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Picture a steak — beautiful, medium-rare filet with grilled asparagus. Can you smell it?
Now picture it on a paper plate on your desk as you read this. Not as appetizing? That steak will taste differently depending on where you are and how it’s presented.
Your environment has an effect on how you perceive food — a huge effect. McDonald’s former CEO Don Thompson explained, “If you have a restaurant that is appealing, contemporary and relevant from both the street and the interior, the food tastes better.”
With foodservice emerging as one of the biggest trends in convenience, many retailers are reexamining many aspects of their brand and business. The type of consumer we are targeting has changed to include females, families and Millennials. Chefs are being consulted and culinary trends are being analyzed. With a focus on food, internal capabilities such as health, operations and purchasing are being affected. What’s not always obvious is that design plays a huge part in the success of a foodservice offering.
Design wasn’t always critical. Convenience stores were a place to buy stuff: cokes, smokes, chips and lottery tickets. Stores needed to be clean and bright. In order to differentiate between other stores, over-the-top branding was used. You know, the “Xtreme Mountain Fountain Zone” type of thing.
Well, times are changing. Convenience stores have long been moving away from highly disruptive graphics toward restaurant cues. Many top c-store chains compete with the Dunkin’ Donuts and quick-service restaurants (QSRs) of the world on a regular basis. Casey’s pizzas, Wawa’s hoagies and Stripes’ Laredo tacos are all credible alternatives.
It’s important to look to restaurants for design cues. Warm colors, specialty lighting and non-industrial flooring are a start. These elements go a long way toward helping consumers feel that you’re in the food business. New formats from Wawa and Cumberland Farms employ outdoor seating, and these seating options are an advertisement for fresh food.
There are many ways to design for food and not every store has to be cookie-cutter to be successful. Neighbours, a concept designed for Petro-Canada more than 10 years ago, made waves in the convenience industry with a more restaurant-inspired look and feel.
Former senior director of foodservice at Petro-Canada Ed Burcher noted, “We needed the guest to think ‘FOOD’ from the time they pulled into the parking lot to when they entered the store. The colors, textures and design had to reinforce the food purchase. We were able to do this and people thought of Neighbours as a restaurant and coffee shop, not a c-store. Our competition for the food occasion was Tim Hortons and McDonald’s, not other gas stations.”
Neighbours’ exterior was made of stone, while dark, earthy colors covered the interior. The atmosphere was rounded out by specialty lighting, imported glass tile in the bathroom, a barista and an open kitchen with chef-inspired uniforms. In the first year, the first 10 stores sold more coffee than the rest of the network. Was the offer better? Of course it was. But it looked like a place to buy coffee, not a place to buy motor oil and toilet paper that happened to sell coffee.
It was a successful design that showcased food on a pedestal. This aesthetic has become an industry paradigm, borrowed and imitated for nearly a decade. But what’s happened now is that everyone is chasing it and only looking inside the industry for design inspiration. We’ve seen new stores across the nation from different convenience retailers sporting similar details. It makes you want to be in the stone, red awning and gooseneck lighting business.
To be with and even ahead of the times, you need to look inside and outside of the category. Where are people buying food? Grocery stores, drugstores and QSRs are only a few channels that have become competition.
Interestingly, about two years ago, top QSRs started adapting a more European approach to design. McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King were all updated. Bold, solid colors, liberal use of wood and geometric architecture have all been seen in new store offerings. Inside, they are experimenting with multiple chair types and specialty lighting. They look like dining rooms, not bathrooms. (Look at your store to see if the flooring, lighting and wall colors are the same inside the bathroom as in the foodservice area. If they are, it might be time to reconsider.)
Food presentation is also key. Even if you sell hot dogs, you have to be willing to overstock in order to show abundance and appetite appeal. You have to invest in foodservice. If you are set on waiting until the last hot dog is sold off the roller grill, then you should get out of the business. No one wants that last dog.
A little food theater can go a long way. We are seeing more open kitchens, fresh produce areas and eye-catching equipment like the tap-style Unicorn soda dispenser from Lancer.
Customers will respond to your efforts. They will associate the design of your store with a place to come for fresh food and beverages. People eat with their eyes before they eat with their mouths. Design is an amazing thing. It lives. It evolves. It changes people’s emotions. It comforts. It excites … and it sells food.