It's Time to Modernize C-store Foodservice

The foodservice category manager role needs to evolve to compete with restaurants.
A chef making a pizza

As convenience stores make the evolutionary and progressive move toward having foodservice be competitive and more in line with quick-service restaurants (QSRs), they risk severe and ongoing headwinds should they continue forward in their thinking like c-stores or gas stations in terms of both hospitality and the foodservice work stream.

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Years ago, c-stores let distributors, manufacturers and other elements of the supply chain determine the products, assortment, range and, to some degree, the pricing of their food. This was largely how the rest of the store was operated as well. 

Many c-stores, relative to fresh and prepared food, still embrace retail accounting — an intense focus on margins and waste, placement and product promotion — and then find whatever packaging might work.

Category management became a business strategy and tactic used as manufacturers worked with retailers to develop joint plans to optimize total category sales. For a manufacturer, growing the entire category would increase their share of the business. For a retailer, the motivation was to ensure the total profitability of their business, especially in certain categories. 

This collaboration makes sense, especially as a c-store category manager takes on the role of buyer, analyst, marketer and, in the case of foodservice, menu developer. For foodservice, though, it doesn't stop there.

The person in charge owns a complexity of elements not seen in other categories. Their discipline requires a need to work in a wide variety of buckets. They need to know or create recipes, processes and procedures to assemble and portion out ingredients; and then manufacture them, if you will, into a food item with low waste that is easy to make and will have a solid throughput — all while ensuring food safety. They buy, analyze and promote on top of creating planograms, setting prices, and hopefully garnering sufficient support in the stores to execute the plan. 

But I submit that category management as a concept needs to shift for those organizations wanting to do competitive foodservice. An open-minded and knowledge-based approach needs to be rolled out, and now is the time to do it.

In a typical restaurant, and more specifically a QSR brand, there is no such thing as a "category manager." They have chefs, buyers, analysts and marketing executives. 

When it comes to convenience foodservice, I suggest the "category manager" of the future be called something else. Let's call this person the corporate foodservice platform manager or the corporate manager of fresh and prepared foods. It's then known that the person in this position is not the foodservice manager at a single given site, but rather they run the program for the company.

The Missing Piece

In the c-store space now, the foodservice category manager is a buyer who, when wearing the "buyer hat," works closely with the chef — if there is a chef or culinary talent. Next, and perhaps primarily, they are an analyst. Then, they are a marketing promotions manager who, when wearing this hat, might work with their supervisor to come up with new and/or recycled quality foodservice promotions. Often, they are heavily invested in distribution and certainly focused on stock levels.

The problem? There is seldom a culinary talent or chef. That means, from where I stand, a rather large missing Lego piece to pull it all together. A true creative culinary talent — immersed in knowing trends, competitive offers, demographic tendencies and the c-store channel — who knows how to create menu items that both appeal to the guest and are consistent with the brand is that missing piece.

This person would be proven as creative and innovative. They would know where to find and source ingredients, how to build recipes, what equipment and small wares are needed, and have the ability to design recipes that cross-utilize ingredients. Perhaps hardest of all, they would be able to create recipes that will work with the current space in the various stores, the equipment or lack thereof, and the talent.   

They would focus on processes and procedures that simplify so that the cooks at the store can replicate menu items consistently. To pull this off requires a test kitchen and a palate. Once the menu development and engineering are complete, they would know how to commercialize the offer. Other duties, although secondary, would be photo shoots, job aide creation, training, and surveying guests. 

Pulling it all together requires talent, passion, innovation, collaboration, being guest obsessed and courting the consumer. 

The current version of a c-store foodservice category manager has seldom, if ever, been to the National Restaurant Association Show, The International Pizza Expo, Flavor Experience, IDDBA Show, IFMA Chain Operators Exchange, BevNet Live, Fancy Food Show, Food Safety Summit, The NAMA Show, Pack Expo, The NAFEM Show, MUFSO, Specialty Coffee Expo or Coffee Fest. They generally hit the NACS Show and maybe some other general c-store focused event, but often miss out on Convenience Store News' Convenience Foodservice Exchange (CFX) and Kinetic12, two c-store foodservice specific events.

It isn't their fault; they are simply not culinary minded nor perhaps supported by their organization. Culinary is not their primary skillset or in their skillset at all again, through no fault of their own. Further, they don't have the bandwidth to learn this part of the job while on the job. There is too much to do.

The presently named foodservice category manager typically has zero experience in culinary arts and often comes from operations. On the off chance they do have a strong creative culinary background, their creativity is killed while they do the buying, analyzing and marketing functions of the position. And while category managers are often housed in marketing, foodservice is primarily an operations function. 

The culinary-challenged struggle with creating a menu, creating recipes, making job aids, knowing where to source ingredients, the shelf life of foods on at least three levels, food safety, getting packaging that functions the way the concept needs it to, training and hospitality.  

"Guests" (relational) vs. "customers" (transactional) are looking for quality, service, cleanliness, consistency, speed of service and variety — not to mention value and the ability to customize the food they might buy from you.

The problem is that c-stores cannot, or refuse to, comprehend their dilemma. What they do understand is the challenge of paying for a chef. 

The big guys with 200-plus sites get it. Wawa Inc., Sheetz Inc., Cumberland Farms, Maverik — Adventure's First Stop, Kwik Trip Inc. and Casey's General Stores Inc. all have culinary talent on staff and, in some cases, teams. 

A need is there, and it is obvious to all but the most stubborn legacy thinkers. 

No Chef? No Problem!

What c-stores need is a culinary expert that can serve as a chef for forward thinkers. I recommend an outsourced contractor. They can work on a regular basis with the corporate manager of fresh and prepared foods.

When I left the restaurant channel, it took me two years to acclimate to what I thought was the insanity of the c-store version of foodservice. Now, I have earned a reputation as a successful foodservice professional as both a "category manager" and as a multipurpose and award-winning chef. That's because I, like a few others, understand the industry, the culinary aspects and the guest. 

So, here is a word to the wise: Be careful! Not any chef will be able to do this. 

Chefs are accustomed to working to serve or innovate in the restaurant channel where that is their entire business. Foodservice is only a piece of the complex and multifaceted business we know as a c-store. Here, foodservice might only represent 10% to perhaps 35% of a retailer's business. 

Make sure your chef, whether an employee or contracted, knows the c-store business from top to bottom.

A recognized convenience store foodservice expert, Ben Lucky has served as a foodservice category manager, director and chef in the United States and throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. He has consulted with c-store operators in Europe, Africa and Australia, and is a professional chocolatier. He serves on the advisory boards for Convenience Store News' Convenience Foodservice Exchange and Convenience Foodservice Alliance, is a charter member of the King's Hawaiian Ohana Council, and is an Emergence Convenience Foodservice Group advisory board member with Kinetic12. 

Lucky will be a featured speaker at the ninth annual Convenience Foodservice Exchange, taking place May 2-3 in Tampa, Fla.  

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News. 

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