CHICAGO -- Developing the next big menu idea is one thing, but getting customers to come through the door for it, particularly when consumers have so many other foodservice locations to choose from, is another. What can convenience stores, especially smaller, independent brands, do to stand out and grab customer share from corporate chains and larger retail brands?
In one of the 2017 NACS Show's education sessions, Coming Up With a Killer Food Idea, and Convincing People to Try It, attendees heard insights and strategies for creating compelling food ideas and implementing easy marketing messages that can help drive customer trial and traffic.
The session featured Al Hebert, a Louisiana-based writer known as the Gas Station Gourmet. Hebert travels the country, visiting small, independent retailers with unique foodservice programs. As he assesses some of the most outside-the-box food offerings, he discovers "what works and what doesn't work."
Click through to learn more about Hebert's thoughts on creating a distinctive draw on c-store menus ...
1. Establish the menu with a signature item
"Good signature food can make your store a destination," said Hebert. To begin developing a signature offering, retailers should first think differently. "Resist the urge to say, 'But we've always done it this way,' " Hebert said. Setting a mark of differentiation is crucial.
At the same time, retailers shouldn't complicate the ideation process. "Signature foods can be simple. It doesn't have to be difficult. People tend to overthink this," said Hebert. For example, Czech Stop, a convenience store in tiny West, Texas, specializes in kolaches, Eastern European pastries. The kolaches are prepared on-site; Czech Stop sells 620 kolaches per hour and 104,000 each week. Cormie's, a gas station in Lake Charles, La., is well-known for one thing: chicken salad. The store sells 80 to 100 pounds of the salad every day.
2. Think locally
"Look close to home," said Hebert. "If your family likes it, your customers will too." Home cooking, family favorites, holiday staples and Grandma's recipes will feel familiar to customers, yet still represent something new in a c-store space. Hebert encouraged attendees to think carefully about regional food preferences and capitalize on promotion of the types of foods and flavors that local customers love.
3. Explore restaurants for inspiration
Retailers should routinely review the menus of the hottest restaurant concepts, other c-stores and truckstops for inspiration and ideas about what they can adapt to their store's menu.
For example, Hilltop Stop in Damariscotta, Maine, draws locals and out-of-towners with a Big Mac-inspired pizza. Owner Gary Gravel, who formerly worked at McDonald's, was a big fan of that chain's signature sandwich and decided to tweak a recipe that mimicked the flavors of the Big Mac. In a town with a population of only 2,000, Gravel sells 500 of these pizzas each week.
4. Ask customers what they want
Create a survey, either a pencil-and-paper version in the store or an online version, that asks customers about their satisfaction with the current menu and queries them about what they'd like to see added.
Better yet, said Hebert, simply talk to your visitors. "We greet our customers, but if you don't talk to them, you're missing out on a lot of great information," he said.
5. Make what you have better
For retailers that have already chosen a signature offering, be thoughtful about ways to improve the offering and help it stand out in terms of flavors and preparations. "Don't be afraid to play with your food program and make it your own," said Hebert.
For example, Fruitville Texaco in Sarasota, Fla., was known for its fried-chicken offering. And by tweaking the seasonings in its flour and batter, the store was able to significantly increase purchases and boost its traffic specifically for the chicken.
6. Clean it up
But what about actually getting customers in the door? Hebert acknowledged that this is the primary challenge for any convenience foodservice program, because many retailers are still grappling with lingering negative consumer perceptions. "The majority of your customers are not coming in from the pump, due to the stigma of eating food from a gas station," Hebert said.
Still, he said, there are ways to combat this stigma. The effort begins with developing a clean, streamlined and eye-catching store design. Retailers have to "improve the view from the pump," said Hebert. "Your store doesn't have to be fancy, but it must be clean." A clean and colorful exterior should extend into the interior, especially the restroom. "A clean restroom can make your store a destination," said Hebert. On-the-move locals, from postal workers to police officers, routinely make stops at gas stations, and they'll either reject or reward locations based on the condition of the restrooms. "Great food with a dirty restroom? That won't be successful," said Hebert.
Retailers should keep touch-up paint on hand to paint over graffiti on walls and stall doors. Also, store owners and managers should inspect restrooms at least once an hour, if not every 30 minutes, to make sure a cleanliness standard is intact.
7. Be a partner
To become well-known for food, retailers should look for ways to be a good partner to schools, civic organizations and charitable programs in the community. Convenience retailers can donate signature food items for school fundraisers and other events to highlight what's on the menu and raise brand visibility and awareness of the food program. "If no one's coming into the store, ask yourself: Who needs help?" said Hebert. "Find someone in your community to partner with."
8. Offer samples
"If they won't come to your food, you have to bring your food to them," said Hebert. Retailers should try sampling at the pump, he said, by having a member of the staff carry out bites of the store's signature item. "It's a low-cost strategy and a minimal time investment" that will likely pay off the next time that customer pulls in to fuel up their car, and they recall the quality and flavor of the food they sampled previously.
9. Get involved on social media
It may seem like a no-brainer in 2017, but "I'm surprised at how many c-stores misuse social media, or don't use it at all," said Hebert. He advised retailers to use social media to highlight loyal customers who are coming in for foodservice. Glen, N.H.-based independent retailer Glen Ledge Corner Store uses Facebook to promote a customer of the day and rewards the customer with a free coffee and baked good, along with his or her picture posted to the store's social-media page.
Also, Hebert spotlighted the popularity of "game-ified" posts, and using social media to create contests that give away signature food and drink to drive interest.
10. Don't be afraid to fail
"Just because something works for one retailer doesn't necessarily mean it will work for you," said Hebert. "Be prepared for epic failures."
But it's through the stages of ideation, trial-and-error and improvement that c-stores can identify their true point of differentiation to lure customers in. "You can't expect to succeed at first," he said. "But once you find that signature item, you have to have passion for it; your customers and staff will pick up on your enthusiasm."