Focusing on Fresh Foods

April 18, 2013

sandwichThe grab-and-go business is constantly evolving. Today’s customers not only want their foodservice fast, but they expect quality, consistency and healthy daypart options.

Convenience store operators are driving sales of healthy, portable foodservice offerings like packaged sandwiches, wraps, salads and some roller grill items. But, historically, the industry has seldom gotten the attention it deserves for its healthy food options. Changing that perception, and making consumers aware of the healthy items c-stores carry will take some effort.

T. W. MacDermott, president and principal of the Clarion Group in Kingston, N.H., pointed out that most c-stores have a high level of repeat business from their immediate surrounding area and commuters who stop for gas or coffee en route to work. Thus, it should be relatively easy to communicate any new initiative to them with minimal effort and expense.

“The trick is to make sure that the healthy foods being offered are really healthy, and especially fresh,” MacDermott said. “There can be no shortcutting on quality, or the store will sell its product only once.”

Ready-to-eat sandwiches, fresh fruit, packaged salads, fruit cups, yogurt cups and other foods that a customer may pick up to take for lunch at work are extremely popular. “The operator will need to either find a supplier of the fresh foods or maybe partner with a nearby restaurant or caterer whose label on the fresh products will be an assurance of quality to customers and a helpful ad for the provider,” MacDermott said.

Fresh Returns
Another major difference between jumping from retail to foodservice that could cause problems for inexperienced operators is handling products with a short shelf life.

“A whole different mindset is required when it comes to working with perishable products. This is an area that convenience stores need to understand and perfect to boost fresh grab-and-go sales,” MacDermott said. “It’s better to throw expired food out, or donate items nearing their spoilage date to a food bank. The loss will be more than offset by growing repeat sales if customers know that whatever they buy is fresh—no more than 36 hours old.”

Letting consumers know about the guaranteed freshness and food donations can also engender confidence, good will and additional repeat business.

To ensure the high turnover that healthy, fresh products require in order to be profitable, the products should be rotated at frequent intervals and kept in a separate, distinctive refrigerated display case, Mac Dermott suggested. If possible, it should also adjoin a display of non-refrigerated healthy products, such as granola bars and the like.
If possible, said Arlene Spiegel, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York City, “list ingredients, sources and method of preparation next to each item. Customer can never have too much information about the quality of the food they are eating.”

While retailers are naturally sensitive to pricing, convenience stores don’t necessarily have to worry about competing with supermarkets when it comes to fresh grab-and-go foods.

“Customers stop at convenience stores because they are convenient, not because they’re bargain hunting. That is a strategy they can use to their advantage,” MacDermott said.

Going to Market
As foodservice becomes more of a convenience store industry staple, effectively marketing quality and freshness will only enhance the offering.

“The industry needs to decide how it wants people to think about it,” said Ryan Mathews, founder and CEO of Detroit-based Black Monk Consulting. “One can make the claim of convenience, or, one can make the claim of health. But making compound claims—like healthy and convenient—is always tricky.”

Mathews posed the question: Is the industry willing to invest in a long-term mass-marketing reimaging campaign? “I doubt it,” he said, “and I really doubt it would be worth it. A better tactic is to promote healthy options in store and to convert the market one customer at a time.”

There is, as Mathews pointed out, a danger inherent in foodservice marketing, as well. “Every time a retailer pats himself on the back for offering ‘healthy’ solutions somebody is always anxious to challenge those claims—such as Arby’s current anti-Subway campaign—or to look deeper into the product portfolio to see if the health claims holds up across the store,” Mathews said. “The best plan is to continue to offer better-for-you choices, save the mass marketing dollars and do the absolute best job you can serving your customers.”

Defining Healthy
Customers are correct that there is a barrier to offering healthy foods in c-stores, according to Tim Powell, director of research and consulting services for Chicago-based Technomic Inc.

“The majority of regular consumers just stare at you incredulously when you ask them the importance of health and wellness when selecting prepared foods in the segment—especially when they are holding a double-sausage mini pizza in one hand and a bear claw in the other,” Powell said.

Despite that, Powell noted that there is still a need to offer healthy fare in the form of fresh-cut fruit, salads, grilled and fewer fried products. “Industry leaders in foodservice like Wawa, Sheetz and Rutter’s have developed a tolerance for waste and accepted that if you offer fresh foods consistently, eventually—as new customers walk through the doors, especially females—you will eliminate the perception that only old hot dogs and burnt coffee are awaiting them.”

The bottom line, Powell said, is that the convenience store chains that will be successful with their foodservice programs must evolve into offering healthier items. “Others will simply perpetuate the perception of a gas station with food if they don’t expand and rotate menus,” he said.

Defining exactly what “healthy” means to consumers was the subject of some recent Technomic research. While Americans have obviously become much more health-conscious, their perceptions of what is considered healthy eating at restaurants are continually changing. Contemporary definitions of health are strongly associated with local, natural, organic and sustainable ingredients. Consumers are also taking more of a balanced and personal approach to healthy eating, seeking out better-for-you foods, while enjoying occasional indulgences.

“More consumers than ever before tell us that eating healthy and paying attention to nutrition is important,” said Darren Tristano, vice president of Technomic. “However, there’s a shift happening in terms of what actually defines healthy for them. We’re seeing more consumers gravitate toward health-halo claims, such as local, natural and organic, as well as whole wheat.”

Sandra Matheson, president of Food Systems Consulting Inc., said that convenience store operators also need to identify that they have choices available throughout the store. “Not just junk food, but something for everyone. And they need to have deals on their healthier items to get people to try them,” she said.

Convenience retailers also need for their offerings to match their message. “If they say their food is healthy, it needs to be truly fresh and healthy,” Matheson said. “In my experience, I have visited sites that advertised healthy foods, but found their foods loaded with salt. Some weren’t even fresh. The more fresh fruits and vegetables you can get on the menu the better. Perception goes a long way when customers see these items near the food counter.”

But most importantly for c-stores to remember is that this can be regarded as the c-store industry’s golden age of foodservice. The time to build your business is right now.
“If c-stores don’t seize the opportunity in front of them, they are foolish,” said Karen Malody, the principal of Culinary Options, a foodservice consultancy in Seattle. “It’s hard work and they will likely need to engage some foodservice experts to help them think differently, but the opportunity to grow sales is enormous.”

From hot dogs and sausages to ethnic foods like taquitos and egg rolls, roller grills continue to prosper at conveniece stores.

September 12, 2012

Jun 13, 2012, By Howard Riell, Associate Editor

Roller grills—if handled correctly—offer a great opportunity to grow sales. But as simple and relatively labor-free as they are, they still require management oversight, employee training and some marketing savvy.It’s not that complicated, but it is that essential.“Let me give you an analogy,” said H. G. Parsa, chairman of the Department of Foodservice and Lodging Management at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. “Every dining room table has salt and pepper. They’re not exciting, but everybody has them. Roller grills are the workhorses of convenience stores, and they make money.” As far as return on investment, roller grills are practically unparalleled. “The equipment has one of the highest payoffs. It’s attractive, and the best part is it doesn’t take space,” Parsa said. “Plus roller grills are easy to clean and require no labor. The products sell themselves. It’s a small size but can hold a lot of hot dogs, bratwurst, taquitos, sausages, whatever. It looks pretty and attractive, and it smells good. That’s the key.”While roller grills may have been stigmatized in the past, the high quality items now available are attracting a wide audience. “It’s blue collar food with crossover appeal,” Parsa said. “Construction workers, children, students, everyone it seems, is a potential roller grill customer. When you factor in the economy and product promotions, the roller grill offers tremendous value. It’s not a thriller, but it sells.”C-stores can also all but skip trumpeting the grill. “People know it’s where it is,” Parsa pointed out, “and they’ll go get it. The only thing is to make sure the food is fresh, and that the grill is maintained properly. You can get one big one, but two small ones work much better.”

Building Sales

How to make the most of a store’s roller grill station?

“A number of key areas come to mind,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. in Chicago. “The first is enhanced flavor. Operators can differentiate the flavor of the product served on the roller grill. Add flavor inside the product as well as spicy sauces and dips to create craveability and give consumers a greater demand driver.”

The second part, Tristano explained, has to do with innovation. “By developing different ethnic products like Mexican taquitos, Italian and polish sausage and bagel dogs, operators can broaden the appeal,”he said. “Differentiation by quality is also important. Higher levels of quality products provide a better-for-you appeal that is conveyed through the branding.”

Two additional key factors are portability—emphasizing the portability of the product that requires only one hand to eat and can be eaten on the run—and price point, Tristano said. He recommended bundling meals with chips, cookies and a drink to promote greater demand among value-seekers.

Attention to Detail

Even with quality products and a value price, freshness reigns supreme. “I took over a store where they really weren’t doing a whole lot with the roller grill at all,” recounted Steve Vieira, a district manager for a group of franchised Circle K locations in Pittsburgh owned by Duxbury, Mass.-based Verc Enterprises. Verc also directly operates 23 convenience stores in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. “They would throw hot dogs down in the morning and the same ones would be on there 10 hours later.”

Vieira, whose background includes food industry experience, knows what he is talking about. Under his stewardship, the Circle K roller grill sales have skyrocketed by close to 400% in the last seven months.

Hot dogs, Vieira noted, are only good on the grill for a lifespan of four hours. “If they don’t sell within that four-hour span they’ve got to go. You’ve got to put fresh ones on and you need to get the area clean. You’ve got to have the condiments available. It’s all about eye appeal and keeping everything fresh.”

At Vieira’s flagship store, he has the grill running from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. “As I saw sales starting to increase I kept expanding that. I now run the grill 24/7 with the exception of when they shut it down for about two hours at night to do all the cleaning,” he said.

The store was rebuilt about seven years ago under previous ownership. “I don’t know if they had grills prior to the rebuild, but we now have two three-foot grills going around the clock,” Vieira said.

The unit offers a wide variety of products prepared on its grills, including hot dogs; cheeseburger dogs; pepperjack hot dogs; chicken; beef and pepperoni-and-cheese tornados; Buffalo-chicken roller bites and pork egg rolls. The store recently introduced a combo deal—a hot dog, fountain soda and bag of chips—for $3. “I’m expecting that to really take off for the summer,” said Vieira.

Too few c-store operators understand just how integral roller grills can be to their success. Fortunately for Vieira, he isn’t one of them. “I really believed that there was a lot of opportunity here,” he said. “There was a lot of training that had to be done with the staff. We had to get everybody on board. They had to know that it was important to our bottom line, and that we wanted to grow the category.”

Each of the employees has received training on the proper procedures for setting up, cleaning and maintaining the grills and condiment section.

The chances for success were so great, Vieira recalled, and owner Leo Vercollone’s belief so strong that it became a challenge he could not refuse. “I mean, there was just so much opportunity to grow this category, and we ran with it. It was important to Leo and it was important to us as a company,” he said. “It’s something that we wanted to look at and make sure we were giving due justice. Even I’m shocked at the numbers.”

One of Vieira’s primary tasks was to make certain his people were thoroughly trained on all aspects of the grills’ operation and maintenance.

In terms of routine maintenance, store managers should check the cook temperatures daily. In most cases, health inspectors won’t ask how long food has been sitting atop a roller grill, but rather at what temperature the product is held.

“It’s got to be out of the danger zone, which means 140 degrees or over,” Vieira said.

In fact, keeping the temperature adjusted correctly is an excellent way to help overcome the automatic resistance many customers have to anything sitting on a roller grill.

“The tendency when you throw some new product on there is to turn the control way up in order to get the temperature up quickly. But then your product generally shrivels up, and after a little while doesn’t look as good,” Vieira said. “If you time yourself right and keep the heat a constant low, acceptable temperature, hot dogs will tend to look nice and juicy and more appetizing for a longer period of time.”