"Why didn’t we think of that?!”
That was a note from one of our editors in response to a March headline in The New York Times on the rise of food-forward c-stores. We spend a lot of time toiling over headlines, and to think that we’d never landed on the brilliant pun “Gastronomic Stations” was a literary burn.
The Times story explored the increase in c-stores with unexpected offerings: Thai Pan, which is connected to a Liberty Gas Station in Leesburg, Va.; Seoul Food D.C. in Silver Spring, Md.; and Flory’s in Fishkill, N.Y., and its broad menu offering everything from lasagna to stuffed sole.
Of all the consumer news stories written about c-store foodservice, this story was the first I’d read that began to see our industry for what it could be and what it already is. It went beyond the gee-whiz factor of independents such as Chef Point in Watauga, Texas, and Whoa Nellie Deli in Lee Vining, Calif.—tremendous assets to the industry, but not representative of the majority. The reporter spoke to NACS, cited stats on foodservice share of sales and touched on the breadth of the industry from single-store operators to marquee players such as 7-Eleven.
For this longtime c-store foodservice reporter, who has spread the gospel for nearly nine years, the story was exciting. Was the public finally taking notice of the potential of c-store foodservice—and could we deliver?
Grow Where We’re Planted
We began our own foodservice story—this month’s cover—with a bold, audacious and, ultimately, false statement: that the industry is on the cusp of a seismic shift in the number of c-stores with advanced foodservice offerings. It really as if like the time had come: RaceTrac has been working on its made-to-order prototypes for years, Thorntons is taking a big leap in on-site food prep, and QuikTrip continues to increase its store count with the QT Kitchens concept.
Smaller chains and indies are also launching Wawa-level foodservice at a steady clip. But when we ran the numbers based on Technomic’s assessment of the industry’s tiers of foodservice (see p. 38), we found that even those anecdotal shifts aren’t enough to tilt the scales.
The conclusion we did land on was unexpected, at least for me: There is nothing wrong with doing basic foodservice if you do it incredibly well. You need not dish up sautéed tilapia with a side of greens, as the Times story focused on, if you’re executing successfully on the roller grill and open-air cooler.
Sure, the big gains will come from retailers who are offering foodservice more on par with restaurants in terms of technology, flavors and hospitality. But the c-store industry will continue its slow but steady growth, one percentage point at a time.
Foodservice is already the top contributor to in-store gross-profit dollars and No. 2 for in-store sales. We’re above the trend line for prepared-food sales, according to data shared at last month’s NACS State of the Industry Summit. Of course, there’s way more money on the table, as the top-quartile performers will tell you. But foodservice industry newcomers we are not.
This was a revelation to me, because I’ve long looked at c-store foodservice very aspirationally. I want us to compete directly with the most innovative restaurants, to leverage the power of our CPG portfolio and our easy in-and-out to make c-stores veritable threats once and for all. But I’m increasingly seeing the value in what we’ve already built—to, as we say in the cover story, grow where we’re planted.
Call It What It Is
I live in a strong c-store market with several chains recently going all-in on foodservice marketing. From billboards to bus ads, I’m inundated by c-store foodservice wherever I go. These chains are making big promises about the quality of their foodservice, but I want them to go even bolder.
How remarkable would it be for a c-store chain to build a marketing campaign targeted directly at the industry’s perception battles? How audacious would it be to address the negativity toward “gas station food” and dare consumers to try it for themselves?
Of course, that will work only if the promise is delivered, and execution is the primary battle when it comes to foodservice. In the meantime, I’m going to keep thinking aspirationally, while also celebrating how we are already winning the foodservice game.
Abbie Westra is director of Winsight’s Retail Content Group. Reach her at email@example.com.