Race for Retail Foodservice: Changing Consumer Perceptions

How to convince customers that c-store foodservice can be good

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- The era of convenience stores using roller-grill sausages and fruit slushies as consumer bait is over. C-stores in recent years have revamped their foodservice operations to appease customers demanding fresh, innovative items. In March, Savannah, Ga.-based Parker’s convenience stores launched its Southern-inspired menu in 30 stores in Georgia and South Carolina, with items such as fresh biscuits, mashed potatoes and apple cobbler. And in February 2017, York, Pa.-based Rutter’s even rolled out chef’s coats to help its foodservice staff walk the walk as a chain that offers legitimate food options.

But despite these initiatives—and plenty more around the industry—the struggle persists: Consumers just don’t believe c-store food is any good, even if they’ve never tried it.

“Perception of quality is the biggest hill [c-stores] have to climb,” says Robert Byrne, senior manager of consumer insights for Technomic, CSP's sister research firm, Chicago. In the mind of the consumer, c-stores sell boxes of macaroni and cheese and cans of tuna. [Most] don’t have kitchens, so it’s difficult for consumers to see the connection.”

This mindset often stems from generalizations that c-stores lack a certain level of cleanliness and service, says Paul Servais, foodservice director for Kwik Trip, La Crosse, Wis. “It depends on the market, but nationwide, the negative perception of c-stores still exists,” he says. So how can operators alter consumers’ perceptions?

For starters, employing kitchen staff with restaurant experience can help, Byrne says.

“The more you hire people with a commercial foodservice background, the more you get restaurant-type offerings and operations at retailers,” he says.

This can change a c-store’s entire foodservice model: The store becomes a restaurant that just happens to sell gas, as well as a go-to location for foodservice, Byrne says. He also suggests implementing overhead menu boards outlining the ingredients and preparation of each dish. This directly ties to hiring individuals with commercial foodservice experience, because they can inform customers about the food. Curating the menu and communicating its ingredients to the consumer in an easy and identifiable way  is pivotal, Byrne says.

“Simple menu descriptions need to change,” he says. “If you want to be perceived in the same breath as a grocery store or  restaurant, these are things they are doing.”

For example, Sunset Foods, a five-store grocery chain based in Highland Park, Ill., provides detailed menu descriptions for all its prepared foods sold in stores and online for catering. Its Shrimp & Grits Mini Tartlets are described as “a base of fresh grits topped with smoked ham gravy, cooked shrimp and chopped parsley” on its menu.

Servais says Kwik Trip has gained consumers’ trust regarding its foodservice.

Nonetheless, the chain still works to ensure patrons are aware of its novel offerings. Kwik Trip budgets eight hours every week for product sampling and even hires people specifically to do this; it also promotes innovative food options via social media.

“We still sample our food because people won’t believe it’s good until they try it,” he says.

But altering consumers’ perceptions doesn’t happen overnight. “[It] took us 15 years to get there,” says Servais. “People eat with their eyes: You’ve got to be clean and have great service. If you do those, the rest gets easier.”

Grocery thrives in sampling, too. Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s samples every day of the week to provide consumers tastes of its private-label soups, frozen and refrigerated prepared meals, snacks and more. In 2017, the 474-store chain even launched beer and wine sampling stations in select locations nationwide.

Click here to read the complete Race for Retail Foodservice report.

Next: Can C-Stores Deliver?

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