something to cluck about

Any fresh chicken program requires dedication, but see how a little ingenuity earned these retailers recognition and, oh yeah, thousands of dollars in chicken sales per week.

By Kate Quackenbush,
Managing Editor

Despite their obvious size differences, 170-store Fas Mart Convenience Stores,23-store Johnson Oil and single-store operator One Stop Convenience Store allhave one thing in common: They know chicken. They may use different suppliersand different cooking methods, but their commitment and creativity with theirsignature chicken programs have turned their stores into food destinations.

A game of chicken

Fas Mart Convenience Stores (Mechanicsville, VA) hasoffered its Fas Lane Cafè program for 10 years. It features Fas FriedChicken entrèes along with wings and tenders and a slew of side itemslike macaroni & cheese, steamed broccoli and rice. It also has a variedbreakfast program that includes hot breakfast sandwiches made fresh on site,biscuits and gravy, corned beef hash and chipped beef. Just 55 of its 170 storesfeature the foodservice program, with the chicken offer as its foundation.

“Chicken is the backbone of what we do and we build around it,” says Phill Oliver, foodservice category manager. “Our breading gives our product a unique flavor profile that sets us apart from our competition. We may only have it in 55 of our stores, but the volume they produce is phenomenal. Stores average $6,500 to $7,000 a week in sales, while some might sell as much as $14,000 a week.”

Gonzales, TX-based Johnson Oil Co. also creates a great draw at its storeswith its fresh fried chicken program. The company first introduced foodservicein the early 1990s in just four of its 23 Tiger Tote Food Stores. At the time,the stores operated independently—ordering from four different suppliers—witha stronger focus on burritos, finger foods and sandwiches than on chicken. Thenthe company hired a foodservice manager to get its programs on track. Ever sincethen, the chicken program has spread its wings to nine stores, and the companydeveloped branded partnerships with Hot Stuff Pizza, Piccadilly Circus Pizza,Buffet Style Pizza and Subway.

“We began purchasing from one supplier and really developed our Mama’s Kitchen program,” says Donna Sitka, Tiger Tote’s foodservice manager. “The heart of our business is our fresh fried chicken and tenders along with sides like fries, okra and potato wedges. Seasonally we’ll offer coleslaw and potato salad.

“Putting a heavier focus on our foodservice has made all the difference,” she continues. “In 1996, foodservice accounted for $254,000 of our inside sales, not including hot and cold dispensed beverages. Last year we did $3.5 million in foodservice, with Mama’s Kitchen representing $2.2 million. In 2004, we went through 300,000 pounds of chicken. Not bad for just nine stores.”

Similar to Fas Mart and Johnson Oil, Ben Scharfstein is experiencing greatsuccess with his chicken program. But unlike the multi-store operators, he’sdoing it at his single store and he serves a Broasted chicken, which cooks thechicken under pressure, sealing in the natural juices and allowing less timefor the bird to soak in oil.

One Stop Convenience Store shares its lot with sister store One Stop Liquor and Spirits, both of which are owned by Scharfstein and his wife Caroline. When Tennessee’s Johnson City opened up beer licensing to supermarkets, Scharfstein realized he needed another draw to keep customers on site.

“We realized good, clean, healthy food would make customers drive past ourcompetitors,” says Scharfstein. “We’re surrounded by fast feeders— BurgerKing, Arby’s, Pizza Hut and several delis—but the only chicken in JohnsonCity was outside our market area and didn’t represent the flavor profile I waslooking for.

“We discovered the Broaster chicken program at a tradeshow and realized it was exactly what we needed,” he continues. “It’s a really attractive and tasty product. People love fried food, but they want it lighter and healthier. Broasting the chicken is the perfect alternative. The breading is almost pure Kentucky wheat flour; we don’t use a lot of heavy seasonings, salt or pepper, which separates us from the national chains.”

Scharfstein rounds out his menu with good, home-cooked sides like fresh cut potatoes, macaroni & cheese, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans and broccoli casserole. He also utilizes his wife’s culinary expertise for some special recipes. With tourist traffic and preparing bulk orders for schools and picnics, One Stop does almost $500,000 in chicken sales alone in its single store per year.

Following the playbook
Whether it’s a Broasted or a fried program, allof these retailers use fresh product delivered two or three times a week. Thisforces them to devote tremendous attention to the program— not only forsafety precautions, but also to control costs.

“Our program is very labor-intensive,” says Fas Mart’s Oliver. “It has to bewhen you’re dealing with fresh products. Every deli store in our company hasa manager—the captain of the ship. We have deli-specific employees, butwe cross-train so everyone knows what’s happening and they can help out in arush.

“Everything is run through the store’s main register, but we have a separateline on the P&L for the deli, so we know what we’re making,” he continues.”It’s the deli manager’s job to make sure we’re making a profit. If we’re doinga ton of business but not growing our bottom line, then we have to take a lookat that operation.”

Fas Mart shoots for a 55% profit margin or better on its fresh deli program,but it has come to accept a certain amount of waste with fresh chicken. Thecompany reviews its food costs every week to address any excessive waste andthen adjusts its prep to account for it.

“We want to make sure we’re not over-ordering the chicken—that’s just dead cost,” says Oliver. “We also want our employees to know how much to cook to meet our volume. There are specific hold times for our products, so once that passes the product is tossed. Our employees have to be sure to cook enough for the rush, but not wasting product on hold time. At that point the quality deteriorates and we won’t sell that to our customers.”

There’s a simple rule of thumb that Johnson Oil lives by for its chicken program: Cook less chicken more often. Waste and spoilage are huge concerns for the chain, too, so its focus has been to get them under control.

The first step for the company was to switch to a chicken product from Tysonthat’s been treated to enhance its moisture and increase its holding time. Before,the product could stand for two hours, but the new product has upped the holdingtime to more than three hours.

The company is also taking steps to standardize its program to properly gauge demand and keep waste down.

“Consistency is always a concern,” says Sitka. “We try to make a product that’s the same from store to store—it should taste and be portioned the same. You can set a target gross profit margin, but if someone isn’t following our portioning standards, it can blow your margin.

“We look at our daily production bill-tos for every day of the week, down to the hour,” she continues.

“We adjust to times of the year and season; for example, in the summer our production is up, while in the winter it will drop slightly. Our production sheets track what we sell and what’s spoiled. Stores submit their production sheets weekly so we can see what our finished gross profit margin is after spoilage.”

By June, Sitka hopes to have compiled a store foodservice manual with all the information she’s gathered from her analysis of the programs. The manual will go through all the equipment, portioning charts, holding times, temperature requiremen
ts, packaging and total weight when it’s all put together.

While Ben Scharfstein can’t match the resources of larger chains like Fas Mart, he feels being a single store operator gives him an advantage.

“The high turnover of some major chains keeps them from developing their foodservice to our caliber,” he says. “Our employees are our family; some have been with us for 15 to 18 years. What’s profitable for us could spell disaster for larger chains with heavy turnover because they don’t have reliable, well-trained people keeping a close eye on the operation the way we do.”

Scharfstein does what he can to keep his employees: paying higher wages, offeringan IRA plan and covering 50% of the company’s health plan. He also gauges hisstore hours on the health and wellness of his staff.

“We don’t want to overwork our employees,” he says. “We have 11 full-time employees in our little store and we aren’t open 24-hours so our employees can get some rest. I may set up standards, but they’re the ones carrying them through every day. If my employees are refreshed, then they’ll come in and cook their hearts out. If they’re tired and run down, that’s when people cut corners.”

Better bottom lines
Once Fas Mart knew it had a quality product, it focusedon building its brand through its packaging. Its new packaging features itslogo and holds the product better. Fas Mart also uses catering for church orschool gatherings as another way to get the word out about its program. Thecompany prepares bulk orders— sometimes having to utilize more than onestore for orders as big as 3,000 pieces—and has them ready for pick-upat one location. That’s where the new packaging really comes into play.

“Our customers are always quick to credit us for the food we prepare for their events,” says Oliver. “By getting our product out at Super Bowl parties or church fairs, it gives us another chance to cultivate our current customers and get the word out so we can win new ones.”

As Fas Mart moves forward, it will continue to build on its brand equity tofill the home meal replacement void. The company would like to expand its relationshipwith Stouffer’s and its chicken providers to see what it can do to create moreenticing deals for dinner solutions. It’s also outfitting all of its storeswith signage to drive dinner purchases from the hours of 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Johnson Oil Co. is also partnering with its vendors to get the word out about its foodservice offer.

“We’re trying to be more aggressive marketing our Mama’s Kitchen brand,” says Sitka. “In our market, we’re going head-to-head with Church’s and Popeye’s, so our goal is to get the name recognition out there with our own brand. We’re working with our vendors to do pumptoppers at our food locations to get customers in our stores. So far three of our vendors have signed up, and last month we showed a 34% increase in sales with the pumptoppers and price promotions.”

One Stop may be small, but it has big ideas when it comes to promoting itsprogram. Scharfstein hooked up with a producer at a small cable station downin Johnson City who told him his best quality was the way he talked to people.He’s created up to seven television spots explaining why his chicken programis so good. The spots now air regularly on a CBS affiliate. And his dedicationto successfully creating a buzz around his chicken program has earned him TheBroaster Co.’s Golden Chicken award, which goes to trademark operators who activelypromote and market Genuine Broaster foods.

Lakeway Market gets ‘wacky’

It’s the nature of single-store Lakeway Markets to be modest, butthere’s no arguing with results. With 3,000 sq. ft. of its 7,000 sq. ft.store devoted to its deli, Lakeway’s foodservice program has evolved intoa destination for home-cooked foods—the center of which is its Broastedchicken program, homemade soups and “top notch” potato salad.

“Our joke slogan is ‘Quite possibly the best chicken in the county,'”says Joel Kotschevar, general manager of Lakeway Markets (Fergus Falls,MN). “You can’t be too cocky, but our customers say our chicken is betterthan anything they ever tasted [in national chicken restaurants]. Ourchicken, soups and potato salad are our calling cards and they’re whyour customers continue to come back.

“While hot meals are big sellers for us, 10% of our chicken sales arewrapped and taken from the cold case,” he continues. “Contractors, fishermenand hunters will buy cold chicken with homemade salad and they’re setfor the day. Our sales are $2,000 a week in chicken—that’s about960 pieces a week. That grows to $3,000 a week in the summer months.”

Lakeway caters to a community of just 13,000 people, but being locatedin “Lake Country,” it gets tremendous tourist traffic. In February, Kotschevarwanted to spread the word about the program, so he implemented an impactfulpromotion while the store owners were on vacation.

“We came up with the idea for a Wacky Wednesday promotion,” he says.”We ordered the chicken and got it in fresh on Tuesday, breaded it upearly Wednesday morning and started Broasting at 9 a.m. Using our marqueesign out front and having it mentioned on the local radio station, welet everyone know we were having a leg special at our stores—andthey were full-sized legs, not those little drummies. They could get threelegs for 99¢ and we put a limit on it at 68 legs. People would askus, ‘Why 68? It’s not divisible by three.’ And we would tell them, ‘Becauseit’s Wacky Wednesday.'”

The store sold 640 legs in 24 hours. According to Kotschevar, it wasn’ta big moneymaker; the store basically broke even, but it paid big dividendsin terms of word of mouth.

“It got the word out and had a lot of people interested in what we weredoing,” he says. “Our owners appreciated that we took the initiative totry something. We’re planning on giving that promotion another try realsoon.”

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