Panera Bread recently announced plans to open hundreds of branded convenience stores in major markets across the United States. The Chicago-based chain, which posted sales of $3.7 billion in 2012, said the new stores will be hybrid versions of its popular fast-casual  restaurants, but with fuel pumps, snacks and other c-store mainstays as part of the mix. The rollout could begin as early as 2014.
Before you react with alarm or bewilderment to the paragraph above, I should point out that nothing in it is true — except for the part about Panera generating $3.7 billion in 2012. But if the idea of going head-to-head with Panera made you uneasy, even for a moment, this is understandable.
Use a Venn diagram to compare the attributes of c-store and fast-casual food strategies and the overlap is considerable. Both sectors target on-the-go shoppers who need to get in and out in a flash. Both aim to broaden their appeal by combining higher-quality food ingredients with sparse, easy-to-understand menus. And as they seek to innovate, both c-stores and fast-casual chains are paying much closer attention to brand-reinforcing graphics, store design and the total customer experience.
For its part, the fast-casual sector has honed this formula to near-perfection, with impressive results. According to research firm Technomic Inc., “Fast-casual makes up just 14 percent of the total $223 billion limited-service restaurant segment, but its sales continue to outpace other operators. Fast-casual sales increased 13 percent in 2012, and the largest chains did even better, growing by 16 percent.”
But despite all the overlap in the aforementioned Venn diagram, rarely if ever does the c-store sector look outside itself for new and innovative approaches. For years now, a few chains — the likes of RaceTrac, Wawa and QuikTrip, to name a few — have led the pack and spawned quite a bit of imitation, with some of their competitors repeatedly taking “best practice tours” in which they visit these innovators’ new stores in search of creative ideas.
Innovation is different from imitation, however. Given all the channel blurring in food today — with dollar stores, drugstores, c-stores, quick-service  restaurants and other businesses increasingly competing for the same customer — looking outside your own sector is arguably not just a best practice; it is a strategic imperative.
If c-stores want to build their brands around stronger food offerings, they would do well to branch out and study what is happening in sectors with which they share some commonalities. Panera and Pret A Manger sell sandwiches, which are precisely what so many of the better c-store retailers are focused on these days.
Why have consumers responded so enthusiastically to fast-casual chains? How do these chains approach preparation, distribution, traffic flow, presentation and signage? Like c-stores, today’s fast-casual chains contain a number of self-serve elements, such as fountain-drink stations, coffee services and beverage coolers. Pret A Manger, in particular, is all grab-and-go — a convenience store, minus the smokes and the gas.
What successful elements from this could be adapted for a c-store context? Picture what Panera or Chipotle might actually look like as a hybrid convenience store/fast-casual restaurant. What would have to change? What could stay the same? Operationally, how large would a c-store company have to be before it could launch its own commissary and begin stocking its stores with prepared foods worthy of the best in fast-casual?
In all likelihood, asking such questions would not lead to a total remake of the decades-old c-store model. But it could very well spark some creative approaches that yielded real benefits for those brave enough to try.
Naturally, risk-taking is a part of this. The typical evolution involves launching a test concept and spending a lot of money to work out the kinks. Tests fail, which is perhaps why so many c-store chains tend to favor low-risk, equipment-based solutions to their foodservice offers. But the upside of automated approaches, such as savings on labor and storage space, should be considered along with the potential downside: namely, a perpetuation of the consumer perception that c-store food is greasy, unhealthy and stale.
Stealing pages from Panera Bread or Pret A Manger, by contrast, would entail a high level of commitment, with different skill positions, a bigger investment in people and infrastructure, additional training and more storage space. And yet, you can bet the millions of Americans who regularly patronize fast-casual restaurants spend plenty of time visiting c-stores as well. These consumers have more choices today than ever. They are accustomed to switching from one brand to the next. And their frantic schedules actually favor more one-stop shopping at convenience stores.
Consider Technomic’s 10 Trends for 2014 report. Published in November, it highlights the breakdown of traditional meal times as a trend to watch. “Consumers are less likely to eat according to a three-square-meals schedule; they nosh, skip meals, eat breakfast for dinner and vice versa,” the researchers explain. “More restaurants are introducing innovative breakfast items…often available all day. And while breakfast- and lunch-only concepts are building a niche, other operators are promoting late-night breakfast menus, often in conjunction with 24-hour drive-thru service.”
That sounds an awful lot like a national to-go order for more convenient approaches to food. Will the c-store sector rise to the challenge?
Joe Bona is president of branded environments at CBX, the New York-based brand consultancy and retail design firm. He can be reached at [email protected] .
Editor's note: The opinions expressedin this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.