Rutter’s Jerry Weiner Reflects on 40 Years in Foodservice

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Rutter’s Jerry Weiner Reflects on 40 Years in Foodservice

By Don Longo, Convenience Store News - 06/19/2015

YORK, Pa. — At the end of August, Jerry Weiner, foodservice director for York-based Rutter’s Farm Stores, will retire after more than 40 years in marketing and operations roles in the foodservice industry for both convenience stores and restaurants. During that time, he’s participated in the development of five different prototype store formats for four different companies, including the research and development of a different proprietary foodservice program for each store format.

Weiner’s official retirement date is Aug. 28. His successor will be Ryan Krebs, restaurant manager at Rutter’s Middletown, Pa., store, one of the 60-store chain’s newest and largest units. Krebs is a trained chef and graduate of Johnson & Wales University’s School of Hospitality.

Weiner, 67, started his career in the c-store industry in 1972 when he entered 7-Eleven Inc.’s fast-track management training program in Long Island, N.Y., and became a field representative.

In 1976, he left 7-Eleven and with a partner, opened a deli in West Palm Beach, Fla. Over the next eight years, they opened a second deli, but in 1984 he and his partner parted ways and sold the two stores. He was in his early 30s, took a month off, sent out resumes and got a job with Stop N Go to improve the then-growing convenience store chain’s food program.

Ever since, he’s watched the convenience industry’s romance with foodservice evolve.

The first major advance was in coffee. C-stores used to sell little more than “brown water,” Weiner told CSNews Online in an exclusive exit interview. “But the industry has really wrapped its fingers around coffee. From the presentation, to the variety, and especially the quality, c-stores have come a long way with their coffee programs and the results show it.”

It took the industry a little longer to get food right. Food requires a larger capital investment, as well as human investment in people and training, noted Weiner, who recalled the industry had another obstacle to overcome: the consumer perception that they couldn’t get quality food at a location that also sold gas.

“For decades, c-stores were known for low-quality, inexpensive product. But I feel the industry is on the cusp of changing that perception, and a small part of me will miss the next five to six years as c-stores become proficient with foodservice. It’s been a helluva ride for foodservice at convenience stores.”

THE RISKTAKER

At Rutter’s, Weiner has become well-known for trying almost any type of menu item and letting consumers decide what they like. The retailer’s touchscreen ordering kiosks allow customers to literally mix and match any items on the menu to create their own customized meals.

Among the scores of successful food items he’s championed during his career, Weiner was able to point to a couple that stand out.

“At Stop N Go, they told me you could never sell a bagel and cream cheese in Texas,” he laughed. “I took that as a personal challenge and successfully launched a bagel and cream cheese product in their Texas stores.”

Perhaps Weiner’s and the c-store industry’s greatest challenge is the dinner daypart. “I’ve always felt there was an awful lot of gross profit up for grabs to the retailer that figures out the dinner daypart. When consumers think about dinner, I want Rutter’s on their mind,” he said.  

Weiner feels his latest creation, called Basket Meals, finally gets c-stores successfully into the dinner game. Each Rutter’s Basket Meal includes one of five entrees: fried shrimp, chicken wings, beef short ribs, mahi-mahi bites or chicken strips. In addition to the entrée, each basket comes with a large order of French fries, coleslaw, dinner roll and a dipping sauce.

“I’ve never been afraid to try anything that I felt had application to our customer demographic and that could work operationally,” Weiner explained. “The customer tells you it will work or it won’t. You can’t be afraid to try new things.”

Weiner laughed again when asked to name some of his flops, like the chicken waffle.

“When you are willing to try so many different things, not all of them are going to work,” he noted. “Turkey wings, for example. The manufacturer extracted one of the bones from the wing so they ate like a drumstick. It took off quickly, then sales trailed off almost as fast as they grew. Looking back now, I think they would have been a perfect LTO [limited-time offering].”

Looking back on his 40-plus years in the business, Weiner says, “I think I’m satisfied. A solution to the dinner daypart has been plaguing me and this latest venture [Basket Meals] seems to finally be making the impact I’ve wanted.”

Weiner said he wanted to prove a c-store can be considered more like a restaurant even though so many “experts” said you cannot sell food with gasoline. “I wanted to prove you could sell a high-quality food product in a c-store despite gas. And I wanted to show it’s about price and value, not just price.”

He cites 2007 as the year Rutter’s embarked on its journey to excel at foodservice. “For a relatively small company, we were aggressively opening 10 stores in 14 months. At the same time that we were expanding our foodservice, we needed to hire and train people to handle the foodservice side,” he recalled. “We hired managers from the restaurant industry. I felt I could teach them how to do food in a c-store easier than teaching a c-store manager how to do restaurant-quality food. We continue to hire people, like Ryan [Krebs], from the foodservice industry.”

Weiner admits that retiring was a “really difficult decision. I still get an adrenaline rush, and I’ll miss a lot of the people both here at Rutter’s and in the industry. But I’m 67. It’s time to let the youths take over. I’ve always fantasized about what it would be like to wake up every morning and ask myself, ‘What do I want to do today?’ and not know the answer.”

His gut feeling is to just “hang up my spikes. People tell me you can’t go from 100 miles per hour to zero overnight, but I’m going to give it a try.”

It sounds like Weiner is more than pleased to “hop onto his stead and ride off into the sunset,” or in this case, retire to what had been his second home in Las Vegas.