COLUMBUS, Ohio — The growth and opportunities in convenience store foodservice are often focused on the largest chains. However, Tim Powell, managing principal of foodservice consulting firm FoodserviceIP, points out the real opportunity for growth lies among medium-sized chains that are aggressively increasing their foodservice profile and changing the way consumers think about c-store food.
“Where is the growth? Mid-tier concepts that are growing their footprints,” Powell told Convenience Store News during a recent visit to the hypercompetitive Columbus, Ohio, market that includes Duchess Stores, GetGo, United Dairy Farmers, Speedway, Marathon and, most recently, Sheetz, which announced plans to open as many as 50 stores in the area.
FriendShip, the retail division of Fremont, Ohio-based Beck Suppliers, represents the type of midsized retailer that is using foodservice and a strong corporate culture to differentiate itself and grow in this heartland market. The company, which also operates a thriving fuel distribution business serving hundreds of independent dealers, a propane and heating oil division, a fuel transport business and a facilities division that builds and maintains fueling facilities and car washes, introduced its food-first FriendShip Kitchen concept in 2018.
FriendShip Kitchen features restaurant-quality food, including FriendShip Famous Chicken, fuel and a spacious modern retail environment, complete with a walk-in beer cave, open kitchen, and touchfree airport-style bathrooms. FriendShip Kitchen now accounts for 15 of the retailer’s 28 stores, which stretch from the shores of Lake Erie, from Toledo to Cleveland.
“Culture is the most important thing to our company. The key is getting the culture right,” said FriendShip President Greg Ehrlich, who sat down with CSNews at the company’s store in Lewis Center, about 20 miles north of downtown Columbus.
Ehrlich, an industry veteran who previously served in leadership positions with Duchess Shoppes and Certified Oil, said FriendShip is focused on three main things: “Culture, brand, and data analytics.”
Note that he listed culture first. Since 2012, the company’s mantra has been WACS, short for Wicked Awesome Customer Service. Under its employee recognition program, workers can win tickets to events and prizes valued at up to $1,500 for providing WACS.
During CSNews’ visit, Ehrlich presented store manager Kim Branham with the company’s prestigious 2021 Golden Chicken Award. Branham has worked for FriendShip for 21 years, previously serving as general manager at stores in New Haven and Sandusky, Ohio.
“Kim’s selflessness to move to Columbus to bring our culture to a new market has led to incredible results,” said Ehrlich. “Our guests rave about our food and service the same in this market as they do across our legacy market in northern Ohio.”
As Powell pointed out, midsized convenience retailers are really taking a strong position with foodservice. And that’s certainly the case with FriendShip. Through word of mouth and strategic brand marketing, the retailer has established a name for itself and for its famous chicken (both regular and spicy), thick-cut fries and savory-crust pizza, Ehrlich said.
In 2017, the company brought in former Wawa foodservice executive Ed Burcher to develop the FriendShip Kitchen concept. “Originally, we started with a conventional frozen chicken product from a traditional convenience store supplier, but we decided that if we are going to build this concept around FriendShip Famous Chicken, we would sell fresh, hand-battered chicken,” Ehrlich recalled.
Kirk Matthews, formerly of TravelCenters of America, succeeded Burcher in April 2020. An established operations executive with a personable and values-driven leadership style, Matthews is now bringing his experience to expanding the Kitchen concept.
Ehrlich said FriendShip plans to continue its expansion. A new FriendShip Kitchen store is due to open soon in Marysville, a suburb northwest of Columbus.
“We want to be Ohio’s No. 1 convenience store,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we want to be the biggest. Our goal is to be Ohio’s best in all of our core business divisions.”
Asked about the company’s biggest challenge, Ehrlich is less worried about the intense competition in the market than he is about maintaining the workplace culture.
“We don’t want to outgrow the culture,” he said.