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Hot Soup, Hot Sales

Taking a cue from supermarkets and popular soup/salad bars, both regional and national c-store operators are incorporating hot soup into their foodservice mix to separate themselves from their competitors.

Quick Chek's new store design last year put the emphasis on fresh food, and included "gourmet-quality" soups such as Chicken Noodle Galore, Pot Roast Vegetable, Italian Wedding, Sweet Potato Bisque, Roasted Tomato and Garlic, and Spicy Chili. This winter, the Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based chain kicked off the cold weather season by offering its morning coffee patrons a complimentary cup of soup on a Wednesday in mid-December. Customers who purchased any size Quick Chek coffee that morning received a special hand stamp entitling them to come back for a complimentary cup of soup later that afternoon or evening.

Meanwhile, Kwik Trip's 60,000-square-foot kitchen commissary makes its own soups, supplying roughly 500,000 gallons of them to its 350-plus stores on an annual basis, and Parker's Market gas station in Savannah, Ga., advertises its fresh soups daily on its Web site. In addition to Chicken Noodle, the gourmet-inspired convenience store rotates selections such as Kickin' Crab Corn Chowder and Cheesy Chicken Enchilada.

Additionally, Giant Eagle Express in Pittsburgh, puts out four soups each day and rotates them every four hours to keep them fresh, according to a company spokesperson, who stated the location is "very proud" of its soups, as it's "a growing area right now." Modeled after its parent, Giant Eagle grocery stores, which reportedly has had soup sales increase year-to-year recently, some of the regionally popular varieties the store offers include Italian Wedding soup, Broccoli Cheese soup, Wisconsin Cheese soup and Cheesy Chicken Tortilla.

Soup is also seeing good growth and contributing to making lunch a destination for Cheetah Mart in Fargo, N.D., which features three different soups (typically a bean chili, a broth and a cream soup) every day.

"It's been very popular. It's a good match with our salad bar and our strong sandwich and wrap program," said Trent Lee, part-owner of the year-old convenience store that emulates a small food court with seating for 35 to 40. "We took our time making sure it was the quality soup we were looking for. We get it from a foodservice distributor and our customers really like it."

Monday through Friday, the store has set soup menus "so customers know when they can get their favorite soup," according to Lisa McPherson, general manager. On Saturdays and Sundays, Cheetah Mart serves "what we have left over from during the week so we don't have any waste," she said. In total, the store rotates about 10 different soups, including Lasagna, Clam Chowder, Vegetable Beef, Gumbo, Baked Potato, Chicken and Wild Rice, Chicken Tortilla, Broccoli Cheese and Chili.

From its distributor, Cheetah Mart receives a delivery of soups twice a week. "They come frozen and we thaw and heat them in our three kettles every morning," McPherson explained.

The soups are put out by 8 a.m. each morning. "They're probably not at serving temperature yet, but it gives customers the option to buy them on their way to work, sometimes along with a salad," she said.

The soup program has become such a popular lunch choice that Cheetah Mart is putting together a half sandwich/cup of soup combo meal. "It's in the works right now," McPherson said. "We're creating a different sandwich for each day that goes with a particular soup. We make our own sandwiches fresh on different kinds of bread from croissants, bagels, Kaisers and rye, to hoagies and sour dough. Our sandwiches are big and our soup is filling, a person normally wouldn't buy both, so we're trying to come up with a way that it makes sense."

Calculating the Value
Perhaps the trickiest part of the convenience store soup equation is pricing -- and pricing competition from other lunch/value meals. Cheetah Mart currently charges $3.19 for a bowl of its soup and is looking to charge $4.99 for the soup/half-sandwich combo. "We don't want to go much more than that," McPherson maintained.

Research from Mintel seems to agree. In its Lunchtime Eating Report 2009, the market research firm based in Chicago found a price ceiling definitely exists concerning a lunch value these days, citing "when convenience is thrown into the equation, if people can get lunch for less than $5, it generally seems like an attractive alternative to making it at home."

Three years ago, Minute Market, with 13 stores in Medford, Ore., charged much less than that for a cup of soup and a piece of fresh garlic bread -- $1.50 -- but lunch competition was fierce in the area and the chain decided to discontinue its chainwide hot soup program, in place for roughly two years at that time.

"A lot of our customers liked the soups, but what you run into, unless you're in an isolated location where you don't have much fast-food competition, is you can't compete with the dollar burger," said Phyllis Simpler, operations manager. "Hot soup can be labor intensive, and we ended up throwing a lot away. We weren't making much money on it."

But Minute Market isn't giving up entirely on hot soup -- just picking and choosing where it would fit the best moving forward. Simpler believes the chain has one location now that might do well with it in the very near future.

"The town recently built a high school near this store, and we found there is such a movement for healthy eating, especially with teachers who don't want to eat in the cafeteria or parents and students before and after school," she explained. "This store will also draw from a crowd of professional customers nearby. We're thinking this might be the time to entertain offering hot, prepared food again, including soup, which is considered healthy."

She foresees getting the hot food program in place by February or March, with the possibility of saying "soup's on" by June.

And although convenience stores in the soup business agree the fall and winter is the peak soup season, they do sell plenty of soup in the warmer months, too.

"In summer, we don't sell the chili, but it's funny, we still get a lot of requests for it," said McPherson. "The overall soup volume does go down, but if you're a soup eater, the season doesn't really matter. It's no different than drinking a hot coffee or latte in the morning."
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