Breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? Snack? At Convenience Stores, It’s All a Blur

The walls separating traditional dining times are eroding. Here’s how foodservice operators can capitalize
Illustration by CSP staff

Among today’s convenience-store foodservice dayparts, the lines are far more blurred than they’ve ever been before.

So said Mike Jones, category manager for the 91-store S&S Petroleum, Mukilteo, Washington.

Along with this is a blurring of choices, particularly indulgent versus healthy, as c-stores listen to consumers and follow the trends of better-for-you offerings while still selling “all the sins,” Jones said.

“When people go to the grocery store and out to dinner, you try to be good,” Jones said.

C-stores, however, are the last bastion of indulgence, Jones said, because, “It’s a safe place for people to get the candy bar, the chips, the ‘whatever they would not normally buy in a grocery store.’

“Let’s be honest with who we are as a convenience channel,” he added. “We sell all the sins and people buy them: tobacco, lottery, alcohol, sugar, caffeine.”

Those options, though, coexist with healthier options, all of which comprise what amounts to a juggling act for c-store retailers who, now more than ever, must be ready at all times with breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack and beverage items.

Retailers must be prepared because consumer patterns have changed due to the COVID-19 work-from-home influence and other labor trends via younger generations who have adopted more offbeat schedules, Jones said.

The dayparts continue to evolve from a generational standpoint, he said, and because of this, retailers ultimately must figure out how to offer more items throughout more dayparts, rather than having them rigidly segmented.

“You have people coming in at 3 in the afternoon who may want breakfast,” Jones said, “and you have them at 8 in the morning wanting pizza or a cheeseburger.”

Retailers need to balance their foodservice offerings without trying to be everything to everybody, Jones said. “How do we balance it to where at least we’re enough for everybody?”

In that effort for mass appeal, retailers should balance simplicity with homemade.

“Find what specialty is worth the investment for you,” said Jessica Williams, founder and CEO of Louisville, Kentucky-based consultancy Food Forward Thinking. “Most places aren’t going to be great at doing freshly baked bread, raw eggs, and bacon, and pizza, and tacos, and chicken from scratch. Choose a lane and do your very best at it.”

But, she added, “It’s hard to be specialized without adding labor.”

To make one’s c-store stand out without impacting labor, consider doughnuts and other bakery offerings made off site, and easy-to-execute coffee programs, she said. Add variety with new cappuccino or seasonal coffee flavors, as well as with special creamers.

Joy Almekies of Waltham, Massachusetts-based Global Partners, which owns 353 Alltown Fresh, Honey Farms, XtraMart and other c-stores, said its essential to offer non-breakfast items during breakfast hours.

A laborer plowing streets at 7 a.m. is likely to forgo breakfast items for heartier options: burgers, chicken sandwiches and potato wedges, the senior director of foodservices said.

So, while, “Sausage, egg and cheese is a must for us, so are crispy chicken sandwiches and potato wedges,” she added.

In addition to fresh, warm offerings, Global Partners also sells refrigerated grab-and-go versions of meatballs, burgers and more.

“When our guest is grabbing his hot breakfast sandwich, he might grab a cold meatball or cold steak and cheese (for later) knowing it is microwavable and has the right packaging,” she said. “Now they have breakfast and lunch. We try and capture as much business as we can.”

To play to the growing snacking trend, Ruiz Foods recently launched El Monterey mini tacos.


Hand It To Them

One key to being enough for all is to offer items that can be held easily, such as chicken tenders and other finger-style foods, Jones said.

“Potato wedges, for example, anything you could generally put in a cup that would go in your console and pick from as you’re driving,” he said.

Conversely, bone-in chicken sales have softened, as have items requiring a knife and fork—again because they can’t be consumed by drivers, Jones said, noting the driver will be left holding a chicken bone.

Almekies gets more specific, saying a handheld item should require five bites or less. She also pays attention to packaging, including environmental concerns.

“We look at responsible packaging because we don’t want to flood our world with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic,” she said, adding Alltown Fresh’s packaging is 100% compostable.

 Cargill products include the Cargill Sunny Fresh Egg Tazza Bacon and Cheddar.


Breakfast Boom

The morning meal daypart is experiencing the most growth across all of foodservice in 2023, said David Portalatin, senior vice president and food industry advisor for Circana, Chicago. This surge is due to the return to mobility and more people going to work.

Total egg sales are up 12%, and breakfast sandwich sales 10% from September 2022 to 2023, according to the Circana.

“We’re busier, more rushed, more time crunched than at any other point in the day,” Portalatin said. “That’s why even our in-home breakfasts are tending to be ready-to-eat items like protein bars you can throw on the toaster oven or the microwave.”

While c-stores are capturing people on the go for breakfast, there is still opportunity to grab the attention of more consumers, including those at home, Portalatin said.

“That’s why you’ve seen, in just the last three or four years, Wendy’s and Taco Bell get into breakfast,” he said.

“Look at Casey’s,” said Ed Burcher, partner and consultant at the Business Accelerator Team, Scottsdale, Arizona. “They added pizza for breakfast.”

A move like this helps lure new customers—“incremental guests”—who wouldn’t have been visiting the c-store in that daypart but now might because there’s a different product. This move, he added, helped Casey’s appeal to younger consumers who don’t view pizza as just for dinner anymore.

Burcher also points to Rutter’s and offers like their Kickin’ Chicken and Waffles and Donut Breakfast: a sausage patty, egg and white American cheese sandwiched between a grilled sweet glazed doughnut.

“It really does appeal and bring attention to the category,” he said.

Coffee is a big reason breakfast is a success at c-stores, Portalatin said, and what’s driving its growth is specialty offerings.

“Most of that morning meal daypart really boils down to breakfast sandwiches and specialty coffee,” he said. “For servings of specialty coffee at convenience stores in the third quarter, we saw 8% year-over-year servings growth. That tells me not only are consumers increasingly looking to source specialty coffee occasions away from home, but more and more convenience-store operators are elevating their coffee bars to include your cappuccinos, iced coffees, espresso-based drinks.”

Sandie D. Ray, vice president, foodservice business unit marketing and data analytics, at Ruiz Foods, Dinuba, California, said the a.m. daypart has had a traffic decline but that there’s opportunity for retailers to recapture it.

“It’s going to require menu innovation, more bundling, leveraging and refreshing their strong coffee programs—and elevating offers via their apps,” she said. “They’re going to have to claw that consumer back and give them a reason to leave their homes to visit or when they’re on their way to work, choosing the c-store versus your typical QSR.”

A strategy to win back and grow customers should involve c-stores expanding their roller grill breakfast assortment, she said, noting Ruiz Foods’ egg, sausage and cheese Tornados, and egg, bacon and sausage Tornados. “There are flavors available to make sure you’re getting that core grill consumer at the breakfast daypart.”

C-stores can expand their roller-grill breakfast assortment with items like these egg, sausage and cheese Tornados from Ruiz Foods. Photography courtesy of Ruiz - SausageEggCheeseTornados_Sleeve”


The Snacks Attack

Breakfast and other dayparts are blurring because consumers are becoming “more fluid,” Portalatin said. “Year-over-year for the last five years, the American consumer has had more of what we call ‘between-meal occasions’ than we did the year before.”

This doesn’t mean people aren’t eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, because they are, Portalatin said. What it means is, “We’re more on the go.”

Snacking jumped 5 percentage points in the afternoon and evening dayparts and 4 points in the late-night snacking daypart from Q3 2022 to Q3 2023, according to CSP sister research arm Technomic. Afternoon jumped from 46% to 51%, evening 20% to 25% and late night 11% to 15%.

These numbers reflect why Ray said, “Snacking still reigns supreme when it comes to the c-store.”

To play to this growing snacking trend, Ruiz Foods recently launched El Monterey mini tacos. Ray said the tacos deliver on the afternoon snacking occasion as a delicious, bite-size grab-and-go option.

“Most of that morning meal daypart really boils down to breakfast sandwiches and specialty coffee.”

Portalatin said he sees the emergence of a “p.m. snack daypart,” which includes an afternoon between-meal occasion and an after-dinner, evening or even a late-night occasion. Snacking is growing due to a large retirement cohort—baby boomers and their traditional daypart notions—exiting the workforce, he said, while more flexible younger generations, particularly Generation Z, are emerging and finding ways to earn money apart from traditionally going to work.

“You had the emergence of an on-demand economy where people make a living in a variety of ways, whether that’s buying and selling on third-party marketplaces or driving for DoorDash or trading in Bitcoin or whatever,” he said.

When looking at food-forward c-stores—those with a higher share of their mix in prepared foods—customer traffic is up 4% in the third quarter of 2023, Portalatin said. “The story has been about quick-service restaurants (QSRs) and food-forward convenience stores capturing more of these mobility-driven morning and then afternoon snack occasions.”

Because of this, the traditional notions of going to work from 8 to 5 don’t have as much influence over the total population like they used to, he said. “That creates a whole lot more flexibility and fluidity of when and where do we eat, and therefore what foods are going to compose those eating occasions.”

Gen Z is more likely to eat breakfast all day, according to a 2022 proprietary breakfast study from Cargill, whose products include the bite-size Sunny Fresh Egg Tazza Bacon and Cheddar, and the Sunny Fresh Scrambled Egg Patty.

And while those ordering breakfast from a restaurant is neck and neck between non-Gen Z and Gen Z (58% versus 57%, respectively) during breakfast hours, in the late-morning time frame (between breakfast and lunch), 45% of Gen Z orders breakfast versus 36% of non-Gen Z. At lunch, 27% of Gen Z will order breakfast versus 20% of non-Gen Z. Between lunch and dinner, 19% of Gen Z orders breakfast versus 14%.

Stephanie Sandlin, marketing manager, Cargill, Wayzata, Minnesota, said a proprietary study of customers at QSRs, which she said are c-store’s main competitor, shows the highest percentage of snacking occasions, at 55%, happens in the afternoon between lunch and dinner.

“But you still have 25% of snacks happening in that late morning and 29% around lunch,” she said, noting that Gen Z in particular is much more likely to snack in favor of three square meals.

“So there’s that opportunity to capture their purchases and really drive snacking occasions within c-stores,” she said.

One snack line doing well for Global Partners is through a partnership Alltown Fresh has with a high-end dessert line offering large dessert slices including cherry cheesecake, Mississippi mud pie squares, and lemon burst.

Almekies said they started this program a few years ago and “saw the velocity” in sales.

“If you were going to go eat out at an expensive restaurant, you would see those same kind of items,” she said, adding that people want to satiate themselves with things that make them feel good, but they don’t always want an entire cake.

“I can offer them a slice for $5.99, and they seem fine with it,” she said. “I’m happy, they’re happy. It’s only like 16 points on Weight Watchers.”

Another snack doing well is stuffed finger roll sandwiches with chicken, tuna or egg that come in packages of three. “Each sandwich is maybe three bites,” she said. “That’s probably our top-selling item outside of breakfast items.”

In another proprietary study, Cargill found that pizza is a strong snack opportunity for c-stores, specifically because it’s not eaten as a snack at pizza chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut, Sandlin said.

“Pizza restaurants don’t really offer pizza by the slice, whereas convenience stores do,” she said. “A third of people who buy pizza at a c-store consider it a snack, not a meal.”

The Demands of Dinner

The toughest daypart to capture is dinner, which remains the one meal people tend to gather to eat communally, Almekies said.

“Nobody’s running to Alltown to grab dinner,” she said. “They might grab sandwiches for everybody, but dinner’s just one of those meals, at the end of the day, you just kind of want to sit and absorb.”

However, she said, Alltown Fresh does offer items that complement a dinner, such as the finger roll sandwiches, with which she said she can’t keep up with demand.

“I’m trying to work within the parameters of our current traffic flow, with a hope and the strategy to maybe someday do more with dinner,” she said.

One incentive for pursuing a dinner—and lunch—program is the higher dollar spend per trip versus breakfast, Sandlin said.

At Temple, Texas-based McLane, Farley Kaiser, senior director of culinary innovation, said because dinner tends to be the biggest meal of the day for many—and often is shared with others—“the option to be able to provide a different offer or a slightly higher quality offer is the defining piece to stand out from the crowd.”

Even limiting the time during which an item is offered can up its appeal, she added, noting that a large c-store chain with whom she worked years ago put a time limit on when certain items are available. So starting around 4:30 p.m., for example, was when customers could start to purchase items like burgers and fried chicken sandwiches.

“They wanted to differentiate dinner as an offer and a reason to turn onto the lot, even beyond gas,” she said.

These strategies are working, Burcher said, with those adding or extending offers enjoying increases because they’re offering a different product to a new guest in a different daypart.

“The Wawa pizza promotion is brilliant,” he said. “They’re starting a dinner program that really started three years ago with burgers and fries and has now expanded into pizza, adding incremental visits, sales and profits.”


The jump in convenience-store breakfast sandwich sales from  September 2022 to 2023. Source: Circana Group/CREST


Opportunities Abound

Kaiser said there are opportunities in lunch and dinner because the menu innovation available s pretty expansive. She recommends that c-stores play off popular items in their innovation endeavors.

“People are not afraid to try a sandwich because they’re familiar with a sandwich, or a burger. You can get some credit for innovation and trendier items if you put an interesting sauce on the sandwich,” she said. The customer will think, “‘I’m not afraid of the sandwich, and I’m willing to try the sauce because it’s on a platform I’m familiar with.’”

However, she added, “Overarchingly, above all of that information, it comes back to needing to have a food-first approach and being able to talk about the quality and the variety. Spell it out for the consumers because they want to know what they’re getting.”

Williams recommends cross-merchandising, like she said some airport stores do in one, small location.

“They don’t have beverage, sandwich and snacks sections,” she said “They put it all together. I think convenience can learn from that. Put the bottled Coke next to the Snickers bar, in the cold case, next to a sandwich and next to a salad. Maybe somebody will get all of them. I find myself, every single time, accidentally buying $20 worth of food instead of $6 that I probably really only needed.”

Kaiser said to let consumers know why they should choose the sandwich a retailer is offering. Talk about the flavor variety, the bread or the affordability.

“Why do these burgers mean so much?” she asks. “What are they going to get out of it? Is it a belly-filler or combo’d with a great promotion? There’s a lot of opportunities to talk about the offer, but it does come down to what you’re wanting to get credit for and talking about food quality being a first approach.”

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