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For convenience stores that focus on food -- as many do in the channel these days -- this year's National Restaurant Association (NRA) Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, held May 21 to 24 in Chicago, stirred up some great menu, packaging and display ideas on the vast show floor and in the more than 70 educational sessions offered.
Convenience Store News made note of several food inspirations that could give forward-thinking convenience operators a competitive edge.
Spice It Up: In this economy, Ray Martin, vice president of culinary development for BJ's Restaurants Inc., said he turns to "ethnic items" to flavor his menu with taste and cost appeal. He mentioned that pasta was not a high-cost item, but can be an excellent menu attraction when spices are added to it. Lesser grades of meat, braised meats and other versatile protein sources are also wonderfully enhanced with marinades and seasonings, he offered.
He advised foodservice operators to also consider expanding flavor profiles and spicing up meats -- but not too much -- so they can be utilized for other items. For instance, pork dinners that can also be made into pulled pork sandwiches the next day. The [cost of] "everything's up," Martin stated. "So it all boils down to execution. That's what keeps me up at night."
On the show floor, McCormick Culinary highlighted a core line of professional spices, herbs and seasonings. Its Lawry's line had a variety of seasoned rubs and ethnic seasoning mixes that would allow foodservice operators to create unique flavor profiles.
Another "spicy" opportunity for c-store operators is to put spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg by the coffee bar for added customer value and flavor enhancement.
Decrease Portion Sizes -- Attractively: If it can work for consumer packaged goods, it can work for foodservice operators, as long as customers don't feel cheated. "Portion sizes are the most important thing on the menu/cost equation," said Steve Schimoler, an independent operator of Crop Bistro & Bar in Cleveland.
To save on ingredient costs, Schimoler described how he recently reduced a 12-ounce rib eye steak dinner to a 6-ounce sliced steak of a lower grade. "We took off 50 percent, but it looked better to the customer," he said. He referred to this as "bundling," a technique delis use to make meats look attractive in the case. "Slicing it made it more user-friendly; it was a better eating experience because customers didn't have to fiddle with a knife."
He also reminded his audience that "bigger is not better -- better is better," emphasizing the importance of the simple things that make food appealing such as hot food that's actually hot.
Portion control also means serving customers just enough food for that one meal. There is no reason to try and give customers "extra" food to take home with them, said Schimoler.
Change With the Seasons: Schimoler changes his menu six times a year, offering items that have seasonal appeal. Convenience stores could do this half as often and still get good results. By changing up the eating experience, customers "go crazy and think less about the price," he said. Whimsical flavors, side dishes and the advertisement of seasonal variety make a menu "more interesting and fun," he explained.
Keep Core Products on Top: With coffee at its core, Dunkin' Brands wasn't about to cheapen it when the downturn hit. "Our coffee is as good as ever. We wanted to make sure our loyal customers love us as much, if not more, after the downturn," said Stan Frankenthaler, executive chef/director of culinary development. So instead of altering its coffee quality, Dunkin achieved cost savings in packaging and distribution.
Consider Creating a Twist: Dunkin' Brands took this advice literally -- it started twisting bagels and ended up creating a new form and a "whole new occasion to eat bagels," Frankenthaler said. These bagels "with a twist" include flavors such as cinnamon raisin, French toast, cheddar cheese and jalapeno cheddar, and have created a buzz for customers to eat bagels in the afternoon, as a snack.
"There was no cannibalization of our regular bagels; it increased frequency and drove traffic," Frankenthaler said. What is so great from a profit perspective is that the Bagel Twists are the same weight of dough as a toasted bagel with butter -- which the chain offers for around 89 cents each -- but the Bagel Twists have a suggested retail of $1.29 each.
And Dunkin' Brands didn't stop there. It also recently came out with Wake-Up Wraps, which have proven to be a successful new item for the morning crowd.
Olives as a New Snack Pack: Could olives be the next packaged snack frontier? They are a popular snack at supermarket bars, but in grab-and-go packaged form, they are unavailable in this country. In Europe, however, Oloves (olovelife.com) are offered on some flights instead of the proverbial peanuts. Oloves are available now in 30-gram tear-open pouches in two flavors: Tasty Mediterranean and Light Hearted Vinaigrette. Both feature pitted green olives with no liquid, no saturated fat and only 50 calories.
"We put a little love in every olive," said founder Matt Hunt. He touts Oloves as an excellent "ready to go" item for c-stores, potentially selling on clip strips for $1.29 per pack.
Is Yogurt Greek to You? C-stores that are serious about their dairy offerings should know that Greek yogurt now accounts for 25 percent of the yogurt category, according to a spokesperson for Dannon. Greek yogurt (made with a traditional Greek-strained process to provide a creamy-thick consistency) has doubled its share of the category over the past year.
Ready-to-serve yogurt parfaits are another growing segment of the category and Dannon's new parfait offering will be available in July.
Good Sporks: Georgia-Pacific's Dixie SmartStock Cutler Dispenser was highlighted at the NRA Show as a hygienic and reduced consumption option for foodservice operators who want to make an especially good impression. One of the cutlery options in and out of the dispenser is the spork -- a fork and spoon combo that the company said is becoming increasingly popular with consumers across many venues. C-stores may wish to consider the spork as a convenient combination utensil for their foodservice area.
Decreased Deli Shrink is in the Bag: For convenience stores with delis that wish to reduce shrink at the counter, Package Containers Inc. unveiled a new line of tamper-proof bags that feature a fold-over top that can be sealed at the register or deli counter with a pricing label or restaurant seal, enabling a customer to depart or continue shopping without concern of contamination or shrink.
Energetic and Icy: C-stores that have jumped on the icy energy drink bandwagon will be pleased to know that Taylor unveiled its new C314 FCB machine, which the company said is perfect for making energy beverages available as frozen carbonated beverages.