Bean Babies

Hoping to win back college kids, Pump N Pantry revamps its coffee program

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

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It’s always bittersweet when the kids head off to college. This is especially true if they used to visit your c-store for coffee and snacks--and now refuse to leave the campus.

For Pump N Pantry, a chain with 17 sites in northeastern Pennsylvania, this scenario began to play out at its Mansfield, Pa., location, which is a short walk—literally, about 100 yards—from the outskirts of Mansfield University.

“At one time, they had quite a bit of student traffic into the store, but then we lost quite a bit of that customer base when competition came to town,” says Wade Robinson, foodservice supervisor for Pump N Pantry, Montrose, Pa., referring to a new Sheetz location that opened in 2011.

To stop the sales slide, the Pump N Pantry team assessed its offer and found one area in particular that could be reinvented to make it a more appealing destination for students: the coffee bar. The program at the time was what Robinson describes as “typical c-store coffee,” a limited mix of brewed regular, decaf and flavored coffee, and cappuccino out of a powdered-mix machine.

For the past 20 years, Paul deLima Coffee Co. had supplied the chain with its perfectly satisfactory Endless Mountains Beanery ground coffee. But on the espresso-drink side, the offer was lacking, especially compared to that of the competition.

“Where we felt we could expand was into premium café-style beverages--the espresso-based coffee like Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and Sheetz were offering,” says Robinson, referring to those chains’ whipped-cream-topped, syrup-drizzled mochas and lattes.

And while one of its main goals was to grow hot-beverage sales, Pump N Pantry was also hoping for a corresponding increase in foodservice sales at the site, which used to rank among its top three stores by food sales but had since slid out of the top five. “We thought by stepping up our hot-beverage offering, we could grow foodservice as well,” says Robinson. The offer includes made-to-order subs, pizza, wraps, breakfast sandwiches and pizza, and Pump N Pantry’s famous Endless Cinnamountain rolls.

“And overall we want to bring more customers back into the store,” says Robinson, “ones we thought we had lost to our competition.”

The Game Plan

After scouting out Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s, and visiting with fellow c-store chain Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes in Canastota, N.Y., Pump N Pantry settled on the Concordia Integra 4, an automatic espresso machine from Concordia Beverage Systems, Bellevue, Wash. The Integra grinds espresso beans and can make up to 250 drink combinations, including espresso, lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, iced drinks and what Robinson describes as “very authentic” hot chocolate. It can also add flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, caramel and chai to beverages.

While the push-button machine is designed for self-service use, Pump N Pantry opted to assign an existing foodservice employee at the store to operate the machine full time. “We felt we could better manage the quality of the beverage and better manage the experience if we made drinks for customers,” says Robinson. This also involved a focus on retraining employees to not only accept the new program, but also to encourage suggestive selling, which is always a tough operational task.

The espresso bar--branded Endless Mountains Beanery Café--sits behind the self-service coffee area and is designed with an open layout so customers can watch their beverages being made. Pump N Pantry offers regular and large sizes for the espresso-based beverages, which have a higher dollar ring than traditional coffee, but the retailer opted for a smaller margin of 70% to boost volume.

Besides adding barista-style drinks, the retailer also switched its brewed coffee from glass pots to servers from Wilbur Curtis Co.

“We’d been using glass forever,” says Robinson. “And customers did not mind the move. The coffee seems to remain fresher and hotter for a longer period of time.”

The entire cost of the Mansfield revamp: $50,000. This might sound steep, but it includes the espresso machine and new coffee servers; a new seating area with booths, tables and chairs; an electric and water upgrade; a new counter; and a f ’real milkshake and smoothie blending bar coupled with a four-head frozen carbonated beverage machine from Frozen Beverage Dispensers (FBD).

“The reason why we lumped the two together is they had the same goal: We’re trying to attract a younger crowd into the store,” says Robinson. “In the spring when it warms back up, with those two items, we will definitely see a boost in college and high-school students.”

The Score

So did the new beverage offers lure back those students? Well, not yet, not quite.

“To be honest, we are disappointed in the sales,” says Robinson, who says those numbers remain about what they were prior to the introduction of the espresso-based beverage program. Coffee as a whole has declined slightly over the past year chainwide; at the Mansfield site, it continues to supply 20% of foodservice sales.

However, Pump N Pantry is not ready to brand the new offer as a dud.

“We know it’s a successful product,” says Robinson. “It was a good test; it allowed us to see what we need to do with training and executing the product properly, and what we need to do to promote it.” This included extensive advertising in the local community and on the college’s campus.

The issue seems to be that the level of competition in Mansfield is considerable. So Pump N Pantry is doubling down, working closely with the university by sponsoring athletic events and accepting its student ID payment system. It is also exploring other ways to promote the new program and its Mansfield location on campus through a contest.

“We need to get the word out to the students that they can come to our stores,” says Robinson. “When I was on campus, handing out coupons, talking to students, it was surprising they don’t realize how short a walk away we are. They get dropped off on campus, maybe take a bus to Walmart or our competition, but they don’t think about walking 100 yards down the hill.”

The company is also ready to launch a Facebook page, which should help spread the word among connected students. “And we are trying to hire more university students, to spread the word that we’re not only a great place to shop but also a great place to work,” says Robinson.

Finally, a change in location could also be beneficial. Pump N Pantry plans to install Endless Mountains Beanery Café at two sites close to its headquarters in the next year and a half.

“Folks in the Montrose area who have heard about it are excited because [in the area] there is not a Sheetz, Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts,” says Robinson. “We know over on this side of the company it will be a success.”

And the company is steadily remodeling sites to include the new coffee bar and update their look—sites that haven’t had a makeover in 10 or 15 years, says Robinson. “Some of our stores haven’t had a remodel in a while, and so we’re trying to make sure customers understand we are serious about foodservice.”

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