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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Like many other convenience store retailers, Thorntons Inc. has been asking itself: How can we do foodservice better? The retailer is now answering that question by enhancing its prepared food offering, as well as its cold and hot dispensed beverages, in an effort to attract more foodservice customers and increase sales across the categories.
"We believe there's so much opportunity in these categories," said Melina Hall, senior category manager of foodservice, who oversees the edible food category for the chain based here, while two other category managers partner on dispensed beverages.
Thorntons has singled out foodservice as a "strategic growth area," Hall noted. The changes underway at the company's 162 c-stores have been in the works for a few years now. In fact, at last year's Convenience Store News Foodservice Best Practices Roundtable, Hall shared with the group that Thorntons commissioned a study to profile its coffee and fountain drinkers, and was beginning to roll out changes based on those findings.
The research showed that while Thorntons had a good product, it didn't have the best setup.
"It wasn't convenient for customers to get in and out, and we needed to be more consistent from store to store," Hall explained. "We learned a lot about what the customer required and what made them comfortable. Then, we went in and looked at the floor plan of every store to give customers more landing areas for [dispensed beverages] and to improve the flow."
By May, Thorntons had upgraded the fountain equipment in more than half of its locations, which increased capacity and variety, and offered customers a more consistent experience across the chain. All locations now have Cornelius equipment, with the most common unit being the Cornelius Flavor Fusion. Stores actually have more heads now -- on average, 24 to 32 -- and every location offers flavor shots and has Scotsman Nugget Ice makers.
With more fountain heads to fill, Thorntons spent a lot of time working with the soft drink companies to identify the top-selling brands in each of its markets and develop store-specific fountain planograms, said Hall. "We believe the brands that sell well in a particular area need to be on the fountain machines in that area's stores," she said.
To ensure the highest quality of beverages, the chain launched a campaign around preventative maintenance. The facilities team makes quarterly visits to check cold dispensed equipment. The first thing this team did was install filtration systems, so Thorntons now uses 100-percent filtered water in all its drinks and ice. The company has given away free beverages to promote this fact. Going forward, maintenance at each store will include inspection of the filtration system, fountain equipment, air pumps and bag-in-box (BIB) pumps.
Thorntons' hot beverage offer is still a work in progress. The retailer is testing a new hot dispensed landing area that allows customers to access the condiments from any side. The large version can accommodate up to eight people at one time.
Plus, the condiment selection has been expanded in all stores to include PC-style creamers, bulk creamer, Coffeemate pump creamer and a "Hot Treat Center" featuring fresh whipped cream and sauces in a variety of flavors -- chocolate, caramel, raspberry and white chocolate.
These wide-ranging beverage changes are just one part of Thorntons' approach to growing its foodservice business. The other is a new, chainwide fresh food program that not only grows the company's current commissary business, but duplicates it in other markets.
Up until recently, only 25 percent of the retailer's stores were selling fresh food items supplied by the commissary that Thorntons owns and operates near its Louisville headquarters. The other 75 percent were selling thaw-and-serve sandwiches. The retailer's goal was to have all of its stores offer fresh food items and continue marketing them under its QuickCafé brand.
Thorntons decided the best model would be to partner with a third-party commissary.
As of last month, all stores feature a cold case stocked with fresh sandwiches, salads, whole fruit, cut fruit and parfaits supplied by either the Thorntons commissary or the third-party commissary, which the company did not wish to name. Most of the cold cases are six feet wide and have three to five tiers. Many are island cases that sit in a highly visible location within the store; however, in some locations, they sit along the back wall in an area dedicated especially to prepared food and dispensed beverages.
The commissary-supplied fresh foods carry Thorntons' QuickCafé brand, which has been given an overhaul as well. "We changed the packaging and the look of the label. We now use the color green and even include the word ‘fresh' on the label," Hall explained.
The retailer created a similar label for its hot grab-and go sandwiches, also sold under the QuickCafé brand. "The new label gives the impression of a national branded program," said Hall. "We felt this was important to build the brand up, and make it look trustworthy and credible."
While most of these changes are still relatively new, Hall happily reported that they appear to be paying off already. The customer reception has been positive, she said, and the company continues to see foodservice sales climb month after month over the prior year.
For more on Thorntons' revamp, check out the July 4 issue of Convenience Store News.