How to Create a Foodservice Culture

12/21/2014

The industry talks a lot about building a foodservice and hospitality-centric culture. But what does it really mean to create a foodservice culture within a convenience store/gasoline retailing environment, and why is it important?

Creating a foodservice culture involves having the right leadership and experienced foodservice employees in place throughout the company who are focused on executing foodservice strategies and tactics consistent with the company’s mission and vision, according Convenience Store News’ How To Crew of experts.

“Creating a foodservice culture is essential to the sustained financial success of the retailer’s foodservice business,” said Maurice Minno, principal of MPM Consulting Group and member of the CSNews How To Crew.

Developing a foodservice culture within a c-store/ gasoline retailing environment is critical because it requires dedicated foodservice business expertise and specific technical skills for managing the business, which is dramatically different from the skills required to run the retailing and petroleum marketing sides of the business. The foodservice business also requires “a passion and dedication for fresh food retailing,” Minno added, as well as ongoing capital and dedicated cross-functional organizational resources such as human resources, information technology, financial planning, business intelligence, food safety and procurement.

“The foodservice business also requires focused standard operating procedures and specific performance metrics that are uniquely different than those required for c-store/gasoline retailing,” Minno said, noting as an example that fresh food products have a shorter shelf life than most other c-store fare from the time they are made to when they are of optimum food safety and eating quality.

Mathew Mandeltort, corporate foodservice manager for distributor Eby-Brown Co. and another member of the CSNews How To Crew, put it this way: “Your foodservice culture defines the values and norms of your foodservice program, which may differ in whole or in part from those of your retail business.”

Having a clear and focused foodservice culture — and promoting and publicizing it — will also help change and shape consumers’ perceptions about the quality of convenience store prepared and delivered foodservice, he added. “Nearly 50 percent of consumers still do not consider c-stores an option when thinking about dining out. The most frequently cited reasons are lack of fresh food, poor food quality or not enough healthy options,” Mandeltort said. “Combine that with the fact that 69 percent of consumers who do visit c-stores simply fuel up and go without ever entering the store. [The industry] needs to give consumers some compelling reasons to come inside and buy food. Having a great foodservice culture is essential to making that happen.”

An important aspect of a foodservice culture is developing a hospitality/restaurant mindset that goes beyond swift and friendly customer service. Before foodservice came along, c-store associates were trained to serve customers with a smile and get them in and out of the store as quickly as possible. Foodservice, however, requires a little extra something from store associates that transforms a transaction into a hospitable and enjoyable experience for the guest, according to CSNews’ experts. The term “guest” is yet another nuance of the hospitality mindset. It’s a subtly different way to train store-level foodservice employees to view and treat customers.

“Food, unlike many categories in retail, is a very emotional purchase. Chocolatey, gooey brownies are ‘to die for,’ while AA batteries are not,” Mandeltort said. “Cravings are the top driver for food purchases away from home and as a result, they are extremely susceptible to both internal and external influences.”

For example, while a customer might enter a store excited to order the sandwich he saw advertised on a billboard along the road, a poorly merchandised, dimly lit or unkempt store could be a complete turnoff. An unclean bathroom could be a deal breaker. Eighty-eight percent of adults link their opinion of a restaurant’s hygiene standards to the cleanliness of its bathroom, Mandeltort cited, adding that 46 percent say they would avoid going to a restaurant because of a bad experience with a restroom that they experienced firsthand or heard about from others.

Illustrating the strident differences between retail and foodservice, Mandeltort added: “One would be hard pressed to imagine eight out of 10 adults linking their opinion of a c-store’s tobacco category to the condition of the bathroom or refusing to pump gas because the ladies room was out of toilet paper.”

BRIDGING THE GAP

There are several challenges in creating a foodservice culture in a retail environment. While they are not insurmountable, they do require focus, time and patience, according to Minno.

“Time is required to perfect the right, sustainable foodservice culture,” which cannot be measured in short-term financial reporting periods, he said. “It is the time commitment invested over many years of trials, failures and successes that ultimately evolves the company’s foodservice culture.”

Although there are no silver-bullet methods that will instill a foodservice culture in an organization, Minno said “disciplined organizational patience” in this endeavor is a virtue. In fact, he suggests that patience should be adopted as a company value.

Many c-store and gasoline retailers have not spent the time and hard work to clearly understand and articulate what their foodservice culture is today and determine what it should be in the future, according to Minno. “Companies also do not sufficiently communicate their foodservice culture to all of their stakeholders, including company owners, all company employees, customers and suppliers,” he said.

Companies serious about foodservice must spend the time and engage in the hard work of outlining their current foodservice culture and what it should be in the future to attain and sustain success, Minno stressed. They must “adopt specific action steps companywide that are necessary to align and evolve their foodservice culture to its desired future state.” (For more on this, see The Steps to Creating a Foodservice Culture on page 49.)

HIRING & TRAINING

A foodservice culture in the c-store/gasoline environment must start at the top and trickle down through example to all levels and outer reaches of the organization. Company vision and direction has to begin at the top. If top management is not a believer and fully engaged in the development of a foodservice culture, the food segment of the business is sure to fail, according to our How To Crew experts. But retail executive leadership can take it only so far because store associates and foodservice managers are the ones who must effectively execute the essential cultural components at store level.

Because food is an emotional purchase, it can be greatly influenced by the people serving and selling the food. For this reason, hiring the right type of people and properly training them is critical to creating the appropriate culture. Indeed, c-stores should hire experienced foodservice professionals with restaurant experience whenever possible who will help improve the quality and consistency of the food served, and elevate the customer experience.

At the front lines, you want to hire store associates and foodservice managers who are passionate and knowledgeable about food, smile easily, can engage with customers with facility, and have personalities that are warm and hospitable. The challenge for c-stores is foodservice employees often have to work on the retail side of the store as well, so their focus is not solely on food as it would be in a restaurant.

“In a restaurant, the entire labor hierarchy is designed to maintain and execute the foodservice cultural norms that are essential to the success of the venture,” from chefs, line cooks, prep cooks, dishwashers, bussers, runners, servers, hosts, bartenders etc., said Mandeltort. “In a c-store, foodservice is often a small part — albeit an important and growing one — of the overall performance of the store.”

Foodservice represents less than 20 percent of in-store convenience store sales on average, but it requires significantly more effort, unique skills and expertise, and attention to detail than the other 80 percent of merchandise sales. Operators whose foodservice sales are significantly lower than industry average should be fully cognizant of what they are getting into and the hard work required to make the business profitable, experts agree.

It’s also imperative to make sure the foodservice culture development goals align with overall company goals, and that foodservice employees are appropriately rewarded to achieve important milestones. For example, if a c-store operator wants to be known for its food quality and customer service, it doesn’t make sense to reward employees only for low food costs.

“I guarantee you that managers and staff will not dispose of old coffee and roller grill products when they should and will not pay attention to guest services the way they should,” Mandeltort said, noting that a better incentive would be on controlling food costs and how well employees score during mystery shopper visits “based on elements that influence the total foodservice customer experience — friendly staff, fresh food, quality of food and a clean store.”

Employee training, monitoring and measurement are essential components of creating a foodservice culture, which means operators must be very disciplined about record keeping, and tracking and maintaining quality standards with temperature and tasting logs; food waste sheets; set-up, breakdown and clean-up checklists; and equipment cleaning and maintenance schedules.

Developing a foodservice culture is an ongoing process that by its very nature is never complete. It evolves as customer needs and expectations shift and new food trends emerge, or as new employees are hired who bring new expertise and perspectives to the organization.

“A company’s foodservice culture is always a work in progress, characterized by ongoing change,” Minno concluded.

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