Foodservice: The COVID Conundrum

In a challenging year, innovation and adaptation prove essential
Photograph: Jason Little

CHICAGO — Necessity, it’s been said, is the mother of invention. And that hadn’t been so clear in quite some time as it was in 2020, when a pandemic that brought a world of pain also spurred an acceleration in innovation.

Finalists for CSP’s 2021 Category Manager of the Year Awards in the foodservice and dispensed beverage arenas pivoted and progressed, speeding up plans already in the pipeline while developing new plans to survive.

“The pandemic really challenged our organization and prepared foods team, specifically, to think differently,” said Andrew Kintigh, prepared foods category manager, who focuses on pizza and the Pizza Plus business, which includes items like breadsticks and wings, at Casey’s General Stores, Ankeny, Iowa. “By quickly pivoting, we’ve been able to meet the guest demand.”

That demand for pizza translated to pies placing on the list of biggest and fastest-growing offerings in convenience stores, up 13% year over year from 2019-2020, according to Technomic’s 2020 “C-Store Market Annual Report.”

One example of meeting demand, Kintigh said, is the chain’s plans for curbside pickup. “The digital marketing team was already working on it. But the pandemic escalated that and made that initiative top of mind.”

As the pandemic unfolded, it disrupted people’s daily routines and commutes, impacting dayparts, sales mixes and foot traffic, said Justin Hill, a foodservice category manager at BP in La Palma, Calif.

“With more people than ever now working from home, this has the potential to permanently change traffic patterns and purchasing habits.”

To combat this massive upheaval, “We’ve reimagined our merchandising and packaging by simplifying menus, adjusting merchandising and inventories, and modifying hours of operation and delivery frequencies to streamline supply and demand,” he said.

Another aspect to making changes due to COVID-19 is the way products were, and still are, displayed, said Marissa Tinoco, category manager of foodservice for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, Dallas. “Due to the requirements for social distancing and limited self-service options, we are putting more roller-grill products into the warmers for a grab-and-go experience,” and these became some of their better-selling items during the pandemic, she said.

Tinoco added that due to safety concerns, “Customers liked the prepackaged items and less touch points to get the product.”

Another aspect to 2020 sales is how a majority of self-service options for customers had to be shut down quickly. To minimize food expiring while simultaneously filling customer needs, Tinoco said, they developed a bulk foodservice sales program for items like hot dogs and pizza after realizing frozen foods were selling out.

*Click here to review complete category sales data.

Learning to Adapt

C-stores also have responded to changing customer demands by expanding sections. At Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores, Oklahoma City, deli areas have been expanded for more fresh food options, said Jessica Tritten, category manager, dispensed beverages, adding that “cleanliness is more important now than ever before and, thankfully, that has always been a priority at Love’s.”

Michelle Cram, senior platform manager, hot beverages, at 7-Eleven, Irving, Texas, said the chain has taken a second look at routines as basic as how they dispense hot-beverage lids, which were stacked in a container not fully sealed. “This caused us to ask, ‘Is this the best we can do in a COVID environment?’ ” she said.

One big frustration, she noted, is the ambiguity of when customers might return to their morning routine and different restrictions among counties, cities and states. “So, for us to adapt our business model to comply with that jurisdictional requirement meant we had to adapt our coffee and dispensed-beverage service.”

Connie Kelehan, senior category manager, fountain beverages, at Kum & Go, Des Moines, Iowa, said there is a good deal of hands-free equipment being developed, but it’s also very expensive, “so we’ll wait and see if we will invest.”

Kelehan also noted the splurge-on-yourself aspect to the pandemic. “Frozen carbonated beverages performed well as customers viewed this as a treat and escape during COVID,” she said. “In addition, there is not a replacement for this product in a packaged-beverage form.”

A goal for 2021, Kelehan said, is to have in place a clear and thorough strategy that includes luring back customers. “We’ve been highlighting our food combos, giving a $1 beverage if a fresh food item is purchased,” she said.

Said Cram of 7-Eleven, “With more people than ever now working from home, this has the potential to permanently change traffic patterns and purchasing habits.”

Click here to view the complete Category Management Handbook.

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