Portability Pushes Hot Food Sales

Convenience store operators that infuse their appetizer menus with “craveable” items can expect to gain additional consumer traffic.

By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.

Consumers are trying to cut their dining budgets, in many cases by eliminating starter items. To drive cravings and create interest in appetizers, operators must innovate with exciting dressings and dips, unusual ingredients, and preparation techniques that can’t easily be duplicated at home. These encourage consumers to feel the experience is worth the extra cost.

Chicken tenders, French fries, onion rings and other finger foods are becoming increasingly attractive options for c-store chains as low-cost meal solutions that appeal to a wide variety of customers in a hurry.

“Finger foods, as a category in convenience stores, have really evolved into something I call portable foods,” said Arlene Spiegel, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York City. “Any item, regardless of price point, must enable the customer to hand-hold and eat while walking, talking or driving. These items can be wraps, sandwiches or the typical chicken fingers and fries.”

Consumers today, Spiegel maintained, are on the run. “Meals often become part of double-tasking to save time. The basic price threshold is under $10 for the meal, including beverage. From a food-cost standpoint, these portable foods are a winner for the operators in all types of venues, typically carrying a 23% food cost or less.”

While price and quality are always important, portability is crucial. “The reason appetizers are growing in popularity is that those are types of foods that let you drive up to a fast-food window, pick them up and continue driving while you eat,” said John Matthews, founder and principal of Gray Cat Enterprises Inc., a marketing services and consulting company in Raleigh, N.C. “It’s the same premise that is applied to convenience stores. That’s why sandwiches seem to do better than pizza—it’s harder to eat a slice of pizza or things along those lines while you drive.”

To compete successfully, operators need to be aware of their competition. “Not only are you competing against other convenience stores, but when you start talking about food on the go at a low price point you’re going up against the Taco Bells, McDonald’s and other fast feeders,” said Matthews, the former vice president of marketing for the Clark convenience store brand in Chicago and president of Jimmy John’s Subs. “If you’re in a heavily populated fast-food area, you’d better have a pretty compelling product offering. Because not only are you competing with them on a price point—and they can get pretty low with their price points—but they have convenience too. It’s called drive-through, and it’s like the ultimate convenience where you don’t even have to get out of your car.”

The negatives, Matthews added, are obvious. “You have products that aren’t going to have the brand recognition of fast feeders, not have the convenience of a drive-through, and they’re going to undercut you on price.”

Finger Food Safety
Because they’re small, finger foods are often overlooked when it comes to following proper food safety procedures. This can be a costly mistake.

Jay L.E. Ellingson, Ph.D., director of food safety and quality assurance for Kwik Trip convenience stores in LaCrosse, Wis., said that finger foods are not necessarily more prone to food safety issues. “Not, that is, if you have good standard operating procedures in place at retail.”

The key to food safety, no matter how small the product, is time and temperature. “Obviously you have to cook the food to the proper temperature, and that’s 165 degrees or above,” Ellingson said. “Once you heat the product to that temperature then you have to hold it at that temperature. If you breach it and it drops below 140 degrees you get into a danger zone. If you’re in that danger zone for more than four hours it creates a situation that could become a food safety hazard.”

Time also works against foods from a quality perspective, which could lead to waste and become a drain on profitability. “After four hours the integrity of the product really decreases and you’re looking at a food safety issue,” Ellingson said. “The product has to be discarded. In other words, if you keep things above 140 degrees you can extend that time beyond four hours.”
With that said, if you go above 170-180 degrees, the integrity of the product, from a quality standpoint, is also going to decline. “It dries out and the quality of the product can be horrible,” Ellingson said.

Kwik Trip offers a variety of finger foods, including roller grill items like hot dogs, brats and tornados. Ellingson includes hamburgers, cheeseburgers, fish sandwiches and a rib sandwich in the same category as well. The chain extends the effort to let their customers know that the food they’ve just bought has to be consumed within that four-hour window.

“Once it leaves the store, all bets are off at that point,” said Ellingson. “The food code drives the fact that once you leave a store you are now the owner of that product. But the bottom line is that we train our people and our guests that the product has to be consumed or put into a refrigerator within that four-hour period of time.”

Consumer education is accomplished with pamphlets that talk about food safety. “They explain what food safety is in our company and how our guests are part of that process,” Ellingson said.

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