNews’ industry awards programs and authors numerous special news reports. In 2016, she took over the foodservice beat, a critical category for the c-store industry. 

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