Optimizing Your Sandwich Program

7/1/2013

On the surface, custom-made sandwich programs look easy to manage and execute, but anyone entrenched in the business will quickly tell you otherwise.

To keep it fresh, high quality and current, convenience store operators must invest in labor and dedicated space in the store, detailed procedures and training to ensure consistent execution, and of course, top-notch equipment and ingredients, as well as recipes and continuous menu development.

For retailers that run branded fast-food sandwich programs, most of these disciplines are already embedded in the operation, along with marketing and advertising support, which is a great advantage for those who prefer to invest in established programs and systems rather than building a program from scratch. But operators that build successful made-to-order sandwich programs have the potential to earn more gross and net profit dollars than branded programs when they are flawlessly executed. Of course, flawless execution is not easy and takes a lot of hard work and focus on the details.

Some operators may have strong breakfast programs and contemplate starting a sandwich program to get into the lunch daypart. Others may have grab-and-go sandwich programs they've perfected and are ready to move on to made-to-order programs, while some may already have custom sandwich programs they have yet to fully optimize.

As we've discussed in previous articles, retailers with little foodservice experience should not dive headfirst into custom-made sandwich programs, or any made-to-order program for that matter. Most of our Convenience Store News How To Crew experts recommend building a strong foundation of foodservice basics first.

There are two options for operators with strong breakfast programs that are contemplating starting a sandwich program: grab-and-go sandwiches or teaming with branded fast-feeders such as Subway, Blimpie, Quiznos and the like. Both of these avenues will help build a lunch daypart, but each has its pros and cons, as outlined in previous articles. This installment of How To Do World-Class Foodservice is targeted to operators with grab-and-go sandwich programs that are ready for the next step, and for operators with existing custom sandwich programs seeking to improve results.

THE SPACE CHALLENGES

Of all the challenges operators face in getting into made-to-order sandwiches, the one obstacle they cannot overcome is the need for in-store space. There is no getting around that. You have to have sufficient room to make the sandwiches and store the ingredients.

At a minimum, operators will need a 5-foot sandwich deli prep line and cold case (250-300 square feet, including required hand sinks and dishwashing area), not counting the back of the house storage required (approximately 100 square feet of cold, frozen and dry storage). Retailers also need sufficient space to properly brand and merchandise the sandwich program so customers know you are in the business and can see their sandwiches being made. This is all part of the foodservice theater.

The second challenge is that you will be competing with not just other convenience stores, but quick-service restaurants (QSRs) as well. The advantage c-stores in foodservice have over QSRs is "customers already know we are convenient, we offer products 24/7, and we have more variety in product and beverages than anywhere [else]," one How To Crew expert noted. "We just need to show them that they can get fresh, quality food served consistently from a clean and safe environment, and then there'd be no reason to go to those other guys."

One of the best ways to compete with QSRs is to focus on quality and avoid the low-price trap. "Build a better product" than the QSRs, another How To Crew expert said. Just because QSR menu items are consistent doesn't mean they are necessarily of the highest quality. Be sure to "market menu items and your programs using images. And don't be too price driven." Following QSRs on low pricing can be a death knell for c-stores who don't have the same high volume to offset the gross-margin loss.

Other tricks to keep c-store operators ahead of QSRs is to focus on customer service, speed, continuous training, high quality and fresh ingredients, proper equipment and menu development so you can offer unique items ideally suited to your local customer base. QSRs are built for mass markets and cannot adapt their menus to local markets. This is a marked c-store advantage, if properly managed.

WINNING WITH BREAD

Several of our How To Crew experts also recommend baking your own sandwich bread. "The bread is the sandwich," one expert stated. "Choose this ingredient carefully as it might be the one thing that really separates you from your competition. The taste of a finished item is about the bread. The other flavors of meat, cheese, toppings and condiments are all complements to the bread."

Food science and technology make it easier today than ever before to bake bread in-store using high-quality frozen dough that simply needs to be slacked and baked. C-stores can now bake fresh bread and do it consistently thanks to the new product development around dough and ovens.

"While all the components of the sandwich are important, remember that the bread makes contact with customers' hands and mouths first," said Tim Powell of Technomic Inc., a member of the How To Crew. "The softness and freshness of the bread gives the consumer the cue that the sandwich is freshly prepared."

Fresh baked bread is not the only option, however. Again, space limitations, additional equipment investment and human resource talent are required to execute high-quality, in-store bread programs. "Bake in house if you want to be successful, but like all things in life, there are exceptions to the rule," one expert said. "There are very good local bakeries that you can partner with as well."

For more on selecting the best bread, see "Bread as the Building Block" on page 48.

LEVERAGING INGREDIENTS

For c-stores that have a very limited footprint, optimizing inventory on hand is critical, and cross utilizing sandwich ingredients is the best way to maximize every SKU in the program.

"Whenever I look at a new item, my first question is: How many different finished products can I produce using these ingredients?" one expert explained. "The only true way to manage a variety menu offering in the space confinements we face is using this method. For an item to be added to our program that has only one menu use, it would have to be a homerun item standing alone. We have several items whose ingredients are used in four to six different products. If you take some time to think about it, most [ingredients] have multiple uses and you can be pretty creative here."

Another expert was quick to point out the "power of combinations." Starbucks Corp., for example, "offers 87,000 drink combinations" with only a handful of ingredients.

Sauces and non-protein components allow for a lot of variety. Interesting and exotic sandwiches can be created by simply using specialty sauces and condiments, according to Maurice Minno of MPM Group, also a How To Crew member. He noted that sauces can create popular cuisine menu items adding Southwestern, Thai, Korean, Brazilian, Cuban, Vietnamese or Japanese flavors. "Flavored cheese is another way to develop new taste sensations while leveraging existing sandwich program ingredients," he added, as well as offering heated and toasted sandwich options.

Limited-time offers (LTOs), which can maximize a sandwich program's impact and test potential new menu items, should also leverage existing ingredients on hand.

And, of course, sandwich menus should be continuously evaluated and re-evalauted, deleting slow movers and adding new items to keep the program fresh, exciting and relevant to core and new customers. "The discipline of adding one item while one is taken off keeps the menu in check from growing too large," Minno said.

Convenience Store News' How To Do World-Class Foodservice report is researched and written by Maureen Azzato, a freelance content developer and editor with more than 20 years of business publishing experience, with a primary focus on foodservice and retailing. Previously, she was the founding publisher and editorial director of On-the-Go Foodservice, a publication for cross-channel retail foodservice executives, and publisher and editorial director of CSNews, where she worked for 17 years.

New Addition to Our How To Crew

Convenience Store News is pleased to announce a new addition to our How To Crew, a panel of industry-leading food-service experts that serve as the go-to sources for our How To Do World-Class Foodservice series.

Ed Burcher, a marketing and operations professional, has extensive experience in the convenience store industry implementing innovative concepts and programs to drive results. Most recently, he served as senior director of foodservice and Neighbours Marketing at Petro-Canada/Suncor Inc. in Mississauga, Ontario. In this role, he provided leadership to the foodservice team that developed the fresh foods/ foodservice vision and offer for the company's Neighbours, Neighbours Coffee and SuperStop store formats.

Burcher also previously served as category manager of foodservice and fresh foods for Wawa Inc., based in Wawa, Pa. He was responsible for identifying, testing and introducing fresh food programs in the retailer's stores, specifically its Sizzli hot breakfast sandwich.

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