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By Linda Lisanti
In an article entitled "Due Diligence" appearing in the July 16, 2007, issue, Convenience Store News took an in-depth look at Rutter's Farm Stores' foodservice program and how the retailer uses extensive customer research to ensure success. The company was then analyzing the results of focus groups, store intercepts and market data in preparation for a new foodservice model and store design it planned to unveil within the coming year. CSNews recently checked in with Rutter's vice president of foodservice, Jerry Weiner -- just a few months since the new model debuted -- to see how research became reality.
When Rutter's asked consumers what they wanted, the answers it received weren't all that shocking. There was a desire for light and bright stores, "greener" features, upscale bathrooms, an ease of flow from the front to back, with availability of products along the way, and in foodservice, the strongest requests were for fresh foods and healthy alternatives.
Never one to deny customers what they want, Rutter's newest c-store design delivers on all these points and more. The new prototype stores -- the first of which opened May 23 in Springettsbury Township, York County, Pa. -- boast a modern design with open ceilings, accent lighting, carpeting around the point-of-purchase, and liberal use of wallpaper, tile and wood accents. Restrooms feature touchless fixtures, floating ceilings, music and other upscale effects.
The stores include environmentally friendly aspects as well, including energy-efficient lighting, recycling bins, a white roof that keeps the building cooler while reducing energy demand, and a computer-managed refrigeration, lighting and climate system.
What's truly distinctive about Rutter's new stores, though, is the foodservice presentation -- a blend of elements from its existing stores mixed with new, cutting-edge offerings. "In the new store, when you walk in, the complete panorama is of fresh food. Everything in front of you gives a fresh impression. It's all extremely visible and accessible," Weiner said. "We feel our foodservice is the piece that separates us from the competition."
The retailer's new foodservice model, which incorporates custom stir-fry, fajitas and fresh-baked bread, may actually set it apart from the entire U.S. convenience industry. Company executives drew their inspiration from a fact-finding tour in Ireland where they saw c-stores cooking fresh-made stir-fry over an open flame. "We knew we couldn't go there, but thought we could adapt it for our environment," he explained.
The result is Rutter's new wok program. Customers can design their own "oriental bowls" by first choosing among fried rice, white rice or oriental noodles, and then among chicken, beef or pork. They also can select from various sauted toppings, including snow peas, broccoli and mushrooms, and dressings, such as teriyaki, sweet and sour, and General Tsao's. Orders are placed at touch screen kiosks and prepared right in front of the customer using a wok with inductive heat, which Weiner said is fast and safe, produces a lot of flavor, and offers "a visual sensation" with the steam it gives off.
Likewise, the wok allows customers to mix and match ingredients to create custom steak, chicken and veggie fajitas, and for the breakfast daypart, scrambled breakfast bowls are available with a choice of eggs, cheese, hash browns, meat and vegetables.
Aside from the wok, the other cornerstone of the retailer's new foodservice model is fresh-baked bread, available for sandwiches, as well as for individual retail purchase. Using dough supplied by Rich's in Buffalo, N.Y., sub rolls come in five varieties -- white, wheat, Italian, garlic and everything -- while cibatta rolls are offered in regular and multi-grain.
Being able to do fresh-baked bread -- and do it well -- is a huge advantage, according to Weiner, who explained baking fresh bread onsite has always proved challenging for consistency because "the reality of baking is that it's not an exact science."
On the beverage side, Rutter's new foodservice model features several new offerings from self-serve milkshakes, frozen cappuccino and smoothies, to fresh-brewed iced tea and iced coffee that customers can customize using Rutter's extensive condiment bar.
The new prototype stores also include an expanded fountain and frozen carbonated beverage presence. Most of Rutter's older stores offer eight-valve fountains, some of the more recent ones have 10, but these latest stores are equipped with 16-valve units. Frozen beverages have been increased to six valves; existing stores have two or four.
On top of all these new additions, Rutter's kept the best elements from its existing food programs. Before, the chain had four different proprietary foodservice programs -- deli, pizza, grill and bakery. Weiner said he looked at each one to determine what were the most successful elements, and then brought those over to the new model. Making the cut were: subs, sandwiches, wraps and fresh-made salads from the deli; Stromboli from the pizza program; and from the grill, burgers, cheese steaks, and fried foods.
What's more, the retailer has enhanced its menu of fried foods, introducing some unique items like fried macaroni and cheese, and fried brownies. Rutter's is now testing funnel cakes and a butter pretzel to see how they perform. "Our goal is to offer a wide variety of core items and ancillary add-on items to positively impact check averages," Weiner told Convenience Store News. "So, we are constantly looking for new items to bring in."
So far, customers are responding well to the new foodservice model, particularly female shoppers. And even though the wok program is so new and "such a leap from the perceived norm" of c-store foodservice, it's kicked off better than expected, Weiner said, adding that the stores have been doing a lot of sampling and couponing to encourage trial.
Rutter's second prototype store with the new foodservice model was set to open at the end of July, and eight more ground-up locations will be constructed this year -- part of the most ambitious growth plans in the chain's 40-year history. The retailer is investing more than $55 million in 2008 to build 10 new stores and 11 car washes.
Two existing stores that had older foodservice programs also have been gutted and retrofitted with the new model, including the wok program. Both improved more than 40 percent in sales as a result, Weiner said. Given this outcome, he thinks company officials will be "looking pretty seriously" at doing additional retrofits in the next capital year.
Also in the near future, the chain plans to make its first foray into the evening daypart, using the versatility of the wok to create a separate dinner menu. Weiner believes there's a lot of potential that Rutter's can tap into to develop a sizeable dinner business.
"The equipment set that's in [our new stores] now -- high-speed ovens, woks, fryers -- allows us to cook almost anything," he said. "This is just the beginning."