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Sheetz, ExxonMobil Tackle Foodservice Challenges

“Cuisine” and “convenience store” aren't two concepts that most people readily put together. But that possibility seemed less unlikely at the newly opened culinary center at Alto-Shaam's corporate headquarters in Menomonee Falls, Wis., where four corporate chefs demonstrated the company's equipment and explained how it has played a role in the success of foodservice operations from c-stores to casinos, including Exxon Mobil Corp.'s On the Run stores and Sheetz Inc.'s chain of c-stores.

For Sheetz, an extensive foodservice program was a no-brainer; unlike many convenience stores, Sheetz has its roots in food, having started as a dairy, moving into cold cuts and meats and then beginning to sell gas in the late 1960s. “Gas is a way to bring people onto our lots, but food is where our growth is going to be,” said Keith Boston, director of culinary development sheet, in a videotaped case study. “Food basically counts for about 40 percent of our profits. Gas is a loss-leader.”

Sheetz started with made-to-order deli in all of its stores, then expanded into hot sandwiches and hamburgers, using “fast scratch” items. Its next-generation convenience restaurants offer hand-carved meats, pizza, gelato and upscale bakery, Boston explained.

“Our vision eventually will be to have restaurant-quality foods in all of our stores,” Boston said. “And when you want to do hot-hold and controlled cooking, Alto-Shaam invented the technology, so we thought that the best money we could ever spend is to go to the guy that invented the technology.”

Exxon Mobil came to foodservice from a very different place than Sheetz, starting out as a petroleum marketer with a hot dog program. But despite different beginning, the stores still have some of the same problems -- including the fact that, as signs say outside Sheetz stores, “The kitchen is always open!” “Our challenge today is to find things that are fresh, hot and ready to go when the customer wants it and needs it,” explained Keith Solsvig, foodservice category manager for ExxonMobil, also via videotape.

That makes for a very different dynamic than a made-to-order food program. “Our target customer is really somebody who is time-pressed, wants to make their trips convenient and also wants to find a meal without spending extra time going through a drive-through . . . If they want to wait to get something made to order, they're probably going to go to one of our competitors,” Solsvig said.

But even food that is not made to order still needs to be fresh, and that makes for a lot of logistical challenges. When ExxonMobil expanded from hot dogs into hot sandwiches, the key issue was how to cook them in advance and still keep them appealing during the dayparts when they would sell. “That's really where the beauty of Alto-Shaam came into play,” Solsvig said. “We wanted something that didn't require a lot of labor but is something that could be utilized among different people, different times of the day, and really fit into our schedule. We're a 24-hour store. When is our time most available? Well, it's in that third shift, in that midnight to 4 a.m. time frame. And Alto-Shaam allowed us to cook products in that time frame when we have extra labor. The cook-and-hold oven is our platform for the future, because we believe that this one oven can do a lot of different things, and it can be a 24-hour piece of equipment, which is key when you're talking about limited space and productive space.”

Exxon Mobil has a hot sandwich program in 200 stores and is looking to expand into all of its 500 large-format stores over the next 12 to 24 months. “We have to continue to make that exciting,” Solsvig concluded. “What are some new items? How do we refresh it on a regular basis? If you look at any of the QSR competitors out there, their focus is always on new items, and we need to get on that same track. So we have a real challenge in our environment in terms of making sure that we have a food offering that is fresh, that is 24 hours, and that our customers believe in, like and enjoy.”
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