Three trends should be top of mind for convenience store retailers with elevated foodservice programs:
- The availability of ghost kitchens;
- The impact of the labor shortage on costs and operations; and
- The challenges posed by the supply-chain crunch with its related increases in food/ingredient prices.
Taken in the aggregate, these changes create strong incentives for more emphasis on packaged, to-go foods such as wraps, sandwiches and salads, as opposed to staffing a foodservice bar à la Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Packaged goods involve less preparation, waste and cleanup, and are easily scannable for self-checkout. That means they require far less labor — an important advantage today.
Packaged goods also take up less space than the kinds of make-it-yourself foodservice bars that have become more commonplace in the industry.
This is not to suggest that taking a QSR-like approach is somehow ill-advised. Today’s newly built convenience stores essentially are QSRs. But they are so much larger than traditional stores, in part because of their increased need for prep and storage space, as well as back-of-house and kitchen equipment.
While the likes of open-kitchen designs for cuisine prepared onsite can dramatically convey the seriousness of the offer, they are not for everybody. The store needs to be able to accommodate large and expensive commercial hoods and ventilation equipment, along with ancillaries such as fire-suppression and alarm systems. It’s why c-store operators, in their partnerships with design and architecture-engineering (AE) firms, must look so carefully at how the foodservice plan could affect traffic flow and space.
Ramping Up the Existing Fleet
Gigantic, brand-new c-stores are a focal point for innovation. But the reality is that most c-stores continue to be legacy locationswith their smaller, traditional footprints.
Since space is at such a premium for these stores, the rise of ghost kitchens (by some estimates, there are up to 1,500 of them in the United States alone) is fortuitous. It holds the potential to supplant the more costly in-store production model, thereby allowing retailers to minimize their capital and space requirements, and better protect themselves against the vagaries of the employment shortage.
For many foodservice programs, these new factors could translate into a shift in focus. Instead of emulating Chipotle, where live human beings make your burrito bowl right before your eyes, the model may be something more like that of Pret A Manger. The U.K.-based company with the French name (it means “ready to eat” en français) is known for its coolers full of high-quality prepared foods.
A Threefold Imperative
Given the considerations above, the future for some convenience retail operators may center on these three imperatives:
- Make sure your packaged food offerings are highly appealing from the standpoint of taste, novelty and ingredient quality;
- Revisit your distribution model to maximize the use of ghost kitchens; and
- Adopt creative and efficient approaches to site and store design to further enhance your elevated foodservice offering. This could mean working with a third-party consultant to better celebrate displays of these new SKUs through location, lighting, signage, color palettes and more.
In support of these efforts, retailers could also explore the viability of clawing back additional square footage. Many AE and design firms are now advising clients on how to alter utility connections, replace older equipment, and rethink certain other elements to reclaim space. For example, the size of important foodservice equipment such as combination microwave/convection ovens continues to shrink. Properly integrating this new equipment architecturally can allow c-stores to use space more productively.
Generally, compact and efficient approaches to foodservice work best. AE and design firms and their c-store clients should continually monitor the evolution of equipment, including advances in automation, with a view toward going even smaller.
Ultimately, the precise shape of the foodservice program will vary from operator to operator and store to store. Packaged, grab-and-go items could play a huge role for some, while others may stick to driving sales and traffic with a fresh offering made in-store.
The good news is that when it comes to elevated foodservice and site/store design, the whole industry can now choose from an incredibly diverse menu.
Joseph Bona is founding partner and president of Bona Design Lab, which has elevated the retail experience on behalf of convenience store clients such as Shell Select, Alltown, Migrolino (Switzerland), Ipiranga (Brazil) and Adnoc Oasis (UAE). He can be reached at [email protected]
James Owens, AIA, NCARB, is a vice president and shareholder at HFA, which leverages decades of experience in architecture, engineering and design to find solutions for c-store leaders. The firm’s client list has included Love’s Travel Stops, Kum & Go and EG America, to name a few. He can be reached at [email protected]
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.