How to Build a Hot Food Program


Convenience store operators often dive headlong into hot foods in the lunch daypart, but foodservice experts say breakfast is actually the best meal to consider tackling first.

The reason is most convenience stores have a strong and loyal morning customer base they can leverage and entice to try something new, according to the Convenience Store News How To Crew of experts. Breakfast programs are also fairly inexpensive to execute, and a decent program can be developed with just five or six items.

The best way to begin a program is to test two or three breakfast sandwiches with shoppers and determine which they like best and what sales levels to expect, according to foodservice consultant Tim Powell of Think Research & Marketing. “C-stores should also count on their supplier to provide them with the heating equipment necessary as long as they sell their product,” he said. “The key to keeping hot foods relevant is to offer two to three mainstream products such as a ham and egg biscuit, sausage biscuit with cheese, and/or an egg burrito, along with four seasonal limited-time offers. Also, keep an eye on what the competition is offering, including QSRs [quick-service restaurants], other c-stores and even mid-scale [family restaurants] such as Denny’s and Bob Evans.”

The most important part of adding a hot food program is “understanding where the fish are biting,” one retail expert said. “So many companies dive into lunch because they look at it as an opportunity, but traditionally c-stores are not lunch locations strictly from a real estate perspective,” this expert said, noting that the industry store base was not built with lunch in mind. “More than likely, the first five hours of the day is the highest traffic period. You also have a better opportunity to sell more food items due to habitual coffee, tobacco and energy drink purchases. Lunch will continue to be a distressed purchase until you own the morning daypart.”


Owning Breakfast

Once a hot breakfast program is established, it is easier to expand into hot lunch and snack items in other dayparts, our How To Crew members agree. The idea is to start small, build a strong foundation and use the breakfast program as a building block.

You should begin knowing what you want the end game to look like, but realize that it will take time, focus and patience to get there. A key success driver is understanding what your customers want.

From the outset, it’s also important to decide how you want to serve your customers hot food — grab-and-go vs. made to order — because that will affect the type of items offered, as well as the cooking and holding methods used and equipment purchased. At the beginner level, most experts recommend a grab-and-go hot food program until execution is flawless. “Keep it simple. Get bored with the basics first,” one retail expert said, noting that grab-and-go is ideal because it requires “minimal touch” and is a great way to begin to incorporate a foodservice culture into the organization.

Another How To Crew member recommended not getting into hot foods until a store generates at least $2,000 a week in foodservice sales, because a hot food offering typically generates higher food costs in the form of food waste, especially if demand is not high enough.

If your stores do not have foodservice other than hot beverages, it will be difficult to assess demand. The best thing to do is study your target audience to understand where they currently buy hot food for breakfast and lunch, and what type of menu items they buy, according to Donna Hood Crecca of Technomic Inc., a member of the CSNews How To Crew.

Also, “examine the state of your store with a critical eye on cleanliness. Restaurant cleanliness is crucial, as it fosters consumer confidence that this is an establishment from which they can purchase hot foods,” she said. “Operational considerations are also crucial. Given the space available, what’s feasible in terms of equipment and prep space? Merchandising is also key as proper presentation makes customers aware of the offering, signals freshness and quality, and provides cross-merchandising opportunities that will round out the meal.”


The Lunch Daypart

After breakfast is perfected, then consider the lunch daypart and investigate what sells in your local area. The burger seems to be the beginner lunch menu item that most experts recommend because it is easy to execute and many varieties can be sold by adding different cheeses, toppings, sauces and breads.

“The No. 1 lunch item is still the almighty burger, and one quality SKU can make five to seven different burger items,” said one retail expert who also recommends procuring a quality fried chicken patty as a second easy hot sandwich to execute.

Another retailer on the How To Crew concurred and gave examples of breads and sauces that take an ordinary burger into the realm of the unique. There are so many different types of buns to consider — hamburger, pretzel, brioche, Hawaiian, Kaiser, or an onion roll or weck (a regional favorite in the Buffalo, N.Y., area).

“Just a subtle change can make a huge difference. Shelf-stable sauces by themselves or mixed with mayo are another way to create different flavors. I could literally list thousands of unique items from using a shelf-stable sauce alone,” said the How To Crew member.

Easy sides and snack items to add to the menu might include fries, macaroni-and-cheese bites or onion rings that can be cooked in either an oven or fryer, depending upon the type of product purchased. Soups, stews and chili are other easy items to add to the lunch offering that simply require heating, proper merchandising and rotation.

As operators become more proficient at foodservice and are achieving their goals, they can consider adding other hot menu items that require more preparation, labor and complexity — such as pizza, hot sub sandwiches and hot bowls. Advanced foodservice operators should utilize limited-time offers to drive trial of new items and differentiate their menus. And most successful operators also have signature items for which they are known, but these take time to develop and come after years of building loyalty and trust with customers. Ultimately, the goal is to develop a foodservice program with some unique items that drive traffic to your store through word-of-mouth marketing.

Once the breakfast and lunch dayparts are perfected with both hot and cold food offerings, operators can then bridge some of that success over to the dinner daypart. Although few in the convenience store industry have figured out the best approach to dinner, one thing is certain: a strong hot food program will help build the evening business, especially in stores that already have evening foot traffic.


The Right Equipment

As is true with all foodservice programs — hot and cold — consistent execution is vitally important. Putting the right systems in place, training, buying the proper equipment, and using and maintaining it correctly will all support strong execution.

When it comes time to select equipment for a hot food program, one of the most important considerations is functional intent. In other words, how will your product be cooked and held? Will you be rethermalizing already-cooked food? Do you need moist holding equipment for hot sandwich meat components such as meatballs or sausage, or dry holding equipment for fried foods so they remain crispy, or both?

Because the menu drives everything — from ingredient procurement and inventory to equipment selection — be entirely sure of the scope of your menu and how you plan to execute before purchasing equipment. In addition to functionality and ease of use, operators should buy equipment that is sturdy and reliable to avoid downtime on equipment that repeatedly breaks. Several experts recommend seeking equipment suppliers with maintenance programs to minimize the chance of lost revenue if equipment breaks down.

Because space consideration in a c-store is so critical, it’s important to find space-efficient equipment that is versatile and can be used across many menu items. Hot foodservice equipment should also have good food-safety features, be energy efficient and easy to clean.

“Too often people run out and buy the latest piece of equipment they see at a competitor,” one retailer said. “If you are in the made-to-order business, a high-speed finishing-type of oven is what you would probably spec for your facility. If you are in the grab-and-go arena, a slow rethermalizing piece of equipment is probably the way to go. It amazes me that companies often get this backward. Why do you want to reheat or cook something in 90 seconds that you merchandise for two hours?”

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