NATIONAL REPORT — The good news for convenience store operators is that consumers are increasingly likely to consider c-store foodservice programs when they want an away-from-home meal or snack. The bad news is that c-stores are being considered in the same competitive pool as quick-service restaurants, fast-casual eateries and other c-store chains — all of which are continually upping their prepared food game: the larger the number of competitors, the more difficult it is to stand out from the crowd.
To gain greater share of the stomach, it is critical that food-forward convenience stores carefully examine their menu, their market and their competitors as they seek to differentiate their offer and make a name for themselves as a food destination.
One option is to identify a menu item that can serve as the program's tentpole.
The "convenient" part of convenience stores comes from providing customers easy access to a wide variety of food and merchandise they want and need, but the best-known c-store foodservice programs are recognized for something specific. For example, Casey's General Stores Inc. is a market leader in pizza, while Stewart's Shops is strongly associated with its ice cream, and 7-Eleven Inc.'s Slurpee frozen drinks have been iconic for decades.
C-store operators can also stand out by focusing on a class of menu items that are unique and targeted to the tastes of their customers. Baltimore-based High's, which operates 54 locations across the Mid-Atlantic, specializes in craveable fare that is unique to its area, such as Chesapeake Bay rockfish sandwiches, Maryland jumbo lump crab cakes, scrapple egg and cheese sandwiches, Maryland smoke house pit beef sandwiches, and more.
"We've even partnered with a local specialty restaurant supplier to ensure we buy local; serve unique and regional; and provide quality food, not 'entry level' food," said Dallas Wells, vice president of foodservice at High's.
Differentiating a brand from the competition starts early, going all the way back to menu development. C-stores that incorporate a guiding philosophy as they move through the process of creating new items have a stronger sense of identity.
At High's, the foodservice team's menu innovation filters include:
Flavor and spice;
Exclusivity/being the only brand to offer something;
Ease of assembly and speed in the kitchen;
Packaging for on-the-go or "dashboard dining"; and
Below 35 percent food cost.
C-store chains can approach menu development in significantly different ways and still do well, but it’s crucial that each retailer has a plan that includes benchmarks for a successful product.
"When developing a new item for one of our restaurant concepts, we are guided by a combination of different factors — customer testing and feedback, marketplace trends and regionality, and our overarching restaurant menu strategy," said Kelly Buckley, vice president of 7-Eleven Restaurants.
In recent years, 7-Eleven has done well with its Evolution Store format. These lab stores serve as experiential testing grounds for new product innovation and restaurant formats, including proprietary platforms such as Laredo Taco Co. and Raise the Roost Chicken & Biscuits. Restaurants have since become a key part of 7-Eleven's growth strategy.
"We regularly conduct consumer interviews and research to stay connected to what is resonating and what our opportunities are," Buckley said. "Additionally, we hold sensory testing and test markets before we roll out items to all restaurants."
Overcoming Supply Chain Challenges
While the COVID-19 pandemic has created major supply chain disruptions, industry experts agree that using local products in c-store prepared food programs can not only help operators overcome these disruptions, but also emphasize freshness, keep offerings relevant to their market, and deepen a brand's connection with its community.
"I want my menu to reflect the seasons and, when possible, we want to use local ingredients with local companies," said Kirk Matthews, who was recently promoted from vice president of foodservice at Fremont, Ohio-based FriendShip Food Stores to vice president of retail operations. He acknowledges that while the current climate does not make it easy, FriendShip makes a point of looking at local items first.
Even large operators with a multi-state footprint and a standard menu can think locally when it comes to certain ingredients.
"Our goal is to produce high-quality food products that are differentiated, authentic and come at a great value," said Robin Murphy, senior director of fresh foods at 7-Eleven. "One of the best ways to achieve this is by introducing items with local flair and utilizing regional partners.”
Case in point: In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, 7-Eleven's sandwiches are made with bread from Village Baking Co., a well-known local chain.
"The supply chain is certainly experiencing unprecedented and unique challenges. Regardless of those challenges, we are determined to get customers what they want, when and where they want it," Murphy added.
An Eye on Quality
To a certain degree, c-store menus will inevitably have strong similarities. Items like chicken fingers and pizza are continually popular regardless of emerging food trends, which means most retailers will offer them. But a c-store operator can still stand out if it offers these common products at a high level of quality, according to Wells.
"Sell what sells first, then seek to innovate," he said. "Sales is the engine that drives profitability. Before you develop your menu, master the quality and look of the best-sellers."
Getting the right "look" goes beyond the product itself; presentation can enhance or sabotage the appeal of even the best items. "There is nothing worse than looking at a hot display case full of cardboard boxes and aluminum foil wrap," Wells cautioned.
Small changes to standard items can also enhance them without changing the product into something consumers no longer recognize as a favorite.
"Everyone wants to be different serving the same basic offer. Maybe a different bread or cheese or protein on the same type of product," Matthews said. "It can be boring, and some folks like the boring filler food. To develop a menu offer that stands out from others, we look at: Is there a need for the product we want to offer? What is the need and why? Do we have a similar offer already? Will this offer work in all stores?"
Once a solid foundation is established, c-stores can branch out with new flavors and varieties that their competitors don't have. 7-Eleven, long known for its taquitos and chicken wings, has recently added options such as a Korean barbecue taquito and hot honey wings, which are glazed with a honey chili sauce made with real honey, roasted garlic and chili pepper. 7-Eleven also rolled out a Shrimp Diabla Taco during the Lenten season at its Laredo Taco Co. stores.
"It is critical to maintain a solid core offering of products to solidify our position as a destination for high-quality, craveable and convenient food," Murphy said. "The combination of continuous improvements to core offerings, strategically launching limited-time offerings to surprise and delight customers, and keeping quality and value top of mind sets us apart."
Experimenting with new products based on existing offerings is also a safer way to test the waters without venturing too far from what a brand is already known for.
"We want to utilize our current items as much as we can," Matthews said. "We have found that new items that complement some existing offers do better for us. I want to stay true to what we do — make the best, tastiest chicken in Ohio served in a great environment."