Menu Makers

Hanging high overhead in many a c-store swings a super sign of the times -- its very own prepared foods menu board. Of course, sometimes that menu board is proverbial, but no matter 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 “a game changer in customer acceptance” for the chain of 500-plus convenience stores. “It’s our greatest loyalty program,” he told CSNews Online.

At the close of 2010, the chain expected to sell more than 32 million tacos. “We’re averaging over 200,000 food items per day right now,” DeSutter said in December. “And that’s really food -- we don’t count fountain or coffee in those numbers.”

The chain’s primary food platform is authentic Mexican. “We 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,” said Conrado Saldivar, senior director, foodservice operations. “It has to be quick, too.”

The loyalty generated has proven to be the biggest benefit of 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,” explained Ben Hoffmeyer, senior category manager, foodservice. “And now, more and more, they come back for lunch or a beverage on the way home.”

More than 70 percent of the time, Stripes’ foodservice customers purchase other items, so the proprietary menu is also driving larger transactions, according to Hoffmeyer.

Elsewhere in Texas, at United Supermarket’s Taste of Market Street stores (so far with three locations, based in Lubbock), Chris Bridgford, director of fuel and convenience operations, referred to the chain’s menu of prepared foods as “the principle differentiator between us and competitors in this crowded segment.”

He recently told CSNews that “feedback 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.” Taste of Market Street’s top menu offerings currently are: its ‘Meals for Two’ daily prepared meals that include everything from salad, entrée and dessert and are specially packaged and ready to go; quality salads; club sandwiches and breakfast burritos.

The primary differentiator is that “all of our prepared foods are made fresh daily in-house,” 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 food selection in its newest stores from 20 percent to 40 percent of total sales, according to Philip Hockwald, the chain’s vice president of operations, store development and store construction.

While it makes sense for c-stores to have a core standard menu, as Famima!!, Taste of Market Street and Stripes reportedly do, convenience retailers also are getting more creative and test-savvy with adding in seasonal or new items.

“Our core menu is standard throughout the system and those items have standard recipes,” reported Saldivar, of Stripes. “That 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.”

Thus, Stripes has many regional variations of items “spiced or seasoned” to local tastes.

The chain started out 10 years ago being “famous for tacos,” according to Hoffmeyer, and its core menu of breakfast tacos has remained very consistent during the last decade. “That said, we are constantly innovating and testing new items,” he noted. “Our 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.”

Taste of Market Street also agrees with having “generally standard” fresh food menus, but with a definite exception -- its Dinners for Two are created seasonally.

Meanwhile at Famima!!, “a lot of groundwork” goes into the finding and testing of new prepared food items, typically for 2-3 months or more, Hockwald said. First, everyone at headquarters (about 20 people) eats the item and a vote is taken whether they like or don’t like the item. If a majority is in favor of it, it is tested in one or two stores with different demographics “to let us know which customers are interested,” he said. “The 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. “We recently tried to introduce churros but were unable to put out what we felt was a good product, so it’s back to the drawing board on that one,” he said.

What did make it is “Karaage Chicken,” which he described as a Japanese/Chinese way of preparing fried chicken. It’s marinated in ginger, made real crispy and put on a stick. “It’s in our warm cases and customers can eat it with one hand. We think it’s going to be a huge success,” Hockwald said, noting it’s a more upscale chicken item than the retailer’s Chicken Nuggets and retails for about $2.00 to $2.50.

Limited-edition items at Famima!! are primarily offered in the sushi category and based on ingredients that become readily available at a certain time of the year, such as real red crab.

“We put big signs around it and sold a bunch of it, but we could only get it for a three-week period at the right price,” Hockwald said. “After it sold out, then we experienced huge complaints when it wasn’t available anymore. That’s the drawback if a limited item is a huge success.”

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.

“As no preservatives are utilized in our meals, short shelf-life can be a challenge,” Bridgford said.

“Speed-of-service is a big component of convenience and we are always looking for ways to get faster at foodservice,” Saldivar added.

There is also the matter of managing the complexity of two in-house businesses. “Running a hand-crafted foodservice business is very different from running a convenience store and we have to run them both at the same time,” explained Saldivar. “We have had to organize differently to make that work.”

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