Despite heavy competition from quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, convenience-store retailers are feeling good about foodservice: Eighty-nine percent of them expect their foodservice sales to grow in 2020, according to the Convenience Market 2019 Annual Report from CSP sister research firm Technomic, Chicago. And while technology and speed of service still command operators’ attention, consumers are seeking newer foods at nontraditional times now more than ever, which is molding how they shop for food and how c-store retailers will run their foodservice operations in the year ahead.
However, there’s still room for improvement. In a February 2019 survey, 27% of consumers said they were buying foodservice items from c-stores less often than usual—an increase of 6 percentage points from February 2018 and a 19-point increase from February 2016, according to Technomic’s Ignite menu data. And as of November 2019, nearly a quarter (22%) of consumers said they were purchasing c-store food less often than usual.
To help retailers navigate foodservice, CSP has pinpointed four trends absorbing the attention of today’s consumers: plant-based/vegan foods, global flavors, breakfast innovation and indulgence.
Plant-Based and Vegan
Plant-based items captivated the attention of consumers in 2019, whether seen in vegan energy bars, almond milks or veggie-based snacks. Plant-based meat alternatives also skyrocketed last year: Nearly a quarter (23%) of all consumers and 29% of millennials said they would consider ordering plant-based burgers at a foodservice establishment, according to Technomic’s Convenience Market 2019 Annual Report. Consumers can dabble in plant-based burgers at a handful of c-store chains today, including Rutter’s and Sheetz, while Alltown Fresh highlights plant-based creamers and milks at its coffee bar.
Consumer demands for flavor innovation have resulted in a variety of international dishes emerging on c-store menus. Although sandwiches, hot dogs and wraps still dominate in convenience, Mexican fare grew on 15.5% of c-store menus in 2019—more than any other type of item, according to Technomic’s Ignite menu data. This growth is a result of c-stores in general adding more ethnic options to meet growing consumer demand, Technomic said. Kwik Chek Food Stores offers chorizo tacos on its menu, while QMart, a division of Northwest Petroleum, offers a variety of international dishes such as Vietnamese banh mi tacos and Indian samosas.
They don’t call breakfast the most important meal of the day for nothing. Ninety percent of c-store operators serve breakfast, and more than one in four (37%) expect breakfast to have the highest rate of sales growth of all the dayparts in 2020, according to Technomic’s Convenience Market 2019 Annual Report. Nonetheless, breakfast consumption is slowly declining. A fifth of consumers overall said they skip breakfast at least once a week, a 2% increase from 2017, according to Technomic’s 2019 Breakfast Consumer Trend Report. Retailers are increasingly implementing all-day breakfast and adding new healthy and indulgent products to their menus to boost the morning daypart.
While two-thirds of consumers want c-stores to offer more healthy foods, according to Technomic, indulgent foods still have appeal. Technomic found that ice cream, doughnuts, cookies, pizza and other high-calorie, sweet, crispy and cheesy favorites claim a greater share of c-store foodservice purchases compared to healthier items. Furthermore, 51% of consumers say c-stores excel at offering indulgent options, while 33% say c-stores do a better job of offering indulgent food and drink than fast-food restaurants do.