Most convenience store operators don’t offer a whole lot of seafood on their menus, which is usually fine, because convenience store customers aren’t looking for seafood.
Logistical issues, product-paucity, quality and food safety concerns are among the fears retailers have about investing in the seafood segment. But given seafood’s health benefits and generally growing popularity across the U.S., especially in Southern markets, it’s a category that could prove popular.
Furthermore, Americans appear ready to embrace seafood at retail. Chicago-based research firm Mintel International uncovered the following facts that should be of great interest to c-store operators:
• Opportunity abounds. When compared to other protein choices (including poultry, red meat and pork) fish and seafood consumption lags behind. According to Mintel’s exclusive survey done for this report, fish and seafood is eaten on average by adults 28.2 times a year, versus 41.7 a year for poultry, 39.1 for red meat and 28.8 for pork.
• The most widely available choices lead in popularity, with tuna (74%) and salmon (66%) the most commonly eaten fish, and shrimp (84%) the leading shellfish. Distinct preferences emerge for minority groups, with Asians in particular eating the widest variety of fish and shellfish, as this protein choice is commonly used in Asian cooking.
• The health benefits of eating fish are a strong purchase motivator, and the promotion of omega-3 is making a prominent appearance on packages. Indeed, health concerns are driving up consumption rates. Some 63% of respondents who are eating more fish/seafood are doing so to have a more balanced diet. Health attributes ring particularly true among those aged 65 and over.
• More consumers are buying seafood outside of supermarkets. Growth in the much smaller channels of drug and mass has been boosted through innovation in frozen and shelf stable products, which are well suited to those channels. Further sales increases could come from convenience-based promotions.
Handle with Care
So why aren’t many c-store operators serving seafood as part of their foodservice offerings?
“It’s mostly because of the handling,” said John Zekias, vice president of marketing for Thorntons Inc. in Louisville, Ky., which operates 161 stores across five Midwestern states. “Seafood is just a much more hazardous product to handle than meats or anything else. In my experience, although some c-stores carry raw product, many of the products are precooked, so from a food safety standpoint you have fewer issues than you do with seafood.”
While consultants see seafood sales on the rise, experts warn there is considerable risk.
“I don’t think seafood is a good idea at all for c-store operators that aren’t aware of the inherent risk involved,” said Arlene Spiegel, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates, a foodservice consultancy in New York City. “Sushi has to be perfectly fresh and credible. C-stores are the opposite unless they already have a foodservice program going.”
Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice for Rutter’s Farm Stores in York, Pa., said that he actually wanted to roll out some seafood offerings, but balked during the due diligence phase. The reason?
“I’ve got to tell you, from the handling side it’s more of a concern for the obvious reasons,” Weiner said. “From the product side, most other foods are very easy to get in a fully cooked state that we can heat, hold, chill, assemble to order, preassemble, or have for hot or cold grab-and-go. With most other foods these days you can get some very high quality products that come in a state that is very easy for convenience stores to actually handle and deal with. But not seafood.”
There are not many manufacturers that offer fully-cooked formulations. “There are some par baked products, and obviously raw,” Weiner added. “But dealing with raw seafood is very concerning to me. I wouldn’t have considered it. There is just too much risk; the risk-reward equation doesn’t work.”
That said, Rutter’s just rolled out a slider program and in the development focused on adding a crab cake slider along with beef and chicken varieties. Rutter’s had actually gone so far as to have a company develop such a product for it, “a little crab cake that I could use in the slider piece, and it was a great product, by the way,” Weiner said.
The problem was that Rutter’s is getting ready to implement a Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) program in the near future. Once the company ran the crab cake product through the HACCP framework it found that it would require having a separate fryer just for it.
“I couldn’t justify a separate fryer for that one product,” Weiner said. “I was also looking at a breaded fish patty at the same time, so that became a problem. We were getting into a much more stringent food handling program under HACCP guidelines, and we just could not do the fish.”
Randy Adams, a buyer for 102-store Huck’s Food and Fuel in Carmi, Ill., said his chain sells pre-breaded, deep-fried catfish fillets as a dinner with sides or as a sandwich in its 44 stores that offer a hot deli. The chain also offers a couple of different versions of breaded popcorn shrimp.
The stores that carry the catfish entrée are located in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri. “The popularity definitely is geographic,” Adams suggested. “When I say Illinois and Indiana, we’re primarily southern Illinois and southern Indiana, so we’re primarily a southern chain as opposed to a typical upper Midwestern chain.”
Adding the popcorn shrimp makes sense when you consider that in the typical c-store, 75% of everything they sell is consumed within 10 minutes. “Popcorn shrimp is a great item to eat while you’re driving down the road. I think that’s why it’s been so popular,” Adams said, adding that seafood can definitely prove a winner in many markets. “If seafood companies come out with stuff that makes sense to eat in a car, I think we’d be open to it and I imagine many other chains would be as well.”
Keith Clark, category manager for fresh foods for Kum & Go in West Des Moines, Iowa, said his chain sells catfish fillets in a group of 10 stores it acquired several years ago (as well as a travel center store in Springfield, Mo.). “In that particular area of the country, in northeast Arkansas, it is something that is in demand,” he said.
The fried catfish dinner includes a pair of catfish fillets, macaroni and cheese, three potato wedges and a biscuit for $5.99.
The lack of seafood on the menu, at least in Kum & Go’s case, is primarily “because of where our stores are located,” said Clark. “We are in the Midwest, and seafood in the Midwest just isn’t a big deal compared to other places. I’ve lived in Florida, and there it’s a big piece of the pie. We couldn’t be farther removed from the oceans if we tried. If we expand the footprints of stores in areas like that Arkansas area where it’s expected by consumers, then yeah, we’ll do something with it.”
Can seafood eventually become a top seller? “My gut would be not in c-stores,” said Clark, though he added that batter-fried shrimp and other seafood fillets should start popping up on menus more often. “I could see that because you can just pop it and eat it as you drive down the road. I’m not looking to go there, but when I look at seafood that’s something t
hat I could see being successful.”