ATLANTA — Succeeding in convenience foodservice can take many different paths, but all of them involve some kind of innovation. New ideas and menu offers can greatly benefit all programs, whether they've been in the foodservice space ford decades or are just starting out.
"Innovation comes oftentimes through dissatisfaction, and it could mean not settling," said Jessica Williams, founder and CEO of Food Forward Thinking. "When we're restless, we're always looking to improve our position."
Williams joined several c-store foodservice leaders in discussing innovation during the 2023 NACS Show education session entitled "Innovating Your Menu."
Innovation is "anything but" a straight line, according to Stephanie Hurt, head of food innovation and development at Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip Corp., which defines innovation as the process through which it turns strategy into new product or services.
Hurt pointed to the importance of operational innovation, which is not the same as operational improvement. Instead, it's a "deep change" and investment in one's brand over time, something that can be a powerful competitive weapon when harnessed. As an example from her career, she listed Taco Bell's shift to centralizing key menu components so that employees could focus on assembly over in-restaurant fabrication.
To achieve operational innovation, c-stores need to start with purpose and vision before developing goals, a strategic plan, a department strategy and specific objectives. Doing what they are already doing but better isn't enough.
"Excellence in execution can win a close game, but it can't break the game wide open," she said.
When developing products, QuikTrip requires that a new item be both relevant to the consumer and relevant to the marketplace.
"It doesn't have to be differentiated from a standpoint of just being wacky and crazy, it just needs to be different," Hurt shared. "And how it's different depends on how you develop it.
Innovation doesn't necessarily mean expansion. Chad White, foodservice category manager at York, Pa.-based Rutter's, described how c-stores can drive profits while limiting complexity, or streamlining their menu while optimizing inventory. Periodically, Rutter's reviews the performance of its menu items and takes a close look at the top 20 percent and bottom 20 percent.
"What we try to do is elevate our bottom 20% so it lift up the whole program," he said. This can mean eliminating it, cross-utilizing it with other items or repurposing the item in a different format.
"We take a deep dive once a year, but you really should be doing this continually throughout the year," White advised.
C-stores can also boost sales by training staff to effectively upsell and cross-sell complementary items and creating attractive combo meals that bundle items at a discounted price. Additionally, occasional limited-time offers or seasonal specials can generate buzz and drive customer interest to increase the average check size.
Menu displays themselves are another area of opportunity. Retailers that invest in visually appealing, informative menu boards are better able to highlight key offerings and help customers make quick decisions.
Finally, Tony Sparkks, head of customer wow! at Lubbock, Texas-based Curby's Express Market, shared how c-stores can pursue liquid innovation via dispensed beverages.
"The velocity in beverage retail is so much higher than it is in food retail," Sparks said. He pointed out that the average Chipotle customer visits nine times a year, while the average Starbucks Rewards member visits 16 times per month.
Curby's leans heavily into beverages by offering 40 flavors of fresh-brewed tea, a range of craft sodas and customer coffee creations, the Zoomies line of color-stacked dispensed energy drinks and more. The company also uses beverage-specific menu boards to highlight its unique offerings.
The specialty drink trend is "on fire" and offers high margin, high repeat traffic and high loyalty, according to Sparks.
He also noted that while data is useful, it also reflects the past, and retailers need to be forward-thinking. Foodservice operators can push themselves creatively by taking the time to see what is being done well elsewhere.
"Get out of the office and go visit food trucks," he said. "Go visit as many restaurants as you can."
The 2023 NACS Show took place Oct. 3-6 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. The 2024 NACS Show will be hosted at the Las Vegas Convention Center Oct. 7-10, 2024.