6 Opportunities to Drive Lunch and Dinner Traffic

How the market is opening wider for convenience stores

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As restaurants raise their prices and their guests suffer sticker shock, a new opportunity is emerging for convenience stores. By following a few trends in fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, operators can fill a need for consumers who seek more from their local c-store when it comes to their lunch and dinner needs.

Here’s what you need to know about what’s happening—and about to happen—in the fast-casual and fast-food industries:

1.  The Big Picture Matters More

“Consumers today care about big issues,” said Annika Stensson, director of research communications for the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association (NRA). She’s seeing fast-food and fast-casual restaurants responding with eco-friendly products, sourced responsibly and a trend toward more natural ingredients.

2. Customers Want to Customize

Dip into a fast-casual restaurant for food your way. Brands such as Subway and Chipotle allow diners to customize their food, and now pizza chains such as Mod Pizza and Pieology are taking note. “Only 1.5% of convenience stores allow customers to customize now, so this represents a big opportunity,” said Darren Tristano, president of Chicago-based Technomic.

3. Automation Makes It Easy

From coffee machines to machines that automate pizza making and burger cooking, fast-food and fast-casual restaurants are turning to technology. “Customer acceptance is high,” Stensson said.

4. Delivery? You Have Options!

Fast-food and fast-casual restaurants are getting aggressive with deliveries, Tristano said, and this need is seeping into convenience stores. “This allows customers to have greater flexibility to the convenience and access to the products they’re willing to pay,” he said. Companies such as DoorDash and Uber have teamed up with restaurants to deliver to customers’ doors for a fee.

5. Spice It Up (Seriously)

Spice and spice blends are hot—pun intended. It’s coming from everything from ghost peppers and scorpion peppers to peri-peri, harissa and, of course, Sriracha. Asian food and Asian-fusion are stealing the show, along with Ethiopian and Mediterranean food, said Stensson of NRA. She particularly points to sushi, or sushi-like concepts from Southeast Asia, and also poke (Hawaiian raw fish salad).

6. Check Your Ingredients

Fast food used to have a bad rap, but even companies such as McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A are paying attention to ingredients. “They’re moving more to clean labeling, additive- and preservative-free foods, more organics and naturals,” Tristano said, adding that health perceptions have shifted to ingredients rather than health claims. “And once these brands do it, it becomes a greater expectation for consumers. If you’re the one who isn’t doing it, your product is perceived as lower quality,” he said.

These are great times for c-store owners in that the arena of foodservice is welcoming their participation. But care must be taken to put aside old notions and embrace the new expectations of customers.