Foodservice: Distributor's Notebook 2014

Kelly Kurt, Freelance writer

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With the great-American snack attack going 24/7 these days, convenience stores have a real opportunity to make every little bite count.

Consumers increasingly are reaching for hand-held and bite-size items to tide them over between meals or eat in place of a meal, says Tim Barry, director of foodservice and fresh food for South San Francisco, Calif.-based Core-Mark International. And they’re not only hitting the snack aisle; consumers are also searching for healthier options in fresh and hot food.

“With the rise in ready-to-eat items and a large increase in fresh sales, consumers are now purchasing the grab-and-go and better-for-you items at an all-time high,” Barry says. “Consumers are now looking toward our retailers as a meal destination and a healthy alternative snack source.”

All-day snacking is so prevalent that Chicago-based Technomic named “every day-part is a snack day-part” one of the top 10 food trends of 2014. Even what constitutes a snack has been redefined, the firm said, with millennials viewing quick-service restaurants’ (QSR) dollar and dollar-plus menus as a snack menu.

“Today we snack for meals, and a lot of times our meals are snacks,” says Carla Boyington, director of category management for Core-Mark, a supplier to 38,000 stores in the United States and Canada. “So the convenience store actually offers a greater array of snacks for meal options than a QSR.”

What do snack-happy consumers want, and how can c-stores set themselves apart?

 ▶ Provide a quality offering. “When you have good quality, fresh foods, it changes the whole perception in the convenience store of what fresh is and what quality can be,” Boyington says. “They see that it’s the same name brands and products they’re able to get at Starbucks, airports or other mass outlets. They can see the difference of a sandwich with quality ciabatta bread. That quality will turn a c-store’s foodservice and fresh offering into a destination.”

 ▶ Presentation is everything. Open-air coolers have helped Core-Mark’s clients sell more quality sandwiches, juices and fruits than traditional cooler banks and vaults, Barry says. Walk-around coolers in particular market fresh products well. But here, maintenance is key. “The open-air coolers need to be well-stocked. They need to be well-lit. They need to be very clean,” he says. “People want to trust the food they’re getting out of there.”

 ▶ Better bites. Hand-held and bite-size items are hot sellers and showing up in every day-part, from bite-size hashbrowns and doughnut holes at breakfast to roller-grill taquitos and eggrolls for lunch and dinner. “Chicken bites are certainly going to be one of the hotter items over the next few years,” Boyington says. “It’s also a fun product because it comes with all the different dips.”

The trend is catching on in fresh foods as well, with healthier options such as pretzel and hummus combinations, and carrots that can be dipped in ranch or chili-lime dressing. “Bite-size crosses a variety of c-store categories from candy to savory snacks,” Boyington says. “It’s something the convenience store is trying to offer as an option to a QSR, and its reach is throughout all realms of the store.”

 ▶ Knockout flavors. Customers are looking for flavors that ignite their taste buds. Spicy, bold flavors are giving menus an interesting bent with combinations such as wasabi and ginger, chipotle mayo, even comfy maple bacon. The spicy Asian condiment sriracha is hot on today’s menus. “Really spicy items are continuing to sell more and more every day,” Boyington says.

Catering to customers seeking fresh, high-quality products may mean more frequent deliveries because those products usually have shorter shelf lives. Some retailers are taking advantage of those deliveries to stock additional quick-turnaround products such as dairy, eggs and fresh-cut fruit.

With more frequent deliveries, “they can have fresh tomatoes on that salad or sandwich,” Boyington says. “The quality just gets better and better.”

But even with the right mix of fresh products and the best of grab-and-go flavors, foodservice in c-stores really comes down to attention to detail, she says. A clean, well-managed environment speaks volumes to customers about the food itself. “It must be clean and fresh,” she says, “not just around the products but around the entire store.”

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