What C-Stores Can Learn From a Restaurant’s Pitfalls

Bob Derian shares his experience and what retailers should watch out for in their foodservice programs
Food truck
Photograph: Shutterstock

I opened Chef Bob’s Lobstah Trap restaurant in Colorado Spring in September 2020. It served New England favorites like steamers and fried clams, and it supported our Lobster Food Truck, which is still rolling. But unfortunately, we had to close our restaurant in November 2023. It was a bittersweet decision after a three-year fight against circumstances beyond our control.

So what could we have done better? I hope that in reading this, c-stores can learn what pitfalls to watch out for in their foodservice programs.  

I believe it comes down to three “bottom shelf” points:

Choose the Right Products

The cost of lobster more than doubled during the pandemic! I was forced to charge the most I had ever charged for my lobster items, but I made the least I had ever made.

The allure of Maine lobster in Colorado was truly attractive to the land-locked people we served, but not many people can afford to spend $28 on a lobster roll…on a regular-enough basis to keep the business going.

I’m sure you won’t want to base your foodservice around Maine Lobster but be sure you have more than just one or two main proteins or ingredients and think about the items around which you want to base your menu and especially your “hero items,” so be sure to check the history of the commodities you plan to use. This will help planning against availability and price. You can still feature concepts like a deli or a pizza program but be sure your menu and ingredients have been vetted properly to so you can sail through another storm, as new headwinds WILL occur.

Get the Word Out…Effectively

For an entire year I broke up my main advertising into four quarters. I used a combination of print, Facebook and Instagram. I only saw lifts in transactions when we had contests via our social media but that only happened if we didn’t overdo it. There is an oversaturation of offers and this will be a continued challenge.

Having a loyalty program is good, but not the total answer. The best loyalty programs only draw +/- 40% of your clientele. What are you doing to draw guests who are not part of your loyalty program?

Convenience foodservice is no longer an infant. By now, people in your neighborhoods should feel a lot better about your offer, especially if you’ve focused on it for a while and have a good offering. How are you getting the word out? Feature your menus, specials and specialties but don’t forget to also feature your team or activities which align with your brand. Relationships will keep people coming back. What about human-interest posts? Target posts by zip code and craft your posts so those people feel like you’re a part of their community and not just another business.

Be Focused, Yet Diversified

My restaurant was all about lobster. Maine lobster. In hindsight, this was too narrow! There’s only so much you can do with lobster. Even though we added great burgers and other non-lobster items we had already dug ourselves a hole and people only thought of us when they wanted lobster. There is a fine line to having hero products and diversification to provide guests with variety so they want to visit your establishment more often.

What can you do to make your offer appeal to a wider audience? This isn’t just about which ingredients people are going to want to consume. It is also about how wide your pricing structure is. The wider your menu prices, the wider your audience, provided you always offer quality.

Design your menu so you can take advantage of seasonality. If you did your homework from the “choose the right products” section above, you will know which items will be more profitable during which season and you can plan your LTO’s and roll-outs accordingly. 

The same principles we use in the restaurant world still matter at the convenience level. Carefully and deliberately comb through your menu to be sure it is the right one—and don’t forget to get the word out to the right people at the right intervals through the right media. Give people what they want at the right price and never let up on quality. Last but not least, remember, relationships drive people to your store and bring them back again and again, so plan your messaging around your neighborhood and make it personal.

Bob Derian is president of Chefbobco LLC. Reach him at bderian@thebateam.com.

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