How Weigel’s Tapped a University Marketing Class to Help Develop a New Product

Ryan Blevins, director of food and beverage innovation at the convenience-store chain, discusses the creation of Dippin’ Dogs and more with CSP
Weigel's exterior, with Ryan Blevins inset
Photographs courtesy of Weigel's

Developing a new foodservice product involving a university marketing class, generating buzz and excitement, planning limited-time offers and more were among the subjects CSP’s At Your Convenience podcast recently discussed with Ryan Blevins, director of food and beverage innovation at Powell, Tennessee-based Weigel's convenience stores.

  • Weigel’s is No. 99 on CSP’s 2023 Top 202 ranking of convenience store chains by store count.

Weigel’s is a family-owned and -operated c-store chain that has been serving East Tennessee since 1931. With 70 locations, Weigel’s is dedicated to providing customers quality products and exceptional service.

What follows is an edited transcript from the podcast.

At Your Convenience: You and I talked a couple weeks ago for a foodservice story I was working on, and it was very interesting. I wanted to get you back here for an official podcast. My first question: Can you talk a little bit about what you’re doing with limited-time offers in foodservice and how these LTOs can improve your business?

Blevins: We try to plan our LTOs out about 12 months in advance. And of course, things change or new products may arise that we may want to jump on. But we try to get it planned out as far out in advance as we can because I think it helps the suppliers and manufacturers. But we also like to rotate our LTOs through the different food categories. So, one month it may be a pizza LTO, the next may be in the Mexican category.

And then we may follow up with a chicken. We like to rotate them through our food offerings, so we kind of mix it up. We love to do LTOs. We have a lot of fun creating them and developing and trying to generate a buzz around them. And all that being said, there’s many ways we see LTOs for helping our business. One of them, which is sort of what I just talked about, is generating that buzz and excitement. Anytime we can tell about these new products we’ve been working hard on and create some buzz in social media and through our app, then that’s going to drive up some excitement. And with that excitement can also bring new customers, right? We see it as a very effective way to introduce new customers into Weigel’s, and once we get them into Weigel’s, hopefully they become fans of ours from there on.

“We love to do LTOs. We have a lot of fun creating them and developing and trying to generate a buzz around them.”

We also think that encourages repeat business. Once you get in there and they’ve tried these new great products, these LTOs, hopefully they’re going to come back and buy it again and tell their friends and family about it.

Lastly, I really think this is big and you’ll hear me probably talk about this again, is differentiation. We want to put products out there that are different than our competitors, and we want people to take notice. We want people to say, “Oh, that looks fun. I got to go try that. How cool is that?” That’s how we think about LTOs and how it helps drive our business.

At Your Convenience: When you and I talked several weeks ago, we talked about the Dippin' Dogs, and it's a fun name and it's a fun-looking product. And obviously this is an LTO I believe you just launched.

Blevins: This has kind of a neat story behind it. The idea from Dippin’ Dogs came from a University of Tennessee marketing class. Nick (Triantafellou), our marketing director, has linked up in the past couple of years with a professor at the University of Tennessee in her marketing classes. And as part of a semester long project they had, the project itself was, What would you do if you if you could do things differently at Weigel’s? How would you improve Weigel’s foodservice program all the way down to the design signage? What food products would you like to see Weigel’s introduce?

“We want to put products out there that are different than our competitors, and we want people to take notice.”

It was a really cool project for them, and at the end of the semester, myself and our president and Nick and our vice president went over to the University of Tennessee and sat in on their presentation. This particular group came up with the idea for Dippin’ Dogs. They already knew that we did Dippin’ Chicken, and they knew that we sell a ton of corn dogs, so they thought it’d be good to use the term “Dippin’” on another product, so they came up with Dippin’ Dogs. They thought what a great way to use the wide variety of sauces we have, and with the corn dogs that we sell in a sort of a dip-in format. We loved the idea. Immediately I began sourcing the product and we found a nice little portable bite-size corn dog that has a similar flavor profile as our regular corn dog.

Then we just ran with it. We’ll probably do it again next year and, hopefully, we’ll get another cool idea out of that marketing class.

At Your Convenience: I’m sure that must have been pretty empowering for the class. They saw it become reality in a relatively short amount of time. That’s pretty cool.

Blevins: I think so, I think there’s some bragging rights in there too.

At Your Convenience: How do you get a customer to turn a gas trip into a foodservice shopping trip?

Blevins: If the customer is standing beside a pump, we are enticing them into the store with professional food photography. We’re big on really taking time and effort and putting a lot of resources into our food photography. We think it bodes well for us. And if you’re standing there beside the pump, you could look on top of the pump topper and there’s a picture of Dippin’  Dogs or our Dippin’ Chicken and, depending on which pump it is and what generation it is, you might also see a video playing on the screen of our pizza program or some of the other LTOs.

“If the customer is standing beside a pump, we are enticing them into the store with professional food photography.”

Hopefully, if you’re enticed by that, once we get you into the store, the first thing you see when you walk in is our kitchen and our hot food warmers. We always have a variety of fresh pizzas by the slice out. We have our hand-breaded Dippin’ Chicken tenders hot and ready all day.

At Your Convenience: Are those near the door?

Blevins: Not necessarily near the door, but as soon as you walk in, you can see them. It's probably 20 to 30 feet in front of you. We also have four digital menu boards hanging in our kitchens, so they’re a little bit higher than everything else, but they’re shooting right at you so hopefully they catch your eye and draw you back to those hot food warmers. And once we’ve got you back there, if we’re doing our jobs right, we've got fresh food out there.

We know that people eat with their eyes, and so we’ve done a couple things intentionally to help draw people over there to see our food. Our pizza slices and chicken tenders are left uncovered so the customer can grab the spatula and pull which slice they want. Our chicken tenders are uncovered as well because we want people to see that it’s crispy, hot, golden brown. If you put that lid on it, sometimes you can't see the freshness cues and the quality identifier. Leaving that food open like that really helps people get hungry pretty quickly.

At Your Convenience: Another thing you mentioned when we last talked is you suggested making smaller batches of food more often.

Blevins: That’s correct. Any time we can keep smaller batches out there and keep refreshing more often, then you’re obviously going to get the highest quality product we have to offer. Another thing we do is our labeling system. We’re pretty transparent about our labeling. When you walk up to a product and there’s a label on it, it'll say whether it’s within our hold times. If we’re doing our job right, then obviously nothing out there is expired.

But also, let’s say we left something out a little too long or forgot to pull it, then the customer can see that it is expired or out of the hold time and hopefully does not purchase it. The last thing we want them to do is purchase something outside its hold time because that’s not going to be a high-quality product and it’s probably not going to lead to a repeat purchase.

“We know that people eat with their eyes, and so we’ve done a couple things intentionally to help draw people over there to see our food.”

At Your Convenience: Outside of the marketing class you talked about, are there other ways you generate ideas for new products?

Blevins: Yes. We tap into our suppliers quite often. I like to hold meetings with our suppliers about once a year, right before NACS, where we’ll send out items we’re looking forward to. We’ll talk with most of our supplier partners and even some that aren’t current supplier partners, just seeking new ideas and new innovation, and we’ll bring them up here to our test kitchen and give them our pantry list and tell them our equipment. And we’ll say, “Give us five to seven items that meet our criteria and can work in our equipment and our kitchen setups.” A lot of good ideas have come out of that.

Going to food shows is another way to see new supplier innovation as well. It’s really a combination of a lot of things, including listening to your customers and what needs they have.

Sometimes the ideas come from the store level. I’ve had several managers and kitchen team members say, “Hey, have you ever thought about this?” Or, “We have this, this and this. We could do this.” And we certainly are wide open and listening to our frontline employees and the ideas that they have, and many times we’ve used them.

At Your Convenience: Is there an item you can share that came from the store level?

Blevins: Sure. We're actually launching a new line of wraps starting Monday. We had this idea come straight from a team member in the kitchen who one day caught me while I was in the store and said, “I got something to show you.” And she had already put some wraps together. She said, “We’ve already got these ingredients. Have you thought about wraps?” I said it had been on been on my mind for a while, but we just hadn’t really gotten there yet. But to see the innovations being done already in the store level was great, and so we took it and we’re introducing three new wraps starting Monday, which also has our Dippin’ Chicken dip in it. We've got a Dippin’ Chicken Caesar wrap, Chicken Bacon Ranch Wrap, and we’re doing a Signature Wrap that has our signature sauce in it using our spicy chicken. So that's something unique to us.

“Our chicken tenders are uncovered as well because we want people to see that it’s crispy, hot, golden brown.”

At Your Convenience: It sounds delicious. I know there are eight sauces with the Dippin’ Dogs, right? Can you roll off what those are?

Blevins:We have the basics: barbecue, honey mustard, ranch. But we also have our signature sauce, as I just mentioned. We have a hot honey sauce, our island sauce, which is sort of like a Caribbean jerk. We have our own proprietary hot sauce, and we have Buffalo.

At Your Convenience: So, everybody’s tastes. You kind of run the gamut there.

Blevins: We do. And what's fun about this is that we don’t really nickel and dime you for sauces. We want the sauces and the sauce condiment bar to be part of the customer experience, so when you grab your Dippin’ Chicken or your Dippin’ Chicken sandwich, we want you to go over there and try out a few different sauces and choose your favorite.

Another really fun thing about having these sauces is it allows us to blend sauces. Last Halloween, we took two of the sauces, equal parts, blended them, and created a new sauce that we called a Voodoo Sauce, and that Voodoo Sauce became a base for one of our pizza LTOs, and we also put it on a pulled pork sandwich. So that was fun as well.

“Any time we can keep smaller batches out there and keep refreshing more often, then you’re obviously going to get the highest quality product we have to offer.”

At Your Convenience: Last question, Ryan, about the blurring of foodservice dayparts. How much do you see that nowadays, and how do you adapt with what you offer and when?

Blevins: For us, there's not a lot of blurring, honestly. Our breakfast is our breakfast, and it’s our busiest time of day. And our product selection during breakfast is geared toward that breakfast consumer. We have breakfast pizza. We have our sort of proprietary stuffed biscuits, three different versions of that. We have our Dippin’ Chicken biscuits. We have your staples like bacon, egg, and cheese biscuits and sausage, egg, and cheese croissants. So, it's very geared toward the breakfast consumer.

We also have our pepperoni pizza out and chicken tenders out, but we’re focused on breakfast during the morning times. But once that transition goes away and we’re moving into lunch, then we change our product selection back to more standardized hamburgers and chicken sandwiches and pizza sticks and corn dogs.

We have an award-winning coffee program and a fresh daily bakery program, so our stores are really busy in the mornings already, and so our customers have sort of come to expect that same quality and availability of our breakfast foods.

At Your Convenience: With the Voodoo Sauce, is that something you then packaged and made an official label?

Blevins: We blend the two sauces and then pour them in a squeeze bottle and put it out on the condiment station. And we took a lot of really neat food photography. We had some skeletons and witches and bats in our food photography. So it was, again, back to just having fun with our LTOs—and we had a lot of fun with that.

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