How to Raise the Bar at Your Coffee Bar


NATIONAL REPORT — Does life begin with coffee? The theme of a coffee rebranding project at Kroger convenience stores says yes. The rebranding incorporates design elements of a simple color palette, white-washed wood, lifestyle imagery, and fun coffee statements.

For Kroger and many convenience stores these days, life begins with good coffee sales. Coffee generates more than 77 percent of the overall hot beverage sales at c-stores, according to NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing.

C-stores that serve the best cup of joe, according to consumer data analyzed by technology company GasBuddy are: Wawa, Kwik Trip, QuikTrip, Hy-Vee and Sheetz. C-store coffee leaders like these have perfected the coffee bar. But how can others get there?

Here are some elevated coffee bar practices for those who truly want to jam with java:


First off, a dedicated coffee space that is open, inviting and easy to access is a must for any serious coffee merchant, including those that happen to house a coffee bar in a convenience store.

“It must be out of the way of heavy traffic, so you can pour, stir and add a lid without interruption,” said Raj Shroff, vice president of brand, strategy and design for Dublin, Ohio-based WD Partners, customer experience consultants for global retail and consumer goods brands.

Once that space is achieved, it’s all about the attention to details within the space. Shroff highlighted some simple, but often-overlooked coffee bar elements: good cups (consider branding the cups); lids that don’t spill; having a trash can nearby; direct accoutrements like sweeteners, syrups and creamers; and also indirect accoutrements such as mints.


Forward-thinking convenience stores are highlighting their coffee differentiator, which is often the source. If there is a source to be talked about, they are chatting it up.

7-Eleven, for instance, is growing its coffee offering with Nicaraguan single-origin coffee from Matagalpa. It is the chain’s first coffee to be Rainforest Alliance certified and it is available exclusively at 7-Eleven convenience stores.

“Our Matagalpa Nicaraguan coffee delivers a smooth, rich and robust flavor. It’s a great-tasting, premium cup of coffee without the premium price. And it does so with minimal impact on the environment,” said Nancy Smith, 7-Eleven’s senior vice president of fresh food and proprietary beverage merchandising.

Such attributes should be talked about and highlighted in signage, according to Shroff. “Don’t be shy when it comes to bringing out the nuances of your coffee, such as origin, roast, etc.”


Another way convenience store coffee leaders are highlighting their joe is by co-branding with those that have a consistently good coffee name, such as Dunkin’ Donuts.

“Consistency is a huge part of this,” stated Shroff.

Also a unique way for a c-store to be coffee-consistent is to partner with “a start-up coffee shop and let them own that brand,” he suggested.


Can convenience stores go the way of barista-style coffee?

Consider the lesson learned by Varish Goyal, president of the 23-unit Loop Neighborhood Convenience Stores chain, owned by AU Energy in Fremont, Calif.

“We tried to do barista-style coffee and we really struggled as a company with consistency of product,” he said. “Two lattes were never quite the same.”

Instead, the chain decided to rely on technology instead of actual baristas — touchscreen hot beverage machines that can make espresso, lattes and many other options.

“The consistency is now spot-on,” Goyal relayed.

Loop Neighborhood Convenience Stores also started offering cold-brew coffee and nitro-infused coffee to cultivate a barista-like image. This is “really efficient and elevates the coffee perception” for c-stores, Shroff observed. “Retailers that do this can get a premium for it.”

And that’s what Loop is going for. The chain devotes six feet to its regular coffee set, two feet for the barista machines, and two more feet for condiments, so a 10-foot coffee bar set in total.

“I wish we could devote more space. I’d build refrigerated wells, with baskets of sweeteners and condiments on top. But we do the best we can with the space we have,” said Goyal.


Made-to-order specialty coffee drinks are part of the coffee bar allure at Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip. The millennial generation especially values the “customization of everything, including coffee,” according to Brianne Henderson, Midwest Dairy Association’s foodservice program manager. In fact, she names “beverage variety” as one of the top five overall trends in convenience stores currently.

The customization of everything and the use of technology to place orders is synonymous with pleasing the millennial generation, a growing demographic at c-stores, agrees Maria Bailey, CEO of BSM and author of eight books on marketing to moms and millennials.

“The average millennial mom will only wait 20 seconds for a mobile coupon to upload to their iPhone, but will wait, on average, three minutes for a good cup of coffee that’s been customized,” Bailey told Convenience Store News.


Foodservice sales growth is predicted to significantly outpace that of in-store merchandise, but convenience stores that really want a competitive edge over quick-service restaurants (QSRs) and fast-casual restaurants are revamping their interior atmospheres to “make them more inviting and improve the customer experience,” explained Tom Cook, principal of King-Casey, a retail consulting and design firm for the c-store industry.

This means creating an environment “that’s more comfortable than transactional,” according to Don Stuart, a managing partner with Cadent Consulting Group in Wilton, Conn.

Convenience stores that have pushed forward in foodservice “have the basic infrastructure, they have the product, they just don’t have the ambiance,” Stuart reasoned. He envisions “comfortable chairs, art and pictures on the walls, music playing, and an overall homey, ‘cocoony’ feel” for a dedicated coffee bar section that smells like good coffee.


Combining many of these best practices and taking it even one step further, Ricker’s, a chain of 56 convenience stores in central Indiana, dared to compare its java to that of the Holy Grail, Starbucks. In fact, Ricker’s boasts its coffee is better — a marketing technique that has validity.

“We think our cup of coffee competes very well with the quality of Starbucks, and I think ours is actually fresher because [Starbucks] still brew in pots. We are machine-to-cup,” President and CEO Quinn Ricker told CSNews.

Ricker’s recently did away with big brewing pots, opting instead to invest in high-end bean-to-cup machines and utilize fresh coffee beans roasted locally. Each store sports two to five of these machines, depending on the store size and setup.

The coffee bar is now basically a “store within a store.” Ricker’s went as upscale as possible for the look — committing a large amount of its budget to the coffee machines, as well as to changing the design and branding with upscale glass mosaic tile, dark wood flooring, and a condiment area with granite countertops. In total, the coffee bar area is 12-15 linear feet. Ricker’s charges $1.69 for a 20-ounce cup of its coffee.

For marketing, the company has a television spoof that shows customers waiting in line at what is presumably a Starbucks. The commercial asks the question: Why wait in line when you can get the freshest cup of coffee at Ricker’s?

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