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What Does It Take to Craft the Secret Sauce?

C-store foodservice expert Ben Lucky shared winning formulas for prepared food, dispensed beverages and fresh bakery at the 2024 Convenience Foodservice Exchange.
Angela Hanson
Ben Lucky at CFX 2024
Ben Lucky was the keynote speaker at the 2024 Convenience Foodservice Exchange.

TAMPA, Fla. — Foodservice veteran Ben Lucky opened his keynote presentation at Convenience Store News' 2024 Convenience Foodservice Exchange event with a deceptively simple question: "Who are you?"

The question of identity has become increasingly relevant as the foodservice category grows more important to the convenience channel and brands try to forge distinct foodservice identities to stand out from the competition.

[Read more: PHOTO GALLERY: 2024 Foodservice Innovators Awards Winners Celebrated]

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Lucky urged attendees to give the question serious consideration, but also provided his own answer. "We are the redwoods of our industry," he said, comparing convenience foodservice leaders to the deceptively small root systems of the famously enormous trees. "You're thinking, wow, how do the 10-foot-deep root systems hold up a tree like that? It's because they interlink, they hold together, they create a connection. That's what we're doing here and that's why you are the redwoods."

Building a successful convenience store foodservice program can be extra tricky in an industry where company executives may have an "oil company mentality" in which waste is never a consideration — even if waste is a necessary aspect of offering enticing food instead of microwave-on-demand products that won't bring customers back for a return visit.

"[They] have this desire to have really good foodservice, but they're coming from a paradigm of 100 gallons comes in on the truck, it goes into the tank, 100 gallons goes out, and they charge for 100 gallons," he said. 

Having a plan based on the right information and an internal formula to offer quality and increase profits can combat the no-waste "fuelification" of foodservice, which will result in long-term failure even if it avoids losing money in the short term.

Foodservice operators can't optimize their programs by telling guests what they should want. Instead, they need to listen to their guests to understand what they want — something Lucky calls "the foundation" of a successful program.

"If you don't know your guests, you will have no guests," he said.

To put their best food forward, retailers need to have their own ingredient lists and recipes or rather, processes and outlines of what it is they plan to achieve with their program. Lucky drew from a conversation with fellow foodservice expert Richard Poye, former vice president of merchandising and foodservice at RaceTrac Inc., to describe the steps operators should take:

  • Start with a defined vision and mission statement.
  • From there, add highlights, differentiated services and products that are relevant to the target market.
  • Once these are established, brands have a platform to create a content strategy toolkit.

Knowing one's guests also means knowing oneself, Lucky said. "You need to know who you are and are you committed to food — or better yet, obsessed — or are you merely interested in it?"

The Ingredients of Success 

Operators should strive to get credit for the quality of their program. Attributes such as flavor, texture, aroma, visuals, the sound of the kitchen, naming and photos all contribute to the impression of a differentiated experience, which in combination with a good price and value will determine satisfaction, leading to retrial and a loyal following.

"You want to know your market and be able to fill a void. If everybody's doing chicken and you want to do chicken, what's going to set you apart from the competition in terms of the convenience stores?" Lucky posed. "Now, there's Slim Chickens, there's Dave's Hot, there's Raising Canes, there's all these guys."

The thing that makes the difference could be tasty add-ons or condiments — or it could be having a plan that is well-thought-out but still flexible.

"Maybe that is, no pun intended, the secret sauce," Lucky said. "Have your financing set up well and have your leadership buy into everything, and then become an obsessed, foodservice guest culture. Be willing to adapt. It might be grab-and-go, it might be drive-thru."

A key ingredients of "the secret sauce" is buy-in at all levels because foodservice is a team sport, he said. This means hiring well and having legitimate foodservice trainers.

Sampling programs are also extremely helpful, but operators must prepare to be surprised and let go of their sacred cows because customers may want something different from what is expected. Customization is also an easy way to differentiate.

"Give 'em something to customize your food with, even if it is [just] a hot dog. Maybe you get with a really good vendor that has a fried jalapeño or a fried pickle condiment that you could put on top of that hot dog, and it'll work for your hot dog customer that you didn't think you had before."

Once foodservice leaders know what they want to do and how they want to do it, Lucky's advice is to stay the course and refuse to deliver anything less than the quality they planned for.

"The choice is yours. You have the data," he said. "So, you need to stand up to those people that are trying to push you in the crappy-chicken way, and then you choose to thrive. And I say, thrive."

The ninth-annual Convenience Foodservice Exchange event, held May 2-3, was an exclusive networking and experience-focused conference that gave attendees actionable knowledge and research to strengthen their foodservice business. 

Sponsors of the 2024 Convenience Foodservice Exchange included gold sponsors Ferrero Foodservice, Hunt Brothers Pizza LLC, The J.M. Smucker Co., Krispy Krunchy Chicken, LSI Industries, Southern Visions LLP, Stuffed Foods and Sugar Foods Corp.; silver sponsors Steritech and Supplyit By Jera Concepts; and Innovation Zone sponsors Bite Inc., Shiftsmart and Upshop. 

About the Author

Angela Hanson

Angela Hanson

Angela Hanson is Senior Editor of Convenience Store News. She joined the brand in 2011. Angela spearheads most of CSNews’ industry awards programs and authors numerous special news reports. In 2016, she took over the foodservice beat, a critical category for the c-store industry. 

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