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Secret Sauce Comes in Many Different Varieties

There are several ways to create a distinct competitive advantage in foodservice.
A woman preparing a meal

Successful foodservice operators seem to have a secret sauce that keeps their companies outperforming their competition. At first thought, you might think it's simply the menu or that one signature item that put them on the map and kept them there — like Raising Cane's chicken tender dominance, Wawa's hoagie mecca or McDonald's breakfast domination. But there is much more in the arsenal of competitive tools that sustain their market edge.

Speaking at Convenience Store News' 2024 Convenience Foodservice Exchange in Tampa, Fla., Liza Salaria of Impact 21 told the audience of convenience foodservice leaders that having an "anchor item" can be the reason customers frequent their restaurant. The "add-ons" become the extra gravy, or the basket builder as we like to commonly call them.

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What might surprise you is the most popular item on the menu is often not what you think. For example, did you know that the most popular menu item ordered at Chick-fil-A is not the chicken sandwich? Nope! It's those irresistible waffle fries.

[Read more: Competing for Share of Stomach]

In the convenience store field, Allsup's is known for its burritos while at CEFCO, it's the kolaches and at 7-Eleven's Laredo Taco Co., it's the homemade tortillas. But having a signature item is not the only way to differentiate your foodservice from the competition. Some companies stand out through offering unbeatable value to their guests. "Often understated, the competency of procuring raw ingredients in the most cost-efficient manner can be one's secret sauce," said Salaria. That is because competent sourcing enables operators to offer great value to their customers while maintaining healthy gross margins.

Unique sourcing strategies — from market overage locks vs. contracts, to manufacturer direct vs. wholesale, to opportunistic buys around "seconds" (i.e., ingredient loads refused by quick-service restaurants [QSRs]) — can be the secret to low food costs. C-store retailers that have differentiated through sourcing include Stripes with commodity sourcing, Casey's General Stores with self-distribution, Kwik Trip and CEFCO with central commissary, and Jacksons Food Stores with full vertical integration.

C-store retailers also can create a signature point of differentiation through sustainable sourcing. Responsible farming, sustainability and local sourcing is now of top importance to Generation Z consumers. This trend within the QSR and fast-casual segments has made its way into convenience foodservice. A couple of c-store examples: Wawa's 100% sustainable beverage cups and Stewart's Shops' reuseable coffee mug program.

It's been said that the only real advantage QSRs have over c-stores is their operational knowledge and expertise because that's what they focus on. "For a c-store retailer, building the most efficient work design for its food production is the starting point to an efficient labor model," Salaria noted. "But there are other benefits, too, such as a simplified training model, small building footprint, and lower equipment and maintenance costs."

To achieve operational excellence, one starts with the menu, according to Salaria. C-store chains such as Royal Farms, Fastrac and Rutter's focus on building the most efficient operating chassis, resulting in high-quality food offerings with some of the best sales-per-labor-hour metrics in the industry.

Finally, she cautions, don't overlook the old adage, "People make the difference." Engaged, well-trained team members who are incentivized to deliver high-quality food and reach sales targets can be the difference between mediocre and excellent results. Learn from top retailers that have built some of the best food brand advocates within their companies.

Look for full coverage of the 2024 Convenience Foodservice Exchange in the September issue of Convenience Store News

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