WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- He has been a food writer, a veteran restaurant-industry trend tracker and a chef. Now Carlos Acevedo has joined West Des Moines, Iowa-based Yesway as its culinary innovation and research chef, a new role in which he plans to take the chain’s foodservice program to the next level. We spoke with Acevedo to gauge where c-store foodservice stands, which food and flavor trends are worth exploring for retailers, and where Yesway is heading.
Q: Congratulations on your new role at Yesway. What will you be doing as culinary innovation and research chef?
A: I will be fleshing out the fresh food menu and developing our signature dish. This will mean a lot of testing—and tasting—fun and exciting new recipes over the coming months. And ultimately, [I will] make Yesway a “best-in-class” food destination that also happens to sell gas.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you expect to face in your role?
A: Our strategy at Yesway is to acquire, remodel and rebrand existing convenience stores. Translation: Every space is going to be different, and some locations may have little or no kitchen space. As you can imagine, this makes developing a companywide fresh food program a bit tricky but definitely not impossible.
Q: Tell us more about your restaurant background and what you learned that can be applied to c-stores.
A: Like many chefs, I clawed my way up the culinary food chain, washing dishes, then busing tables, waiting on customers and finally cooking. Culinary school taught me classic technique and discipline. But it wasn’t until I started chefing for a living that I realized how critical it was for every aspect of a restaurant to be in alignment.
Restaurants don’t just sell a product, they sell an experience—ambiance, service, enjoyment—and this is equally true in the convenience-store space. It’s our job to not only take care of the customers and hopefully brighten their day with a hot cup of great-tasting coffee or a fresh, made-to-order sandwich, but also to make them feel comfortable and appreciated. Good food is a critical draw for getting customers into a store, but it’s the good vibes they get once inside that make them want to come back.
Q: Which restaurants—fast food, fast casual—do you admire and why?
A: There’s a local burger chain in Portland, Ore., that I just love called Little Big Burger. The menu is elegantly simple: gourmet mini burgers on brioche buns, truffle fries, craft beer on tap—and really, that’s about it. The setting is hip but casual, which makes it easy to have fun there.
Another favorite is Blaze Pizza, which sells artisanal pizzas assembled right in front of you. One benefit is that they will customize the pizzas to your liking. The pizzas cook lightning quick in a superhot brick oven and they taste great.
And I’d be remiss not to mention food trucks. Some of the most creative cuisine out now is in the street-food arena.
Q: What is your biggest restaurant/menu/food pet peeve?
A: I’m pretty fed up with the menu trend of outrageous, massive burgers. If a burger is so thick and overloaded with toppers that it’s too big to fit in your mouth, then what’s the point? They are almost never a good eating experience, in my opinion.
Q: Health is an important customer demand. Do you think c-stores can execute on healthful foods?
A: Absolutely, as long as what we offer remains convenient and tasty. For their potential, I am looking at jar salads, granola yogurt parfaits, noodle bowls, ancient grains—things like that. And there is a lot of potential in the functional-foods category. I am personally intrigued by power food combos: foods that are healthier when eaten together, such as beef and carrots or tomatoes and olive oil.
Q: What is the first thing a c-store retailer should do to elevate its foodservice program?
A: Culinary “spring cleaning”: Do a ground-up review of your food program with an eye toward the three F’s: freshness, flavor and fun. Update recipes and streamline your menu as needed. When possible, improve speed and add value. Ask yourself: What food and beverage problems do my customers have, and how am I addressing them? Highlight a customer favorite as your “signature dish.” Update your menu seasonally with [limited-time offers] to refresh customer interest. Pursue trends that make sense for your clientele. Finally, don’t forget to tell customers what you are doing on social media.