C-Store Food Sales Get Healthier

Convenience retailers are increasing their share of healthy, fresh food sales, according to industry observers, who noted convenience outlets and big boxes are also gaining share at the expense of grocery stores.

Though fresh and prepared foods offer high margin rings, c-store retailers should be certain they are truly ready to do food preparation before starting a food program, said environmental health Specialist Marsha Robbins, president of HACCP-Plus.

Robbins explained that defining readiness depends on the extensiveness of preparation. For example, stores that sell packaged sandwiches need to be vigilant about immediately storing those sandwiches upon delivery in a refrigerator that’s no more than 40 degrees—and 38 degrees is better.

Stores that plan to make fresh sandwiches should have a three compartment sink dedicated to food preparation use only, and a work area that’s protected from contamination.

Passion for Fresh Pays Off
One c-store that’s clearly committed to the highest standards in fresh foodservice is Famima, whose West Coast stores have been building a loyal business since its flagship store opened in 2005. “We’re are passionate about our food,” said Pervez Pir,  vice president of Famima. “We work intensively with our chefs to think of new items to offer, to set the trends, not copy them.”

Forty percent of Famima’s sales come from fresh prepared deli sales. The stores’ fresh grab-and-go sales continue to increase, especially during breakfast hours, when Famima offers a menu that includes sausage or bacon, egg muffins, breakfast burritos and croissants, as well as yogurts and fresh fruits.

“I see people cutting back on things like cell phone and cable bills, but we all have to eat no matter what’s going on in the economy,” Pir said. “That’s why so many convenience stores are either starting or expanding their food programs.

The main thing is to run them well and keep giving people reasons to keep coming back for more.”

However, even with a top-notch offering and great service, the vagaries of weather and the economy can intrude. Pir noted his stores saw a slowdown in March, when temperatures dropped 20 degrees lower than normal and rainy skies prevailed. “Our stores are walk-in, not drive to businesses, and out here people don’t like to walk in the rain,”
he explained.

Value Meals, Combo Sales Soar
One segment that has shown a lot of growth is sandwiches, which are some of Famima’s lower priced items, beginning at $5.99.

To boost sales, Pir has lowered panini prices slightly in some of his stores, making them more of a value item and letting customers put on their own condiments to lower cost. “I think people are staying with foods they know and feel comfortable with,” he said. “That’s why quality and value are such important propositions for consumers.”

A couple of months ago, Famima began increasing its value offerings by bundling items in monthly specials to allow customers to get a meal without dropping a lot of money.It started with a panini and sweet tea combo, followed with a sushi and Itoen tea combo. It plans to offer chicken nuggets and a drink next.

“We’re a fresh food store, and we want to keep customers coming back by keeping things fresh and new,” Pir said.

Though most fresh food convenience programs aren’t as extensive as Famima’s, many still do quite well getting their fresh offerings through a vendor. For instance, the sandwiches La Platta, Md.-based Dash-In Food Stores serve are ordered through a vendor and delivered fresh daily, said Larry Bullis, category manager. “The sandwiches we offer come from a USDA-approved commissary that delivers sandwiches to us in refrigerated trucks,” he added.

In addition to its deli offerings, salads, wrapped sandwiches and chicken, Dash-In has a fresh bakery program. The company also has a Turbo Chef oven in every store. The technology, Bullis said, allows Dash-In employees to cook processed foods quickly.

Though the stores have a sizeable chicken program, the company uses frozen chicken to avoid the potential handling problems that fresh chicken poses. “We just feel it’s a whole lot safer to do it that way,” Bullis said.

Healthy STILL NOT FOR EVERYONE
Sometimes stores have to battle their own legacies when promoting new fresh food programs, said Donna Sitka, food manager for Tiger Tote stores, owned by Johnson Oil Co. in Gonzales, Texas.

For example, Sitka’s stores have a great fried chicken program, complete with a slew of fried sides. Last year, the company opted to add four well steam tables to several new stores, filling the wells with healthier, non-fried options.

“We just didn’t get the volume we were anticipating on non-fried sides,” she said. “We still use our steam tables, but we iced one for coleslaw, potato salad and other cold sides because we had to improvise a bit, keeping the strongest contenders and discarding the rest.”

Though sales didn’t suffer, Sitka said she still thinks people appreciate having other options for sides.

“We just got ourselves too labor-intensive, and it wasn’t paying, so we went back to what we do best,” she said. “At least in our newer stores customers can get at least some of the items they’d find at a QSR.”

The 25-store chain also offers fresh sandwiches made on site at its stores that don’t have Subway franchises, as well as a high-volume made-to-order breakfast taco program.

“A few weeks ago, a group doing an historical reenactment called and ordered 600 for Saturday morning and 300 for Sunday morning,” Sitka said. “It was a tall order, but great for the bottom line.”

Safe Handling is Paramount
All of Tiger Totes managers and other key employees are ServSafe certified. To help employees deliver a consistent product, Sitka put together a foodservice manual that augments employees mandatory 40 hours of hands-on food handling training.

“It’s a how-to book that covers everything from receiving, storing, thawing, prepping and cooking the chicken, as well as how to display the finished product in the case,” Sitka said, so that if an employee forgets something there’s a reference guide right at hand.

“In our staff meetings, we talk about the quality of our products and adhering to low hold times,” Sitka said. “Money is tight, and you want to make sure that you’re giving that customer a quality product—there’s nothing worse than getting home and finding the meal you were looking forward to eating sat too long in
the warmer.”

While the majority of foodservice managers have a good understanding of safety practices—many more since Sheetz had to deal with a salmonella outbreak from a delivery of bad tomatoes a few years ago—there are some companies that think they can manage without standards in place. This could literally be a lethal mistake.

Food safety is not highly technical, Robbins pointed out.

“The application is very basic,” she said. “Wash your hands, keep hot foods hot and cold ones cold, and don’t put something dirty with something clean. That said, it’s a culture, a way of doing business that starts and the top and if management isn’t teaching it, how can they expect employees to do it?”

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