The State of Foodservice: Building a Basket Bonanza

Convenience stores can maximize ingredients while minimizing costs via trending offerings, appealing smells and clean amenities
The State of Foodservice
Photograph: Shutterstock

Variety, cleanliness, innovation. Making do with substitute ingredients and being ready to pivot at any moment.

Those successful in convenience-store foodservice are juggling these and other requirements in 2024, as competition from inside and outside the industry grows.

For its annual State of Foodservice issue, CSP talked with a handful of foodservice experts on how to get more customers from the pump into the store—and from there to purchase more food items and beverages.

Click here to see the data from the 2024 State of Foodservice survey. 

Do You Smell That?

Don’t underestimate an appealing scent and attractive visual to greet a customer entering a convenience store.

To help boost sales, Ryan Blevins, director of food and beverage innovation at Powell, Tennessee-based Weigel’s, which has 73 stores, said customers can tell when a product has been sitting around for too long. Pizza, for example, will develop a dried-over look and loses the “melty-cheese goodness it has when it comes out of the oven,” he said.

Meanwhile, chicken tenders fresh out of the oven “are nice and golden brown and they’re kind of crisp and perked up,” he said. After sitting for too long, however, “they sort of deflate a little bit and lose that luster.”

For these reasons, Blevins recommends preparing fewer amounts of food more often to keep offerings fresh.

“That way people can see them and smell them, and they’re more inclined to make that purchase,” he said.

Pilot Co. also values staying on top of food preparation.

“One popular trend we are seeing is the demand for fresh food in c-store channels, specifically foods that are prepared in-house,” said Ed Houk, director of food and beverage at the 652-store chain based in Knoxville, Tennessee. “For example, our guests love our freshly made pizza, which is baked daily with a signature roped crust and real ingredients.”

In addition to freshness, Blevins recommends keeping stations well-organized and clean.

And when it comes to roller grills, “make sure the products are really arranged nicely and not just willy nilly sit on the roller grill,” he said.

Similarly, condiment stations should be clean and organized, with squeeze bottles wiped down to entice customers to make a purchase, Blevins said.

Jenny Vecchio, category manager for dispensed beverage and food at the 281-location TravelCenters of America, Westlake, Ohio, now owned by bp, said to keep food shelves and holding equipment full. “If a customer walks in and a popcorn machine is three-quarters empty, that’s not really enticing,” Vecchio said.

  • bp America Inc. is No. 7 on CSP’s 2024 Top 40 Update to the 2023 Top 202 ranking of U.S. c-store chains by store count. Watch for the full 2024 Top 202 ranking in the June issue of CSP magazine and in CSP Daily News. Pilot Co. is No. 15.

Outside Influence

In addition to enticing customers on the inside, Michelle Weckstein said to remember to grab their attention outside.

Weckstein, director of food and beverage brands for Southwest Georgia Oil Co., Bainbridge, Georgia, which operates 79 SunStop c-stores, said they implement zone marketing.

“We focus our signage so a customer can read the signage, which correlates to where they are in the store or, in this case, out at the pumps,” she said.

Weckstein said photos feature “foods that may be savory, appealing, tempt people to want to come inside the store and make that purchase.”

In addition, in a move embracing technology, SunStop thoroughly geofences its loyalty program.

“If a customer pulls in, and we know what they like to buy, then our loyalty manager will have a message sent out to them so they can come in and get a discount in the store,” she said. “If we know you always eat the chicken tenders, we’ll pop something up in the loyalty app to let you know we have chicken tenders—and if there’s a deal on those chicken tenders.”

Some customers don’t intend to enter the store but enticing them at the pump can change that.

“Try to remind [customers that] we have foodservice and the ability to order either at the pump or to at least have quick grab-and-go products for them,” said Steve Morris, owner and operator of St. Paul, Minnesota-based Retail Management Inc., which offers contract retail operations, marketing and accounting services for retailers.

“[It] prevents them from having to go to a quick-service restaurant or coffee shop to get that secondary trip,” he said. “Really try to capture that attention at the dispenser.”

“If somebody wants a burger in the morning … we have to be able to supply that because that’s what the QSRs are doing.”

—Steve Morris, owner and operator of Retail Management Inc.

Basket Boost

Once a customer is in the store, getting them to buy foodservice items goes back to zone marketing, Weckstein said. 

“If somebody comes in for a bag of potato chips, we may have a wobbler or some other signage in that area of the store that cross-merchandises with something out of our hot deli case, or even our grab-and-go area with a fountain drink, to suggest bundling that salty snack product with something else.”

Another aspect to luring customers has nothing to do with foodservice areas nor signage, Houk and Vecchio said.

“We always said your bathroom should be so clean, because if someone walks into a dirty bathroom, they’re not going to be buying food from you,” Vecchio said.

Inflation Fighters

Retailers are constantly battling inflation and trying to find the pricing sweet spot to retain and, with hope, increase customers and sales.

Vecchio approaches this fight by continually offering new and appealing promotions across all categories.

“We try to keep it as something our guests just can’t pass up,” she said. “We’re constantly trying to find new food programs and exciting items to help increase the variety, whether it’s with our food cooler or our to-go counter where we have programs like popcorn, nachos, a food warmer and roller grill.”

In addition to those go-to items, Vecchio said she’s also done more with the healthier-eating trend, upping fresh vegetables and fruit offerings and salads.

“We’re really trying to help our sites by keeping their assortment nice and fresh and making sure their fresh fruit is always stocked, especially their Cuties [clementine mandarins],” she said. “That’s a really good item for us.”

When it comes to adding more proteins, that’s the domain of the roller grill, which TravelCenters of America is trying to grow by offering more variety, she said.

At Suns top, Weckstein said she’s been paying particular attention to what her broadline distributors are charging—and how those costs fluctuate. SunStop meets quarterly with one partner, who will recommend substitute products at substantially lower costs than what SunStop is currently paying.

One example Weckstein gave is the high number of scrambled eggs SunStop uses because they’re in all  the chain’s wraps. They switched companies on the liquid egg product they use, saving $30,000 annually in the process.

“And this is something the customer is not going to notice or care [about],” she said. “That’s not a brand they see.” For a summer chicken promotion, Weckstein found bone-in chicken prices were “outrageous.”

“We were looking for every single alternative, because we sell a fair amount of bone-in fried chicken, and found a manufacturer that will package legs and thighs at a very reduced cost compared to buying an eight-piece of two breasts, thighs, legs and wings,” she said.

Weckstein altered the promotion to a leg and thigh for $3 all summer. “We’re selling that protein at a very attractive price,” she said, adding this was a significant savings for customers versus the QSR prices SunStop surveyed. “That is how we plan on driving them into our stores where we have our proprietary food, and of course they’re going to add on sides and a drink.”

The last 24 months were hectic from a food cost instability standpoint, Morris, of Retail Management Inc., said. During this time, Retail Management Inc. aimed to maximize its use of  ingredients, lowering food costs and optimizing menu offerings to reduce costs.

Consumers used to be more willing to pay more for food they viewed as better quality, Morris said.

“I don’t said it evaporated, but it’s certainly slowed, and we started changing and trading down on an ingredient-quality standpoint to maintain prices,” Morris said. “And that’s where we saw improvement. We no longer had to appeal to higher qualities as long as we still offer a general quality product. The premium value of premium product was not paying dividends as it used to.”

That has helped stores save on cost and labor “with almost no impact to sales,” he said.

Dwelling on Dayparts

Dayparts are blurred, especially because there are QSRs offering products all day. In response, for example, Pilot has created food offerings that span dayparts, such as its Loaded Omelet breakfast pizza, Houk said.

Morris said this competition “has really wreaked havoc from an operational standpoint.” However, he adds that “if somebody wants a burger in the morning or they want a sausage-egg-and-cheese croissant in the afternoon, we have to be able to supply that because that’s what the QSRs are doing.”

It’s a challenge operationally because retailers need to update menu boards to run all day instead of flipping over, he said.

There are other challenges, of course, and in today’s world of convenience-store foodservice, retailers must calmly craft a plan for both inside and outside the store—to refrain from flipping out.

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