Kickstarting the Kitchen

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Kickstarting the Kitchen

By Angela Hanson, Convenience Store News - 02/04/2016

Convenience store foodservice has made an enormous leap in quality and variety over the past five years, but coming up with tasty new recipes isn’t the only way retailers are getting ahead in the category. The equipment used to prepare food and beverages can also provide an edge, as a number of c-store chains are leveraging the latest advancements to reach the next level.

One way c-stores can improve upon their hot beverage offering is to develop a coffee program that includes more than a few varieties of self-serve brewed java. Sheetz Inc. installed state-of-the-art grinding and brewing equipment and added trained baristas as part of its “Kick in the Beanz” coffee program upgrade — something that garnered it the Best Hot Beverages Innovator title in the 2015 Convenience Store News Foodservice Innovators Awards program. (Go to http://foodserviceinnovators.csnews.com/index for videos of Sheetz and the other 2015 winners).

Even c-stores without baristas, however, can improve their coffee program with the right equipment. Kwik Trip Inc., which does not have a made-to-order foodservice program like Sheetz, made a positive change a little more than a year ago when it added wholly-automatic espresso makers from Franke Coffee Systems to all of its 500 convenience stores and introduced the Karuba Gold premium espresso line.

“We can now do an espresso-quality mocha, latte or cappuccino in all of our stores,” Paul Servais, Kwik Trip’s retail foodservice director, told CSNews. “That was huge for us.”

Kwik Trip is now more competitive vs. other convenience store operators catering to rushed, on-the-go customers, as well as against more upscale coffee retailers.

The addition of the espresso machines brings “that gourmet style, that Starbucks quality,” Servais said. “What we [are] trying to do with that piece of equipment is to get the millennials to come into our store, that younger generation.”

A platform that combines ease of use, robust construction and flexibility in beverage offering is something many c-store retailers are looking for today, according to Ray Peden, president of Franke Coffee Systems. Ease of use includes backend upkeep that may be required.

Referring to Franke’s more recent equipment innovation, Peden said, “Key components are designed for easy replacement, even by an untrained operator. This removes the need for a service technician to visit the store for routine maintenance.”

On the cold beverage side, customers can also act as their own barista and create customized drinks using the new generation of fountain machines. Executives at convenience store chains Rutter’s Farm Stores, operator of roughly 60 stores in Pennsylvania, and Murphy USA Inc., operator of 1,300 stores in 23 states, have praised the Coca-Cola Freestyle and Pepsi Spire fountain units, which offer hundreds of flavor combinations in a relatively small footprint. These units also have touchscreen interfaces, which customers generally find easily intuitive. Each company demands exclusivity, though, which prevents retailers from using both the Freestyle and Spire to provide maximum choice.

QUICK COOKING

Another way c-stores are upgrading their foodservice programs is through the addition of high-speed ovens. Such models allow chains that rely on the sale of made-to-order or cooked-on-site items to avoid backed-up lines and attract customers who demand quick service.

New advancements in high-speed ovens were among the top innovations spotted by CSNews at the 2015 National Association of Foodservice Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM) Show.

“It allows us to keep the volume going,” Servais said of Kwik Trip’s investment in high-speed ovens. The chain uses Turbo Chef models HHB and I3. Additionally, these ovens’ high speeds allow Kwik Trip to better cope with rush periods, including those that come unexpectedly.

Kwik Trip’s stores throughout the Midwest feature the “Hot Spot,” where customers can find the chain’s proprietary Cheese Mountain pizza, Kitchen Cravings subs, soups, chili and other classics like cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches.

Unlike self-serve espresso machines, cooking equipment that’s fast-working and easy to use primarily benefits frontline employees and the managers who train them rather than customers.

What c-stores need most is “equipment which can be operated by any skill-level employee,” explained Thomas Stegmaier, president of Eloma North America, maker of professional cooking and baking equipment. “Therefore, ease of use, automatic cooking programs and reliability are a few of the key points they are hunting for.”

THE NEXT UPGRADE

Still, no matter the advances both retailers and equipment manufacturers have made in recent years, the business is always moving forward, so savvy c-store operators have to continually be on the lookout for what will get them to that next level of success.

When scoping out the latest and greatest equipment on display at the various industry trade shows, it can be a challenge figuring out the right fit. To narrow down the choices, members of the CSNews How To Crew of foodservice experts recommend retailers visualize and document the steps needed to produce each menu item in the physical space available.

“What are you trying to achieve with your customers and your product? This has a tremendous effect on what type of equipment you specify,” noted c-store foodservice veteran and consultant Joseph Chiovera of XS Foodservice & Marketing. “If you are looking to do made-to-order food, your choices as far as what equipment to spec becomes somewhat easier, but your execution becomes harder and more demanding.”

Looking at 2016 and beyond, some retailers like Kwik Trip’s Servais point to software as the most-desired area of supplier innovation in the foodservice category.

“As we get closer to the menu labeling laws, we’re really going to need software that’s driven around allowing a c-store to build an item and [then] all that information is extrapolated to create the right calorie count,” Servais said. “That would be wonderful. Last year at the NRA Show and IDDBA, I spent a lot of time looking for that. It doesn’t exist.”