NASHVILLE — To be successful in foodservice today, a convenience store retailer must build and maintain a strong foodservice culture in its stores. This is easier said than done.
"If anyone tells you foodservice is easy, you know they're lying, right?" said Paul Servais, retail foodservice director for La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip Inc., the operator of 850 convenience stores predominately in the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
Servais was one of the headline presenters at the 2023 Convenience Store News Convenience Foodservice Exchange (CFX), which took place May 4-5 in Nashville. The theme of this year's event was "Making Foodservice the Centerpiece of Your Convenience Store Business."
The Kwik Trip veteran spoke about the importance of instilling a foodservice culture from the start and securing buy-in across all levels of the organization, especially the CEO. Servais recalled how Kwik Trip's longtime leader Don Zietlow propelled its food business.
"I remember going to meetings, and I was a district leader at the time, and Don would stand in front of everybody in our company and he would tell the coworkers — they'd have a little chart on the side — that if we sell 50 cheeseburgers at every store and if we make 50 cents on every cheeseburger, it's gonna be this many dollars, it's gonna be this much profit. And if our profit grows by this much and we share those profits at the end of the year, this is how much it means to you," Servais recounted. "[Don] did that over and over and over again for many years and it was key to getting the buy-in of our 36,000 coworkers that we're gonna sell food."
Today, 21 years later, Kwik Trip is a leader in convenience store foodservice. The chain, which specializes in grab-and-go offerings, positions its proprietary food and beverage centers at the very front of its stores, so they are the first thing customers see upon entering.
In its last fiscal year, Kwik Trip generated an impressive $1.2 billion in food sales.
"That was an achievement for us," Servais said, noting that this milestone would not have been possible without the company's 32 foodservice district leaders, a position established back in 2005 solely for the purpose of selling more food safely. "They were instrumental in us being successful in [reaching] $1.2 billion in food last year. I don't believe that would've happened without that group out there in the field.” "
The foodservice district leaders report to Servais and their position in the hierarchy is above a store leader, but below a district leader. Describing them as "the executioners," he said this position not only is crucial for maintaining foodservice consistency and ensuring food safety companywide, but also helps Kwik Trip define its career advancement opportunities. Only store leaders who have opened new stores and trained other store leaders can become foodservice district leaders, and only foodservice district leaders can become district leaders.
"Today in our company, there's 102 people in retail operations. When you include our foodservice district leaders, district leaders, the regionals, myself and the senior vice president of retail operations, 92 [of us] were a foodservice district leader at one point. So, when you talk about wanting to build the culture of food in your store, that's how you get it done. You gotta grow your own," Servais advised, acknowledging this has been 20 years in the making.
He also emphasized the significance of having a job role in the stores that is devoted solely to sampling. Kwik Trip employs "food product demonstrators" who work in the stores but are counted as corporate labor rather than store labor.
"You have put the food in the customer's mouth," he said. "We don't train them on anything else, so they can't migrate to the register or migrate to the kitchen. They are our brand ambassadors."
The eighth-annual CFX event was an exclusive networking and experience-focused conference that gave attendees actionable knowledge and research to strengthen their foodservice business. Multiple executives from leading food-focused convenience store chains spoke at the event.
Sponsors of the 2023 Convenience Foodservice Exchange included gold sponsors Autofry/MTI Inc., BOHA! by TransAct Technologies Inc., Chain Link Services, Everest Ice and Water Systems, Finlays Americas, Hunt Brothers Pizza LLC, Southern Visions LLP, The J.M. Smucker Co., and Wasserstrom; silver sponsors Supplyit By Jera Concepts and Tyson Foods; and innovation zone sponsors 33 Degrees Convenience Connect, Kitchen Technology Innovations Integrated Control, and Smoodi.