Flavor Trends: The Flavor Factor

Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

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The best place to look for today’s c-store flavor trends? The year 2002. Tim Powell of Technomic says that while restaurants continue to innovate, c-stores are picking up the crumbs from several years ago.“C-stores are your last guy on the bus. He’s down there with the vending guy, “Powell says.

Mark DiDomenico of Datassential says the typical menu cycle starts with fine dining and works its way down to midscale chains. After that, the most popular items are adopted in more conservative environments. C-stores, for example, have recently adopted goat cheese, which has been popular for years in the restaurant world.

Sandwiches are a good vehicle for introducing new flavors in a familiar way. “We’re seeing a lot more gourmet or specialty cheeses like cotija and buffalo mozzarella,” DiDomenico says. Powell has found that ethnic roller-grill offerings have helped consumers move away from traditional “deli” flavors.

“Anything spicy,” Powell says. “We’ve got such a fusion now of what we call ‘Mexican. ‘It’s really getting items that are outside the traditional flavor of a sandwich.”

In the beverage category, frozen drinks are where it’s at. According to Technomic, both frozen coffee and smoothies saw double-digit growth, along with more unique flavor combinations, from 2008 to 2012.

The morning meal continues to be an important day-part, and oatmeal, especially steel-cut oats with nuts and fruit, is becoming more prevalent.

“That’s something that we’ve seen trending over the last five years,” DiDomenico says. “[It’s] definitely a heartier breakfast but something that’s got that perceived healthiness to it.”

So what trends are popular in higher endchains now that might arrive at c-stores in years to come?

“Grilled cheese is still sticking around,” DiDomenico says. “Kobe beef is definitely still on the radar and gaining more popularity. Sweet potatoes are trending now pretty solidly.”

Indeed, c-stores have stumbled into a few trendier areas. Oatmeal, for example, began gaining popularity in fine dining around 2010, but had been growing in importance in c-stores before that. And one c-store staple—light roasted coffee—was hot across the segments last year.

But generally, c-stores have the luxury of seeing what will work before putting it into practice. While some retailers have pushed the envelope with flavors, it still pays to be conservative.

“I think they need more flavors,” Powell says. “[But] you don’t want to alienate your regular customer.”

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