Menu Innovation During Challenging Times

Parker's and Dash In continue to expand and enhance their prepared food and beverage programs even during periods of extreme opposition.
Angela Hanson
Senior Editor
Angela Hanson profile picture
prepared food

NATIONAL REPORT — As supply chain woes continue, employee recruitment remains difficult and rising inflation affects both the cost of ingredients and consumers' purchasing habits, operating a successful prepared food program is more challenging than ever.

Despite these headwinds, the foodservice category remains important to convenience store operators, who are being pushed to find new and innovative ways to succeed by doing more with less.

While the sourcing and delivery situation remains in flux, c-store retailers have to be ready to think quickly and move fast when it comes to adjusting their prepared food and beverage offerings.

"There have been several instances when product was expected at our delivery partners and the load did not show up or showed up with product shortages. Several times, this has happened the day before delivery to our stores, so we had a very short window of time to coordinate alternative product," Heather Davis, director of foodservice at Savannah, Ga.-based Parker's, told Convenience Store News.

Several c-store operators report a degree of improvement in the level of out-of-stocks they are encountering, while others have seen the problem worsen in recent months as initial supply chain problems have created a domino effect. A larger number of operators have begun turning to the same alternative as Parker's.

Prioritizing certain ingredients or products and taking a pragmatic approach to outages enable c-store retailers to react more productively. For example, resorting to generic coffee cups rather than branded designs may be frustrating, but it is preferable to running out of chicken for a chicken-heavy menu.

"We have to be open to that adjustment," said Benjamin Lucky, category manager of foodservice at La Plata, Md.-based Dash In, a subsidiary of the Wills Group. He acknowledged that the adjustment is "not ideal by any means."

But now is the time for operators to leverage strong relationships with their suppliers and distributors to ensure product availability.

"We have remained flexible with our supplier partners to keep our core items in stock," Davis said, citing this as a reason Parker's, which operates 71 c-stores across Georgia and South Carolina, has not had to remove any core items due to unreliability.

Creativity in the Kitchen

One silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic is that c-stores repositioned themselves as strong competitors to quick-service restaurants, fast-casual outlets and other foodservice operators outside of the convenience channel.

However, to keep this momentum going, retailers can't rest on their laurels; under current circumstances, menu innovation and new product introductions may have to be less of a priority as brands find ways to avoid the perception that their prepared food offering has stagnated.

At Parker's, this has meant giving focus to non-made-to-order offerings. "We have focused on expanding our grab-and-go options in our kitchens. Cold items such as salads, sandwiches and parfaits were first to expand. We are now working on expanding hot grab-and-go items," Davis explained.

Strong relationships with key suppliers aren't just good for managing supply chain difficulties, but they are also vital for menu development. Suppliers serve as valuable partners in assessing what is both feasible and practical for c-store operators to execute.

"Don't stop with ideation," Davis advised. "Keep working with vendor partners to review items and push them to help come up with ideas to complement your offering."

During the planning process, operators should think beyond introducing a single new offering. "If you choose to add an item, have plans to use it beyond what you initially bring it in for," she added.

Similarly, Dash In is focused on using the same ingredients that can be sourced reliably to make creative new variations of menu items.

"We refuse to accept complacency and stagnation as the end result of this [supply chain] situation," Lucky expressed. "We use products in different ways and recipe engineer to adjust our mix."

As part of its goal to use the tools it has at hand creatively, Dash In embraced working within increased limitations and experimented with items already on the menu to come up with the "Stackadilla," which features multiple quesadillas piled on top of each other.

The Stackadilla's ingredients are largely the same as a standard quesadilla, but its unique presentation makes it different enough to capture a great deal of consumer interest, Lucky pointed out. In fact, two varieties of the Stackadilla have become Dash In's top sellers.

The lesson is that product innovation "doesn't have to be wildly different," according to Lucky, who stressed that the Stackadilla was not born out of desperation, but of a creative mindset.

Retailers also recommend experimenting with small product changes that can have an outsized impact on the final product. Using new sauces, different types of cheese, or other toppings can make a new product taste special and different without adding a burden to the logistics of procurement.

Details of preparation can also make a difference, according to retailers. For example, preparing a cheese melt on a griddle and allowing it to become a little crunchy on the edges provides a more interesting texture that also emphasizes its freshness.

Finally, focusing on making items as simple to prepare as possible will go a long way to minimize difficulties in both sourcing their ingredients and preparing them while short-staffed.

About the Author

Angela Hanson
Angela Hanson is Senior Editor of Convenience Store News. Read More