With more diverse prepared food offerings, many c-stores are making menu magic
Hanging high overhead in many a c-store swings a super sign of the times â its very own prepared foods menu board. Of course, sometimes that menu board is proverbial, but no matter â it's the more diverse and more unique fresh food offering that counts.
For Corpus Christi, Texas-based Stripes LLC, having its own prepared foods menu selection is what Steven DeSutter, president and CEO, called âa game changer in customer acceptanceâ for the chain of 500-plus convenience stores. âIt's our greatest loyalty program,â he told Convenience Store News.
At the close of 2010, the chain expected to sell over 32 million tacos. âWe're averaging over 200,000 food items per day right now,â DeSutter maintained in December. âAnd that's really food. We don't count fountain or coffee in those numbers.â
The chain's primary food platform is authentic Mexican. âWe think of local taquerias as top in our competitive set, so our food has to be made the right way and at a better price,â Conrado Saldivar, senior director of foodservice operations explained. âIt has to be quick, too.â
As DeSutter mentioned, the loyalty generated has proven to be the biggest benefit for Stripes having its own food program.
"We have become the fabric of breakfast for so many of our customers they stop five times a week,â explained Ben Hoffmeyer, senior category manager of foodservice. âAnd now, more and more, they come back for lunch or a beverage on the way home.â
Over 70 percent of the time, Stripes foodservice customers purchase other items, so the proprietary menu is also driving larger transactions, according to Hoffmeyer.
At United Supermarket's Taste of Market Street stores (so far with 3 locations, based in Lubbock, Texas), Chris Bridgford, director of fuel and convenience operations, referred to the chain's menu of prepared foods as âthe principle differentiator between us and competitors in this crowded segment.â He recently told CSNews that âfeedback from our guests, as well as sales results, have made it clear to us that our quality prepared food offerings are recognized and appreciated by people on the go.â
Taste of Market Street's top menu offerings currently are: âMeals for Two,â which are daily prepared meals that include everything from salad, entrÃ©e and dessert, and are specially packaged and ready to go; quality salads; club sandwiches and breakfast burritos. The primary differentiator is that âall of our prepared foods are made fresh daily in-house,â according to Bridgford.
With a flair for Asian delicacies, Torrance, Calif.-based Famima!! (the U.S. subsidiary of Tokyo's FamilyMart Co.), is increasingly sold on the value of its own prepared foods menu. It recently doubled the prepared foods selection in its newest stores from 20 to 40 percent of total sales, according to Philip Hockwald, the chain's vice president of operations, store development and store construction.
It makes sense for c-stores to have a core standard menu, as Famima, Taste of Market Street and Stripes reportedly do. But they are also getting more creative and test-savvy with adding in seasonal or new items.
âOur core menu is standard throughout the system and those items have standard recipes,â reported Saldivar. âThat means for our top sellers, you can get the same items in Midland as you can get in Brownsville or Houston. But we also allow for 'local favorites' to be created on a by-market basis.â
Thus, Stripes has many regional variations of items âspiced or seasonedâ to local tastes. The chain started out 10 years ago being âfamous for tacos,â according to Hoffmeyer, and its core menu of breakfast tacos has remained very consistent during the last decade.
âThat said, we are constantly innovating and testing new items,â he explained. âOur cooks care about the food they serve as much as your grandmother. They may make a seasonal special or a weekly special anytime. In fact, we encourage it.â
Taste of Market Street also confirms having âgenerally standardâ fresh food menus but with a definite exception â its Dinners for Two are created seasonally.
At Famima!!, âa lot of groundworkâ goes into the finding and testing of new prepared food items, typically for 2 to 3 months or more, according to Hockwald. First, everyone at headquarters (about 20 people) eats the item and a vote is taken whether they like or don't like it. If a majority is in favor of it, it is tested in one or two stores with different demographics âto let us know which customers are interested,â he said. âThe managers help us define or refine any special handling procedures."
The item is rolled out only if it meets sales, customer demand and quality parameters. Hockwald admitted that not everything makes it. âWe recently tried to introduce chorros but were unable to put out what we felt was a good product, so it's back to the drawing board
on that one."
What did make it is âKaraage Chicken,â which he described as âa Japanese/Chinese way of preparing fried chicken. It's marinated in ginger, made really crispy and put on a stick,â he explained. âIt's in our warm cases and customers can eat it with one hand. We think it's going to be a huge success."
Hockwald added it's a more upscale chicken item than their Chicken Nuggets and will retail for between $2 and $2.50.
Of course, having a fresh food menu has its overall challenges for c-stores, even for those with a grocery background such as Taste of Market Street.
âAs no preservatives are utilized in our meals, short shelf-life can be a challenge,â admitted Bridgford.
There is also the matter of managing the complexity of two in-house businesses. âRunning a hand-crafted foodservice business is very different from running a convenience store, and we have to run them both at the same time,â explained Saldivar. âWe have had to organize differently to make that work.â â
A proprietary menu allows Stripes to sell, on average, 200,000 food items per day.
The 20 people at Famima!! headquarters are the first taste-testers of the chain's potential new menu items.
The greatest menu challenges are short shelf-life and speed-ofservice.
For comments, please contact RenÃ©e M. Covino, Contributing Editor, at [email protected].