Beverage Variety: The Spice of Life for Convenience Stores

How beverage options and customization will boost your foodservice game

Coffee cups

Brought to you by Curtis Coffee Equipment.

Beverage sales mean profits. But with so much fierce competition in the foodservice arena, not just any beverage will do. Offering the right mix of beverage choices, from hot- and cold-brewed coffee to slushies and frozen drinks, cappuccinos, milkshakes and more, plus opportunities for customization, are the keys to boosting bottom lines.

Sheetz, a leader among c-stores when it comes to foodservice, has for years played up the wide selection and customization options for its many beverages.

Many c-stores are “going after the millennials and young mothers these days, but it’s still important to cater to all types of customers when it comes to beverage,” said Matt Gray, coffee concepts manager for Sheetz. “One way in which we do that is through customization. With whatever we offer, we try to make each beverage personal for everyone, so our customers can get what they want and how they want it when they want it.”

Variety is also important for La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip Inc., which seeks to respond to growing consumer demands for new and exciting offerings.

“You want to accommodate the 80th percentile, of course. But to stay competitive and take more dollars away from the QSRs of the world, you also have to look across the entire spectrum beyond just basic soda fountains and brewed coffee,” said Jim Bressi, Kwik Trip’s director of research and development, who often works with beverage consultants for insights into trends, new equipment and products. “We’re finding someone might go and get a breakfast sandwich from the quick-serve across the street and then come in here for their coffee or beverage, and vice versa. It’s important to try to get them to come in for both.”

Fast and Frozen

In addition to its wide variety of iced and frozen coffee drinks and all-natural fruit smoothies and frozen creams, Sheetz has introduced a line of Greek yogurt smoothies. 

“The Greek yogurt smoothies in particular [have] helped define us as a different type of c-store that can offer a healthy version along with other, more indulgent products," said Gray.

Those indulgent flavors include Sheetz’s recently added Reese's f'real Peanut Butter Cup Milkshake, a PB&J smoothie and a Toasted Marshmallow Mocha—available in hot or frozen form—for s’mores fans. In late summer, to keep in line with a back-to-school theme, the chain introduced pumpkin and gingerbread milkshakes ahead of the fall season.

“We do as much as we can within our scope and footprint to offer something for everyone,” says Gray. “Our company culture is different in that we’re able to play with different flavors and have a lot of fun introducing new products.” This has helped the company stay on top of trends and cater to a wider consumer base, he said.

Customizable and Cold Coffee

With so much potential business in the coffee arena, expanding its variety makes sense, but it must be done right.

“Competition is too steep in coffee these days to offer an inferior product,” says Mike Lawshe, president and CEO of Paragon Solutions, a retail design and consulting firm. “The rewards are so high, it’s worth the effort to offer great coffee, but when trying to expand into different types of coffees and cold coffee, you have to make sure you’re doing that correctly. Otherwise, if you end up offering a less-than-superior product, you can turn even existing customers away."

Last year, Sheetz began offering a proprietary coffee line that includes a light breakfast blend, medium classic roast, a dark French roast from Central and South America and a Sumatra blend from Indonesia. Sheetz also strengthened the amount of coffee used for brew and grinds its beans fresh before use.

To add to the customization effect, it also rolled out nearly 20 creamer and flavor options, adding up to 1,000 ways to customize a cup of coffee.

The chain has also introduced authentic espresso beverages including cappuccinos and lattes, as well as frozen specialty coffee drinks, created on traditional Italian espresso machines and made to order by trained baristas. It also leveraged better equipment with enhanced touchscreen technology to expand its self-serve offerings for customers wanting to skip all the “coffeehouse jargon,” said Gray.

At Kwik Trip, expanding into cold coffee drinks has helped the c-store chain widen its variety and customer base. “We’re seeing more afternoon customers and of course younger, coffee-centric generations looking for something other than soda,” Bressi said.

It purchased new, programmable equipment and revamped its recipes to offer consistently stronger, fresher iced coffee beverages.

What’s more, Kwik Trip has recently begun the legwork for introducing cold-brew coffee, which might not require new and expensive equipment but does require some additional staff training.

“You have to consider long-lasting trends,” Bressi said when explaining why the chain is adding cold-brew coffee. Cold brew has been around for years, but with Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts now offering it, the beverage seems most certainly here to stay.

Monitoring Sales

Knowing what, when and how much to offer is all part of the variety game. Many c-stores study POS data, but there are other tricks to this trade.

At Kwik Trip, Bressi researches what sells and what doesn’t by monitoring movement through the warehouse, rather than trying to determine individual in-store purchases. “All sodas are priced the same, so you don’t know what your customers are filling in their cups,” he said.

Instead, by noting the most and least popular SKUs through warehouse documentation, he can determine which flavors to keep buying and which to drop. After a grace period with a new flavor, it’s easy to tell if it’s selling this way. It’s even possible to monitor sales for certain coffee beans, flavor shots and frozen creations.

Some more advanced self-service coffee machines can digitally monitor sales for certain types of drinks offered, such as cappuccinos or mochas.

Sheetz studies trends to determine new potential flavors and products to add to its beverage portfolio.

“Space is the name of the game—you really only have so much of it, so every ingredient has to earn its footprint,” said Gray. “We do as much work as we can ahead of time to make sure we’re going to launch something that should work, and after that it’s all about watching the numbers and seeing how well it tests.”