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Perseverance in a Pandemic: Dash In’s Foodservice Scramble

From packaging to store footprints, the retailer moved quickly to adapt to new challenges
Mark Samuels quote

CSP collects stories of the men and women of convenience retail who put their lives and livelihoods on the line when their communities needed them.

LA PLATA, Md. — Mark Samuels has seen a similar progression from denial to acceptance in Dash In convenience stores, including for himself.

“But once we realized that it was going to stay around, we acted pretty quickly,” says the vice president of retail for the Wills Group, La Plata, Md., which operates 55 Dash In c-stores across Maryland, Virginia and Delaware through a mix of corporate and franchise-owned operations.

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and communities started seeing social distancing guidelines, Dash In customers were coming in less but spending more. “Not much has changed on that front,” says Samuels. “People have gotten more comfortable wearing masks. It’s business as normal now.”

Dash In, known for its chef-driven foodservice, started individually packaging its bakery items when the pandemic hit, and even a year into the experience has not reopened its self-serve grill bar or self-serve condiments. In fact, Dash In is working to make these changes permanent. “We’ve changed our interior footprint for new stores and remodeled projects, and we are not putting in self-serve grill bars anymore,” says Samuels.

The pandemic also drove Dash In to explore third-party delivery. “Before the pandemic, we were not a proponent of it for a lot of reasons. We didn’t want to drive people away from the store. We thought that 25% surcharge was pretty steep. There was just a lot of things that we were uncertain about,” says Samuels. Dash In has turned around entirely on third-party delivery and plans to launch delivery through DoorDash this spring. Why?

“Number one is just the sheer volume increase of transactions,” says Samuels. “We’re over the hump of that transition and there’s no going back.”

“[Our employees] have been remarkably resilient, and I couldn’t be more proud of that.”

Another reason to stick with third-party delivery, according to Samuels, is basket size. Samuels recalls one $45 DoorDash order that came through before Dash In had technically gone live with the service. “We don’t typically get $45 orders,” says Samuels. “It’s a whole other class of customers that you’re not going to get unless you’re part of the system.”

Then there’s the issue of supply chain and physically bringing goods to c-stores. Samuels says the problem in the beginning of the pandemic wasn’t so much supply chain breakdowns as it was a glut of demand for products such as beef, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, grocery items and personal protective equipment (PPE). Samuels says demand for each product category has mostly evened out to pre-pandemic levels, but dispensed-beverage sales are still down.

“There must be something with a lack of trust or confidence with buying a fountain beverage or a cup of coffee,” says Samuels. “We’re down in hot beverage about 35%, and we’re down in cold dispensed about 10%. The hot beverage category has just been decimated.” Samuels theorizes that consumers simply feel safer getting takeout than they do physically pouring a beverage from a self-serve counter in a store.

The biggest problem today from a supply chain standpoint is keeping enough delivery drivers working during the pandemic, according to Samuels. “Unfortunately, a lot of times a supplier will lose a half dozen drivers in a day due to COVID quarantines. And then there’s not enough drivers to make the deliveries, and delivery schedules get shifted,” he says.

Tobacco availability has been hit hard, as well, especially cigars from the Caribbean. “There is only so much tobacco being grown, and the demand is so high. We’re only being shipped 35%-40% of what we order on tobacco,” he says.

Samuels predicts that business will pick up as more people are vaccinated and consumers can move freely without fear of the virus, even going as far as saying he expects a boom in sales. “There’s going to be a huge boom of people getting out and purchasing,” he says.

Setbacks and struggles aside, Samuels gushes about the bravery and grit of Dash In’s store employees. “They have been remarkably resilient,” he says, “and I couldn’t be more proud of that.”

Click here for more of Perseverance in a Pandemic.

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