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CHICAGO -- If traditional restaurant operators weren't aware of the growth happening in convenience store foodservice before attending the 2012 National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show, they certainly are now. For the first time, this year's NRA Show incorporated a focus on c-store foodservice into its educational track -- and not just once, but three times.
Two of the three convenience store-specific educational sessions during the event -- which took place Saturday through Tuesday at Chicago's McCormick Place -- were presented by Convenience Store News, the leading media brand of the convenience retail channel.
Foodservice leaders from two of the industry's best-in-class operators, Nice N Grocery Shoppes in upstate New York and Kwik Trip Inc. in Wisconsin, as well as foodservice consultant Dean Dirks of Dirks Consulting in Washington State joined CSNews in giving NRA Show attendees insight into the ever-expanding world of convenience store foodservice.
"Foodservice is a big chunk of how c-stores view the future," Dirks explained during Saturday's session, "The State of C-store Foodservice." He noted that people are putting more and more of an emphasis on convenience, which is good for the industry, specifically in foodservice.
Dirks and CSNews' Editor-in-Chief Don Longo reviewed both consumer and retailer research documenting the current state of foodservice in the c-store industry. Longo said the predominant foodservice strategy among c-stores is to defend breakfast and grow dinner, though he pointed out that c-stores face a great deal of competition on both these fronts.
Still, c-store operators are making headway in capturing consumers' foodservice dollars by satisfying their needs. Roughly 60 percent of consumers recently surveyed said they were "very satisfied" or "extremely satisfied" with their last prepared food purchase at a c-store.
"It's amazing how far we've come in 20 years," Dirks commented.
CSNews followed up this session with a more tactical panel discussion on Sunday, entitled "How To Do World-Class C-store Foodservice." Panelists included Dirks, Nice N Easy's Executive Vice President of Food Services Dr. Jack Cushman, Kwik Trip's Director of Foodservice Research and Development Jim Bressi, and CSNews' Executive Editor Linda Lisanti, who served as moderator.
The overriding message of the panel was that c-stores need to think and act like restaurants. Food safety and quality, hygiene and cleanliness are paramount whether c-stores follow Kwik Trip’s vertical integration model or Nice N Easy’s reliance on local distributors and making all food fresh at the store level.
"We are a restaurant, a grocery store, a fueling station and a thirst destination. The trick is balancing the expertise needed in all those areas,” Cushman remarked.
Bressi said foodservice doesn't start in the kitchen, but rather the bathroom. "You have to have a clean bathroom before you can sell food. You start with hygiene and food safety," he said.
Dirks stressed that a c-store retailer must do the financial analytics to justify the return on their investment for equipment, branding, labor, etc. before even jumping into foodservice. “You need to do your due diligence. If you don’t do it right, it could kill your business," he said.
On the final day of the show, c-store foodservice took one last turn in the spotlight during a session titled, "Foodservice: The C-store Game Changer." Joseph Chiovera , vice president of foodservice for Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc.'s Circle K Stores spoke about the need for top-down commitment and strong fundamentals in order to be successful at c-store foodservice.
Circle K is making that commitment now, Chiovera said, adding that foodservice is a risk/reward business. "The more risk you take, the more reward there is," he said. "We [at Circle K] realize what needs to happen. We want to blaze a trail with perishables in the c-store channel."
U.S. c-stores can learn much from European c-stores, where the perishable food chain is highly advanced and purchasing perishables in c-stores is "second nature," Chiovera concluded.
"The European invasion is coming, and it's the right thing for us," he said.