NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As the convenience foodservice space gets more crowded and competitive, it’s becoming increasingly necessary for brands to stand out by defining their foodservice identity, refining that identity and homing in on the quality of their offering.
Executives from three top convenience store chains at different points in the foodservice journey shared their experiences and insights during a panel discussion at the 2023 Convenience Store News Convenience Foodservice Exchange (CFX), which took place May 4-5 in Nashville. The theme of this year's event was "Making Foodservice the Centerpiece of Your Convenience Store Business."
Panelist Billy Colemire, director of marketing for Boise, Idaho-based Stinker Stores, said consistency and quality are what define its foodservice program. "We want to make sure we can develop a program that can be consistently executed across all sites and our customers experience the same type of quality when they come into any store," he explained.
Consistency and "having fresh, quality product available when it's needed most" is also high on the list for Louisville, Ky.-based BP/Thorntons, which is still developing its foodservice identity, according to Greg Eckman, director of fresh food and proprietary beverages.
He emphasized, however, that brands are built on people, not products. "I think that's one of the biggest misconceptions that we all have. What are you known for? It's not gonna be a product, it's gonna be an experience that we're able to provide you consistently every single day," he said. “People love Chick-fil-A, and McDonald's has a following, and it's not because you're just in love with the food. You know it's gonna be there, you know it's gonna be consistent quality, and you know you're gonna feel a certain way about it."
Providing an experience that makes customers want to come back again and again is at the heart of Des Moines, Iowa-based Kum & Go's foodservice identity. In fact, it's at the heart of the Kum & Go brand, from start to finish, noted Jac Moskalik, vice president of food innovation.
"We believe it's a fun brand. It's supposed to be a bit quirky, unique. And so, the thought process in our products is that when you come in, you kind of find the unexpected," she said.
Defining your foodservice identity from day one is the best approach, Colemire said, because it leads to more cohesiveness between the foodservice offering and all other aspects of the store. "You can build a whole store and the rest of your brand around what that foodservice brand is," he said.
Moskalik agreed, explaining that you must understand what your company's brand is, decide what you want to be known for, and then ask how the food program can support that. "It takes dedication to the program that you're committed to, with an open-minded tweak," she said.
Eckman spoke about the importance of establishing "foundational processes" that are not married to one product or another, but rather can support the evolution of a foodservice program.
"We say, can we build on this? Can we build menu extensions off of this? If you can put rice in a bowl, you can put something else in a bowl; you may make a salad. So, we really focus on these foundational processes and then we let the products kind of emerge over time," he said. "From my perspective, it's really tough to focus on a product out of the gate because what if the guest doesn't actually want that product and then you're married to it."
Carving Out Your Place
For c-store retailers that have existing foodservice programs but no specific foodservice identity, or for those that want to refine their identity, Colemire recommends analyzing what items you offer now and what customer need states you’re currently fulfilling, and look for gaps. Then, consider your existing recipe matrix and how components could be utilized differently.
"Just combining things a little differently or changing one step in a process could really unlock a whole new segment of menu for your customers," he said, while also advocating for working with strategic vendor partners to develop customized items for your brand.
Eckman echoed this and pointed out that with many foodservice retailers today carrying the same items (pizza, burritos, etc.), how a c-store retailer can win is by pinpointing what they do really well that a guest wants to happen and that somebody else in their market isn't doing well. He views differentiation as "what is the thing I can do in the store that somebody else can't."
"So, you kind of lean into that space and that's where you find your little carveout and you just own the space, right? If you just try to be a fast follower with QSRs [quick-service restaurants] or the largest c-store retailers, you're gonna find yourself on a rollercoaster," Eckman warned.
With lots of innovation happening in an effort to bring different types of consumers into its stores, Kum & Go has found pilot programs to be beneficial, particularly for new initiatives that are going to require a large investment, Moskalik noted.
"Previously it was just like, we're gonna launch it and just put it in all stores; might work, might not. But now, we pilot it because, in my opinion, it builds buy-in and it builds excitement. And it is extremely helpful when you actually have facts to back up why you're renovating. So, we do a ton of piloting, a ton of testing, a ton of tweaking," she said.
Getting the buy-in of not just the food team, but also all crossfunctional departments such as finance, operations and merchandising, is a key factor for success, Moskalik added. "Everybody's got to be bought in and the moment they are, it's awesome," she said.
The eighth-annual CFX event was an exclusive networking and experience-focused conference that gave attendees actionable knowledge and research to strengthen their foodservice business. Multiple executives from leading food-focused convenience store chains spoke at the event.
Sponsors of the 2023 Convenience Foodservice Exchange included gold sponsors Autofry/MTI Inc., BOHA! by TransAct Technologies Inc., Chain Link Services, Everest Ice and Water Systems, Finlays Americas, Hunt Brothers Pizza LLC, Southern Visions LLP, The J.M. Smucker Co., and Wasserstrom; silver sponsors Supplyit By Jera Concepts and Tyson Foods; and innovation zone sponsors 33 Degrees Convenience Connect, Kitchen Technology Innovations Integrated Control, and Smoodi.