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Foodservice execs share insights and explore the category's evolution at CSNews' 2013 Foodservice Summit

Foodservice is no longer just one of many categories in the convenience store industry. In today's world of constantly shifting dining options and changing consumer preferences, skillfully managing a foodservice program is a critical aspect of running a successful convenience store, and one that must always be re-examined and experimented with in order to stay relevant to consumers.

This fact was top of mind for attendees of the Convenience Store News 2013 Foodservice Summit, presented in partnership with Tyson Foods. The second annual event, hosted in March at the Tyson Discovery Center in northwest Arkansas, featured market research into shopping habits by daypart, a live consumer focus group and retailer group discussions on the rise of snacking, the definition of value and much more.

Summit attendees included representatives from 7-Eleven Inc., Kum & Go LC, Rutter's Farm Stores, RaceTrac Petroleum Inc., Speedway LLC, Thorntons Inc. and Kwik Trip Inc., among other leading c-store chains, all of whom have focused on enhancing their foodservice offerings in recent years and came to the event ready to discuss both their successes and those ventures that didn't quite hit the mark.


Many of the retailers in attendance emphasized the importance of breakfast as the biggest area of growth in recent years, with a number of the retailers sharing stories of how test items made it to the permanent menu, and ways they're working to enhance the morning daypart.

Breakfast sandwiches are a big seller for many, along with breakfast snack wraps and bakery items, but it's not just the typical morning items that do well. Dallas-based 7-Eleven has seen surprising results among certain demographics, such as a boost in mini-taco sales in the morning daypart.

Kelly Buckley, the chain's vice president of fresh food innovation, pointed out a division in the daypart. Rather than looking at breakfast as a single unit, she said c-stores should consider the difference between the breakfast meal and the breakfast snack, and tailor their offerings to what customers want from each.

Allowing customers to decide for themselves what food will give them the best start to the day is also turning out to be surprisingly fruitful for c-stores, with multiple chains reporting that providing the ability to customize their selections at breakfast and other times of the day has yielded positive results and surprising combinations. "When you see what they will add to food, it's just astounding," said Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice for Rutter's Farm Stores.

When it comes to individual strategies, Louisville, Ky.-based Thorntons is shifting to higher-quality ingredients and items made on-site to get fresher, better-tasting products to consumers. While this has the potential to add more work for team members, Melina Patterson, senior foodservice product development manager, noted that simplifying the preparation process allows workers to put forth that extra effort.

Meanwhile, La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip launched Eat Smart, a menu guide to items below 500 calories with controlled fat and sodium content for customers who want to eat healthier.

Bloomington, Minn.-based Holiday Stationstores' Dave Yamaguchi also noted the importance of finding a balance between offering customers value in the form of low prices and value that comes from a higher-quality, premium item.

Additionally, participants discussed what they're doing to drive the lunch and snacking dayparts. Pretzel-based items may be a popular trend in the future, as a number of chains reported trying out pretzel buns or pretzel croissants, which give sandwiches a new look and flavor profile.

Others are working to promote pizza. West Des Moines, Iowa-based Kum & Go reported great success with a trial program offering $1 slices on Wednesdays, which resulted in a sharp volume spike and considerable engagement on both the consumer and employee sides.

When it comes to snacking, Atlanta-based RaceTrac is looking past traditional options, having introduced its successful Swirl World frozen yogurt offering in 2012. RaceTrac also reported seeing more mid- to late-morning snacks purchased by customers who skip traditional breakfast, but need something to keep them going until lunch. Warmed cookies also have a following at one c-store chain, although shelf life is a concern. Heat reduces the standard life of a cookie from a day to a few hours.

Retailers also acknowledged the potential for growth in the dinner daypart, which provides opportunity yet also presents multiple challenges. "We agree there is a need to address the dinner daypart and it's an option we are exploring long term," RaceTrac's Director of Foodservice Steven Turner pointed out.

Potentially the biggest barrier to capitalizing on the dinner daypart is the fact that in the minds of most consumers, convenience stores are not a credible option for the evening meal. The presence of fuel pumps outside of a store creates a visual reminder that it is not a standard restaurant. As one attendee noted, certain customers simply will not relate to purchasing dinner at what they view as a gas station.

Still, retailers are exploring ways to reach those customers who will give c-store dinners a chance. Pizza can serve as a dinner draw, either freshly prepared on-site or of the take-and-bake variety. Selling it by the slice provides a starting point. One retailer noted that offering pizza slices has allowed the chain to "put [its] feet in the water without losing our shirt."

Other chains have tried promoting evening value on a specific item. Pennsylvania-based Country Fair Stores experimented with an after-4 p.m. value proposition last summer, focusing on a combo of a sub sandwich, chips and soda. Chainwide results were average, although some stores saw a strong response.

Weiner of Rutter's suggested that retailers keep a flexible mind when it comes to categorizing food items as dinner. "One person's breakfast is another's dinner and vice versa," he said, adding that stirfry and breakfast bowls during the evening have both performed well for the central Pennsylvania chain.

One thing most of the attendees agreed upon is that building up the dinner daypart is a long-term proposition, not a quick change that can be made with a new offering or two. One retailer estimated it will take five to 10 years to create an impression in consumers' minds. Many c-store chains are focusing more on breakfast and lunch in the meantime, but they still have hope for dinner in the future.

"The balance will be found in offering the right products, at the right price, the right way," Buckley of 7-Eleven stated.


Beyond looking at their own customer base, it's important for foodservice-focused convenience stores to be aware of the forces at work in the wider market, according to a presentation by Mario Valdovinos, corporate chef and director of culinary insights for Tyson Foods. He discussed opportunities in the dinner daypart, flavor trends and "the end of cheap food as we know it" as he laid out the facts for attendees.

A number of industry myths run contrary to the facts, he explained. For example, instead of 18- to 34-year-olds serving as the backbone of restaurant traffic and sales, Baby Boomers and adults aged 65-plus are the stalwarts.

Debunking yet another myth, he said consumers actually "traded up" during the recession and certain pockets of growth far exceed the overall growth potential of the industry. Rather than focus purely on price, c-stores can capitalize on consumer priorities by adding premium ingredients and products, which top the list of factors consumers say influence their decision to spend more money at a restaurant.

Valdovinos also presented a number of common success strategies for businesses looking to expand their foodservice programs. These include: redefining value choice and size; moving beyond the core, such as when Subway added breakfast items to its menu; refreshing the core through updated offerings; and going big, as Burger King did when it launched its broadest expansion in nearly 60 years.

In another presentation, Tyson Foods' Chief Operating Officer Jim Lochner explored the short- and long-term drivers that will affect protein supply and demand this year. The 2012 price jump in corn, caused partially by drought, will have an effect on protein prices due to the resulting increased feed costs, he said. Like last year, the calf crop is especially low.

For retailers with an eye on trends, Lochner noted "the demand for bacon has gone off the charts."


Retailers got to hear directly from consumers during the CSNews Foodservice Summit when David Mills of the Mills Consulting Group led 10 consumers with experience purchasing prepared food from grocery and c-stores through a focus group discussion on what they do and don't want from their ideal convenience store.

According to the consumers, a single glance at the store's cleanliness and lighting is enough to tell them whether it's a place they want to buy food. To be successful as a foodservice destination, c-stores should move away from the image of a fueling station, according to the focus group. "There are c-stores where you know it's a gas station and c-stores [where] you can't tell it's a gas station," one consumer commented.

The group also valued customer service and in-store seating, while limited checkout options, visible tattoos or piercings on employees, and the presence of automotive items were cited as negatives.

As for the actual food offering, freshness was a major attractor for the group — grilled chicken and fish, rotisserie chicken, vegetables and not-from-concentrate soup were cited as the hot prepared items they most want to see. "Make it feel like a market," said one member of the focus group.

On the cold side, the group cited sub sandwiches and fresh chopped fruit, but only if they can see a date label on the latter.

While many c-stores have begun to be more active online, the consumers dismissed the idea of online ordering as an enticement, noting that the draw of c-stores is the convenience of not having to think ahead.


Throughout the Foodservice Summit, retailers discussed the products getting attention in their stores. Results varied by region and demographic, but such products included:

  • Yogurt, in standard packaging and make-your-own parfaits
  • Combining variety and adventure with familiar products, such as Korean tacos
  • Breakfast burritos that can be eaten one-handed while driving or placed in a vehicle's cup holder
  • Empanadas
  • Maple bacon doughnuts
  • Reuben sandwiches
  • Boiled peanuts
  • Simple, basic comfort food

The Foodservice Summit concluded with a discussion on healthy and better-for-you offerings in the convenience channel. Most of the retailers agreed that making c-store food healthier is a gradual process as customers ask how they can reduce guilt without sacrifice. Rather than going to all healthy food, consumers are cutting back where they can, sometimes combining healthier options with less-healthy food.

Some chains have launched specific better-for-you items, such as Rutter's low-calorie breakfast sandwich. Others are moving gradually by cutting back on sodium or posting calorie counts and nutritional information in appropriate places.

The attendees acknowledged, though, that convenience stores have a ways to go before they will truly come to mind as a destination for healthier items, since consumer perception makes a big difference no matter what specific items are offered.

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