CSP Magazine

My Education in C-Store Foodservice

As I've gained a grip on this complex and fast-moving industry, here’s what has stuck out to me

We’ve just passed the midyear mark, but I am reflecting on a different milestone: As I write this, it’s been a year since I became CSP’s foodservice editor. The changing role meant a shift from analyzing trends and data on restaurants, as I’d been doing for Technomic since 2003, and training my focus on convenience stores.

It’s been quite the education. Aside from all the face time I’ve been gaining as I’ve traveled and met so many of you—hearing about all the wins and challenges you’ve experienced in your stores—one of the most valuable and rewarding aspects of covering this beat is learning just how complex and fast-moving the c-store foodservice game really is.

Here’s what has stuck out to me:

For years, when I wrote about retail foodservice in general and c-stores in particular, I always referred to retailers attempting to “mimic” restaurants, or about how they’re furiously working to “keep pace” with fast food. The surprise has been my discovery that c-stores have truly carved out their own identity with consumers, and that they’re able to drive traffic with menus that are distinctive—not just merely  copycats of quick-serves.

The upside of having Technomic resources at my fingertips means I can always tap into compelling data that helps me frame my thoughts about our industry, such as the recent finding that 67% of millennials believe c-stores are just as capable as restaurants in providing top-notch food and drink; or that 76% of c-store hot-food customers are stopping in for snacks; or that breakfast fare is the leading choice for
62% of consumers who visit for foodservice.

Shifting Ground

The aforementioned consumer insights reflect everything that retailers have been doing to elevate quality and broaden their menu mix. It’s easy to see why the quality perception of the millennial audience is steadily climbing, when we consider that within the past year, category leaders such as Wawa, Wawa, Pa., and Sheetz, Altoona, Pa., have announced commitments to use antibiotic-free poultry and cage-free eggs, respectively. It shows c-stores’ alignment with what today’s customers want: Forty-three percent of consumers say “clean” foods like these actually taste better.

If three out of four customers are making convenience stores a go-to place for snacks, Rutter’s Farm Stores, York, Pa., is recognizing the need to expand hot-snack selections while bolstering food integrity at the same time. That’s the twofold result of the chain’s investment in new proprietary hot-hold packaging, rolled out early this year, that has greatly improved the texture, taste and temperature of hot snacks in Rutter’s grab-and-go program.

Innovation is strengthening customers’ perception of our industry, and it’s also affecting their overall behavior and use of c-stores. Fluid dining occasions, not just dayparts, are becoming more of a priority when people dine out. C-stores are rising to meet the need.

In fact, there’s been a recent change in visitation dynamics (see p. 88) that reveals how the once-static ground is shifting, and how menu variety is helping c-stores capture traffic—and emerging audiences—in a new way.

A Destination Purchase

Meanwhile, my learning process continues, and all of you are my teachers. A few months ago, I reached out to Ieva Grimm, president of Synerge, Duncansville, Pa. (and a former store owner herself), and asked for her take on the future of c-store foodservice and where we’re headed. What will it take to keep the momentum going?

“Look at food as a destination goal, rather than just as an extra thing to sell to customers,” she said. “If you are going through the pains of adding food, do it with the purpose of making it strong enough to be a destination purchase.

“Will your food stand the credibility test if it is on its own? Build it with purpose to be a destination for food on the go, not just another thing when you go to get fuel, drinks and tobacco.”

And that is what has made the biggest impression on me: the purposeful, hard work retailers across the country are doing to become that food destination.

What will the next year bring? I’ll keep watching.

Aimee Harvey is CSP’s foodservice editor. Reach her at aharvey@technomic.com.

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