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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 CEO Don Thompson explains, “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’s and quick-service restaurants (QSRs) of the world on a regular basis. Casey's pizzas, Wawa 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 explains, "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 Horton's 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.