Foodservice

Retailer Commitment Essential for a Successful Convenience-Store Foodservice Program

Expert at CSP forum also addresses how cleanliness and a friendly staff are crucial
Neil Doherty, senior director, business growth-culinary strategy at Houston-based Sysco
Photograph by CSP Staff

To have a successful convenience-store foodservice program, retailers must make sure it’s doable, portable and will hold.

And they also must commit to the program.

This advice came from Neil Doherty (pictured), senior director of business growth-culinary strategy at Houston-based Sysco, who spoke last week at the 2024 CSP C-Store Foodservice Forum.

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“I could put a really great mac and cheese program together, no problem, in the smallest of independent stores, but it’s only going to work if the operator makes a commitment to foodservice, and most operators do not make the commitment,” Doherty said. “And I always tell them, ‘If you’re not making the commitment to foodservice, then make a commitment to leasing out a portion of your operation to a third-party, a taqueria, whatever.’ They’ll use that space and I’ll make a fortune out of it because they’re committed to it.

“The problem is we get so caught up in the commitment of the purchase of the product, the purchase of inventory, and the worst thing I’ve seen is using your beverage cooler to put your foodstuff in,” he continued. Storage such as this is due to the retailer not having independent refrigeration for their foodservice program, which shows a lack of commitment to food, he said.

Elevate Food

To elevate food quality in c-stores, Doherty said retailers should:

  • Understand demographics and price points.
  • Match quality with price.
  • Research popular trends.
  • Employ friendly staff.
  • Stay on top of cleanliness.

Regarding a friendly staff, Doherty stressed the importance of customer service.

“If you can give them that customer service, they’re going to feel a lot better about themselves, I’ll tell you that right now,” he said. “I will take a mediocre sandwich in this day and age if somebody’s polite and talking to me.”

With cleanliness, Doherty said if a c-store’s bathrooms are not clean, “In my mind, the kitchen is sure as hell not clean. If the front of house is not clean, then I’ve already cut you off; [a purchase] is not happening because if you’re not paying attention to the front of the house, the back of the house is going to be pretty grimy.”

Doherty said he might be open to buying a good coffee at any c-store because he would feel safe knowing a machine is doing the work. “But if I’m going to get a sandwich, I want to know the rest of the operation is clean,” he said.

Balance

Doherty turned to balancing selection and inventory management, saying consumers want choice and value while operators must be mindful of SKU optimization. To succeed at this, he said:

  • Create a streamlined menu easy for staff to execute.
  • Prep efficiency.
  • Cross-train staff across the entire operation – “How many times have you heard, ‘That’s not my job.’ We’re all here. Everyone needs to chip in,” Doherty said.
  • Cross-utilize products.
  • Start small and build up.

Regarding this last item, Doherty said, “Don’t try to put everything in at one time. Start with three or four items and see how it works and build into it, especially if you’re independent. If you’re putting LTOs (limited-time offers) out there, put them in one store and see how it works. If it works well, let’s go to stores two and three, four and five. Don’t try and do one mass thing unless you have the people to go in there, help set it up and monitor.”

Doherty also touched on how retailers should be aware of dietary restrictions and options for all. To do this:

  • Offer healthy choices.
  • Include grilled/baked/roasted offerings.
  • Research healthy trends.
  • Drive loyalty by offering customer choice/selection.

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