From Breakfast to Dinner, McLane Fresh’s Farley Kaiser Talks Convenience-Store Foodservice

‘C-stores are beginning to recognize that they have the ability and permission to act similarly to fast-casual QSRs,’ senior director of culinary innovation tells CSP
Fairley Kaiser of McLane Fresh
Image courtesy of McLane

The power of limited-time offers, breakfast still holding the title of king, and how lunch remains a strong focus of development—and opportunity—were among the subjects CSP’s At Your Convenience podcast recently discussed with Farley Kaiser, senior director of culinary innovation at McLane Fresh.

Kaiser leads the team to develop and launch brands focused on providing solutions in retail foodservice in convenience stores.

McLane is one of the largest distributors in America and a partner to retail and restaurant brands nationwide. McLane offers customizable solutions for retail and restaurant customers from ordering and fulfillment to equipment and in-store merchandising. In August 2023, McLane unveiled McLane Fresh, an expanded foodservice-at-retail program designed for convenience stores and intended to elevate the dining experience in c-stores.

What follows is an edited transcript from the podcast.

At Your Convenience: Farley, limited-time offers seem to be more prevalent today in convenience stores than ever before. Could you please talk a little bit about what convenience stores are doing with food service, limited time offers, and how these offers can help improve business?

Kaiser: C-stores are beginning to recognize that they have the ability and permission to act similarly to fast-casual QSRs (quick-service restaurants). And I think that that exists because there's been this kind of this change in the thought process around what food and c-stores really could and should be. And that’s giving the c-store channel this chance to really lean into some of the suppliers that focus on LTOs (limited-time offers) with more of those national QSR brands and get some of the credit for fun and flavorful food.

“We do a lot of taste-testing and we analyze a lot.”

Also, LTOs are important for driving people back to the core. So, you throw something out, you gain excitement, it’s really fun. But people continue to remember: “Oh, that’s right. They’ve got a fantastic whatever this is,” right?

It's fun to see LTOs, and I’ll tell you just from a development standpoint, it’s my favorite thing to develop.

At Your Convenience: And is that because you can kind of break the rules, or is there a main reason why?

Kaiser: One of the really cool things in R&D with food and development is that our consumers have a familiarity that they are comfortable with. Take a burger platform, for example. No one is afraid to try a burger. Now, would you put some sort of really cool spread or aioli, or whatever that trending flavor is, on the burger? That’s where you’re going to see people start to experiment and try new things. And that’s where you get credit for being more trendy, perhaps. Ethnic, authentic, things like that, and definitely regional. So, it’s kind of fun to take a familiar platform and be able to have fun with it just by changing little things like tweaking a sauce or adding a topical ingredient of some sort.

“It’s kind of fun to take a familiar platform and be able to have fun with it just by changing little things like tweaking a sauce or adding a topical ingredient of some sort.”

At Your Convenience: I know I’ve had a burger with peanut butter on it down in Indiana in a college town in West Lafayette and it was quite delish.

Kaiser: I agree with that 100%. It’s two ingredients that don’t seem like they should go together. But one of my favorite pull-togethers, as I was doing some stuff in a previous job, I was working on sandwiches and we did bacon, peanut butter and sriracha on top of a pizza. It was unbelievable but completely unexpected as well.

At Your Convenience: Sure, and that’s sometimes that pleasant little surprise that’ll hook a customer.

Kaiser: Very true.

At Your Convenience: And I guess after the LTO ends, they’ll look for your next LTO, and then hopefully they will also dive into your standard, quote unquote, standard pizzas and so forth.

Kaiser: That’s exactly the reason why I think your national brands and your large QSRs have had a lot of success with it through the years. As we continue to be able to gain more stomach share, we have the ability to do the same thing at c-stores. And that’s really exciting.

At Your Convenience: Another trend today brought on in part due to the changing work schedules due to the pandemic is the blurring of foodservice dayparts. Could you discuss a little bit about this blurring of foodservice dayparts in c-stores and how c-stores should adapt to this to appeal and serve customers?

Kaiser: This is a topic we’ve been talking about for the last few years in depth. And I think that it's really important for us to continue to bring this up and ask the questions as we see our industry and our economies change a bit as well. Breakfast is always king because that’s really the most convenient place that c-stores find themselves in with the general consumer. But what we saw during Covid time was the blurring of the dayparts happened because people were working different shifts, or they weren’t going out. They were utilizing the pieces of c-stores in a very different way. But the interesting part was that c-stores were open and they were available, and so that changed the landscape in how people started to trust convenience stores for more than just getting gas.

“Breakfast is always king because that’s really the most convenient place that c-stores find themselves in with the general consumer.”

They came into the store off the lot because there were other places that they normally would have used that weren’t open and they couldn’t get what they needed. So, the blurring of the lines happened quite a bit from my perspective, where you saw breakfast go a little later and it shifted whether or not you got that lunch transaction.

Dinner never really grew into a huge piece as an industry. With c-stores, that’s where I feel there’s a really big opportunity. But what really jumped out was snacking, and snacks have continued to be a huge focus with the consumer, both from a healthy perspective as well as trendy and fun. And you’re seeing people really dive into that snacking segment as well.

At Your Convenience: What would be just a couple of traditional snacks you're thinking?

Kaiser: Your basics that are doing really well, and they are they're the ones that sustain the snacking category in c-stores from a cold grab-and-go standpoint. You’ve got vegetable cups, but you’re starting to see the ranch turn into hummus, or the peanut butter and apples be peanut butter and apples and cheese.

When you’re talking about high protein, you’re seeing eggs and nuts and crackers, or chunked chicken in a cup with a sauce.

At Your Convenience: Do you see breakfast becoming more important in the overall c-store foodservice program? If yes, why? And if no, why?

Kaiser: Yes. I think breakfast is going to continue to be important forever. It’s the most convenient time of day for people to utilize convenience stores from a habitual standpoint. And I just mean that from the fact that I have fallen in love with my corner c-store’s coffee offer. I love going there for that. I feel like I am treating myself with coffee, and I’m going to grab something else while I'm at it.

At Your Convenience: On a related note, how are lunch and dinner doing?

Kaiser: Lunch is still a very strong focus of development. I think everyone realizes there’s an opportunity at lunch because it’s a lighter meal, but you can potentially build your basket based on that. And, so, we're seeing a lot of larger companies coming out and saying, “Let’s put together a promo strategy and let’s attach it to your lunch offer because we want to drive lunch traffic, and we know we can get there with the right partners. I think that the general consumer wanted so badly to get back to whatever normal felt like that it was really an easy place for the convenience store to jump back into those dayparts.

“Dinner never really grew into a huge piece as an industry. With c-stores, that’s where I feel there’s a really big opportunity.”

But I think what you’re also seeing is that a lot of the companies have come out and said, “We want breakfast all day or we want to open up our hours or change things like that.” It felt like you were getting more of an offer or more opportunity when all of a sudden those lines opened up and times opened up. It felt like you were getting more than you had ever gotten before because we had had so much taken away from us during that time, right? That is why I think this is one of the, if not the coolest times ever, to be focused on c-stores.”

At Your Convenience: Finally, Farley, how does McLane go about developing new offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Are focus groups involved, analyzing data, inputs and requests from your customers, all of the above? How does it work?

Kaiser: It’s very in depth. There are many facets to R&D with food and especially at the level in which we’re doing it. We’re not developing for one brand, we’re developing for the industry and really trying to make sure that we understand the consumer needs as well as the operator’s needs, which is complex but also very satisfying to crack that nut.

Project initiation comes from so many places, and a lot of times our customers will come to us and they will want the ability to innovate alongside us with our resources. There’s an industry gap also that we go out and we research what falls into that gap so we’re proactively preparing for what is going to happen. We also recognize that there’s categories that customers have been reaching out and asking about.

So, we dig down into benchmarking, competition, things like that. What else is out there to really understand? We get a lot of that information by subscribing to some of the trend channels. We go out into the marketplace, and we purchase and look and try and taste. We try to understand where foods fall in an adoption cycle to make sure that we're really developing what makes sense in that time for that operator.

“You’ve got vegetable cups, but you’re starting to see the ranch turn into hummus, or the peanut butter and apples be peanut butter and apples and cheese.”

And finally, I think leaning into our suppliers, who are also gathering that same information, helps us stay on the forefront of what the future is. Because to be honest with you, they are the ones that understand what’s happening with the ingredients and the commodities and how to position innovation in that way.

We do a lot of taste-testing and we analyze a lot, and I feel we’ve done a really good job of going out and asking the consumer what makes sense and what doesn’t.

At Your Convenience: Is there anything you can share about one time a customer came to you and they said, “We want this?” That piqued my curiosity.

Kaiser: I think [that is how] we got to the brands we’ve launched recently. McLane Fresh launched three specific brands. CupZa! is our full beverage bar brand focused on coffee, bean to cup, cappuccino, nitro cold brew, brewed teas and lemonades.

We’ve got Prendisimo, our freezer-to-oven pizza program, and then we also have Central Eats, which is grab-and-go both in hot and cold items.

Those brands really did come from customers reaching out and saying, “You are on our lots delivering our center store items. There’s a way that this could be more efficient. They wanted to lean into us into that. And that’s how our McLane Fresh team really got brought on to develop those offers and those programs. And we specifically went after the brands that we had been most asked for by our customers. So, when you see all of those brands out there, that’s a direct correlation to the things that they’ve told us.

At Your Convenience: So, you were delivering center store items to a c-store and they said, “We really want to sell pizza. What can you do?” And things went from there?

Kaiser: Exactly. Also, we have very strong relationships with our sales teams and our customers, and we’ve been along for the ride of their strategy of success for a long time. We spend a lot of time trying to make sure we understand how they measure success and how they want to get there so we can get in front of that and provide some of those solutions.

At Your Convenience: And I guess you might get to a point where if enough customers all say they want the same thing that McLane does not offer, there would be some sort of trigger at some point. I’m just making this up: chocolate-covered pickles. “We have a lot of people asking for chocolate-covered pickles. Maybe we should develop something like that?”

Kaiser: Wouldn’t that be fun? That’s the thing that we need to do is chocolate-covered pickles. I love it. I love chocolate, and I love pickles. So, you might be onto something.

Founded in 1894, McLane Co. Inc. is one of the largest distributors in America, serving convenience stores, mass merchants, and chain restaurants. With headquarters in Temple, Texas, McLane has more than 80 distribution centers across the country. McLane is a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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