Driving down Crain Highway in southernMaryland, motorists are offered many conveniencealternatives—7-Elevens, Wawas, XtraMarts—but asthey cross into La Plata, a glamorous new store stands out like a beautiful brick beacon.
The 3,200 sq. ft. prototype is a marvel of technology and style.In the forecourt, brick gas canopy columns and a monument signmarvelously meld with the monolith storefront that supports anelectronic Dash In display sign with changing time and temperature. A red “eye brow” swoops across the front of the buildingjust above windows that are completely free of stickers or signage.Clutter-free windows go hand-in-hand with the 17-foot ceilingsthat create an open, bright environment where female customerscan feel safe shopping.
This is the fifth prototype Dash In has introduced into itsnetwork, but this one marks a definitive step for the company.Half of the 35-store chain is operated by 18 franchisees, most ofwhom have taken advantage of Dash In’s evolution. (The company also has 210 dealer locations for a total of 240 stores in itsRetail Marketing Division.) The other prototypes are in variousstages of development, but this most recent prototype is the “bestof the best,” according to Don Hamberger, franchise and marketing manager.
“This chain has always been ahead of the curve,” Hambergersaid. “We were one of the first companies to bring co-branding tothis area 20 years ago and now with this concept, we’re going topush new, exciting and innovative ideas. We’ve always been onthe leading edge of the industry.”
Where Dash In was once a co-branding champion—fromBaskin-Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts to Subway and Taco Bell—itfound its branding identity was getting lost with all the partner-ships. This new prototype severs the cycle of co-branding andsolidifies the company’s commitment to being a strong, stand-alone brand.
“We made the strategic decision to get out of the QSR business and to develop the Dash In brand,” said Larry Derrow, vicepresident and general manager of the chain. “It takes 466 separate pieces of POS materials to be a Dash In—branded cups, sugar,napkins, clocks, floor mats. We’ve gone full steam ahead to getour name out in front of our customers. Dash In is all about ‘Life…Made Better.’”
Creating a Concept
Dash In’s marketing team created the footprint for the interiorlayout of the store—what it wanted to offer and how much spaceto devote to it—but it sought outside help to bring its vision to life.CORE design company in Georgetown helped develop the concept, from mechanical to engineering to the exterior design.
Dash In spared no expense with its new prototype, fromincorporating state-of-the-art equipment in its fountain (Lancer),frozen beverages (Taylor) and Splash In car wash (Ryko combination wash), to its ceramic tile floors and high-end fixtures. “Wefocused on the floor and ceiling using the best materials available and creating new heights inside to create the open and airyappeal,” said Derrow. “We were doing what it took to make thisstore last for the long haul and keep it looking good everyday forour customers.”
With such upscale flooring, the company didn’t want it cluttered by cumbersome floor displays that many operators utilizebecause they lack the storage space for items like bulk packagesof beer and soda. Dash In’s coolers and freezers have a 12-footdepth with 3-foot shelves rather than the typical 2-foot shelves.The extra shelf space provides 50% more pack out on a Fridaynight when a store needs it the most.
Dash In realizes it doesn’t have the space to raze and rebuildall of its stores, so it wanted a prototype that would be adaptableto its existing locations while also signaling where the companypredicts strong future growth.
“We own some really good dirt today, so we wanted to buildsomething that represents tomorrow,” said Derrow. “The prototype store focuses on the future, which is foodservice. Our olderstores focused on what used to be the convenience store model. Sowe really are focused on where we go from here. Making sure wehave the right stuff, even electronically, in the store to make surewe can go wherever the future leads us.”
Foodservice has always been a part of Dash In’s operations, starting with its chicken, which is a staple for its southernMaryland customers. But as the chain continues expandingthrough Delaware and Virginia, it’s confident that it will be a destination item for those customers as well.
The company’s taking its foodservice to the next level. Abouteight months ago, it hired a restaurant veteran and certified chefwith strong ideas about how to elevate the program.
“I have no c-store experience, strictly restaurant,” said BrianGrabarek, foodservice category manager for Dash In. “Theydidn’t want someone who had the convenience store attitude of‘We can’t do that in a c-store.’ Rather, they wanted someone thatwould say, ‘Why not do that in a c-store?’”
The biggest physical difference to the foodservice program isthe large open-air case that’s been upgraded and moved to thecenter of the store. The case features a new wave of fresh-packaged salads, like the Asian chicken salad with mixed baby andfield greens, string beans and mandarin oranges; wraps, such asthe Sante Fe egg wrap that features chorizo sausage and pepperjack cheese; and sandwiches, like the chicken Italiano foccacia,which has a full-breaded Italian chicken breast with marinaraand mozzarella cheese, to the tuna salad on a honey wheat roll.Grabarek is consciously trying to upgrade the products to offer as wide a range of price points as it does different tastes.
“People are willing to pay a little more if they’re getting a bettersandwich,” he said. “With most packaged sandwiches, the breadgets soggy and it diminishes the quality, but the firm, artisanbreads we’re using keep much better and deliver a better taste.”
Grabarek says that most of the sandwiches and wraps in themerchandiser are very good cold, but they really come to lifewhen they’re warmed in the oven or popped in the microwave.Capitalizing on the toasted craze, customers can hand any product over to the foodservice staff to be warmed in the oven or thecompany offers microwaves for self-service.
Where the company once had its open-air deli merchandiseralong the back wall, it’s moved it out to middle of the store andused that wall space to provide a second bakery case oppositethe robust coffee bar. Today it holds fresh muffins, doughnutsand bagels, but Dash In has plans to expand its bakery offer intoscones and fresh loaves of the artisan breads customers are finding in the new sandwich varieties.
And if robust sandwiches aren’t what customers are lookingfor, Dash In launched new heatable entrees that can transitionfrom the lunch to dinner dayparts. While just introduced in July,they havealready proven to be a rousing success.
“We have four selections of entrees now, our penne pasta withmeatballs and marinara being the most popular, moving 250 to300 units in just one week across the chain,” said Grabarek. “I’m really looking to keep this category exciting for our customers. Iwant the menu to be changing constantly to generate excitementwith the customers so they’ll keep coming back wondering what’snew this week or this month.”
While the chicken pesto pasta and grilled chicken with garlic mashed potatoes weren’t as strong sellers, Grabarek has hissights set on some rice and noodle dishes—like an Asian noodledish—that will be a bit lighter. When the weather turns cold, he’llintroduce a shepard’s pie and chicken pot pie.
Chicken, a Dash In staple, has evolved into a full-blown wingstation with some tasty
perks. The program offers hot wings, barbecue wings and chicken fingers along with its potato wedges,pizza (full pies and slices) and zolis (a combination of a calzoneand stromboli). One of the newest additions to the hot case thathas customers excited is its Italian sausage. Panache Cuisine,Dash In’s fresh food supplier, provides onions and peppers sauteed 90% that foodservice staff warm and dress to the customer’sorder. Grabarek said this has been one of the more impressivemovers in the hot case, especially because it’s not cannibalizingexisting hot dog sales.
Another staple that Dash In customers can continue to counton is its Maryland crab soup. The new prototype store has thecapacity to offer three soups a day. The company is constantlyworking on new recipes—chicken noodle, cream of potato, NewEngland clam chowder—switching out two of the crocks to keepthe menu lively, but always offering its consistent crowd favorite, the crab.
One growing industry trend noticeably absent from the store’sfoodservice operation is ordering terminals. Instead, the companyopted for Henny Penny foodservice merchandisers that it lowered 7 inches so its staff could see eye-to-eye withthe customers while they are reviewing themenu and placing their order.
“We want employees to talk to the customers about what they want,” said Derrow. “It’sa connection we don’t want to lose throughtechnology.”
And while there may be new additions tothe hot case, the most noticeable change behindthe counter is the elimination of fryers. Dash Inhas made a conscious decision to move awayfrom fried foods, although one would neverknow it looking in the hot case. The companyuses quick-finish Turbo Chef ovens. They’reable to cook a 16-inch pizza pie in just two minutes, allowing the company to offer take-homedinner options, but the ovens also bake chicken,wedges and all the other “fried” items to a nice,crispy finish.
“We decided to get out of the deep frying forboth health and safety reasons,” said Derrow. “Plus, the productsare just as good out of the oven as they are deep fried. We can replicate 99% of what the customer wants without the fryer.”
A Model Life
While it’s still too early to reveal how well the store is doing, the company is collectively satisfied that the investment has beenwell placed. According to Derrow, Dash In is an economic valueadded (EVA) company that creates a model for every store to seeif the financials match up with the potential of a project.
“We have very aggressive models,” Derrow said. “Our ownersare looking for a strong return on their investment. We are feelingvery good about achieving those model numbers.”
The prototype represents a 10 to 15 year project for Dash In, butmodel sales numbers and gross profit numbers look like they’ll bemet in the first 90 days of the store being open. The company’sgoal is to get 50% of its sales from foodservice, and with the newdesign’s focus on the food offering, it looks entirely probable.
“We want to be known as an eating and drinking destination,”
said Derrow. “We want 50% of our sales to come from food andbeverage by 2010. We’ve got 50% of the store dedicated to foodand beverage. So I think we’ve got a shot at achieving that goal.We plan to open 10 of these in 2008. That’s aggressive, but that’sour plan and that’s what we plan to do.”
Staying at The Forefront
The only way for this new prototype to be a success is if DashIn’s franchisees get on board. The company created its model withfranchisees in mind and consciously developed something adaptable to any store size or any labor force.
“The model was laid out to be very labor efficient—labor beingthe No. 1 controllable expense. We’ve incorporated plenty ofroom to have two or three people behind the counter if needed.Franchisees are particularly receptive to the efficiencies we’ve putin place,” said Derrow.
These prototypes are perhaps the strongest sign of Dash In’saggressive growth plans, a campaign that shows no signs ofslowing.
“Our prototypes are our anchors,” Derrow said. “Betweenthe anchors there will be smaller versions of those anchors—oursmallest store is 1,100 sq. ft. and our biggest franchised store is4,100 sq. ft. These prototypes will be the beacon that people willremember us by. Our customers will see all Dash In stores carrying the same products to fit that the space available, but neverlosing the deli, coffee and bakery focus. The areas we fill in withthe prototypes are where we plan to grow.”
Spreading the Message
“There has been a lot of talk with the gascompanies wondering how to draw people infrom the pumps to the store. We’ve said allalong it’s the offering in the store that bringspeople in,” said category manager Tim Grossi.”The screens tell exactly what we have. A lotof companies will take an advertising medium like that and offer it to manufacturersfor additional revenue. We’re doing just theopposite.”
The screen above the merchandiser isintended to promote the four dayparts thechain serves—the key message being “Takeit Hot, Take it Cold, Take it Home!”
“We feel the screens are a way to draw customers into the store,” said Grossi. “If your offer is enticingenough, it should keep them there. It’s all tied in together.”
Dash In also utilizes scrolling screens on its gas pumps to promote its interior offer. The medium allows the company to changemessages effortlessly and cost-effectively, rather than having associates tied up switching out signage.