Expanding the Foodservice Menu

Leveraging combo meals to include snacks and beverages can help boost lunch and dinner sales.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.

According to a survey by Chicago-based research company Technomic Inc., 60% of consumers place a high level of importance on receiving a good value for their money when deciding which foodservice location to visit for low-cost meals. But only one-quarter of consumers define “value” as rock bottom prices.

More than half of consumers surveyed by the consulting firm said they look for combo meals when they are seeking strong overall value for their money at restaurants and other foodservice locations.

In a separate survey of c-store foodservice customers, Technomic asked how likely they would be to purchase a value meal at a convenience store for lunch. Seventy-three of these respondents ages 25-35 said they would. So did 70% of customers ages 18-24, and 68% of 35-44 and 45-54 year-olds.

For dinner, 75% of the 24-34 age group said they would go for a value meal, as did 59% of the 35-44 year-olds and 53% of the 18-24 crowd.

Of various value format options, the largest number of respondents (44% for lunch, 35% for dinner) said they preferred the freedom of mixing and matching components. The next most popular kind of combo is family-style portions, preferred by 23%.

Burgers were the clear-winning entrée choice for lunch (44%), followed by chicken strips/nuggets and made-to-order sandwich/wrap (both 33%). For dinner, burgers and chicken tied at 37%. (QSRWeb.com said that chicken was the biggest quick-service restaurant menu trend in 2012, with just about every chain adding or expanding its chicken offers and promotions.).

When asked what go-with categories they would choose, 58% said a side for lunch and dinner. Thirty-four percent said they would choose a dessert with lunch, 42% with dinner.

More than half of the respondents said they would prefer French fries/onion rings included with a value meal lunch or dinner. The next most popular category was deli salads (40% for dinner, 37% for lunch). For lunch, 32% said they would prefer a packaged side such as chips. For dinner, 32% said potatoes (baked, mashed, etc.).

What Customers Want
In its recent report entitled “The Menu Positioning & Occasion Driver,” Technomic found that, of all dining occasions measured, nine out of 10 consumers polled said that they primarily seek a quick, convenient meal away from home at least once a month. At least once a month, more than four out of five consumers seek out meals that are primarily driven by cravings and low prices.

Technomic’s data indicates that even for low-cost meal occasions, consumers are not necessarily cutting back on all add-ons. Roughly three in 10 also order an appetizer or dessert.

The report also pointed out that value pricing of quality products may actually help rather than hinder the bottom line because satisfied customers are likely to become repeat customers. Three out of five respondents said the reason they look for low-cost meals is so they can eat out more often. Technomic suggested that loyalty or rewards programs can further encourage return visits.

Whatever retailers are offering, freshness is a major part of the value proposition, said Kelly Weikel senior consumer research manager at Technomic. Four out of five consumers agreed that food that is described as being “fresh” is high in quality.

Eight out of 10 consumers said they wanted restaurants to make meals healthier by offering fresh foods. The survey also showed that consumers gravitate more towards “health halo” attributes, such as “fresh” than to traditional health claims.

Made to order is optimal, though obviously not all stores have the labor and equipment to prepare food on site. But, Weikel said, they can make sure that prepackaged sandwiches, salads and sliced fruit carry clear and prominently featured freshness information, whether a sell-by date or label text that says “made fresh daily.”

Bang for the Buck
Convenience stores are also in an excellent position to give consumers the mix-and-match options they want. With the availability of everything from fresh side salads and packaged chips to beverages and desserts, customization possibilities are virtually limitless, Weikel said.

“Make sure you also have offerings that people associate with the dayparts you want to promote,” she noted. “For example, at lunch, people generally think of sandwiches and salads, but for dinner, they are thinking about entrees and sides they can bring home to their families.”

Wawa recently promoted a 99 cent side of mac and cheese with the purchase of a hoagie, turning the sandwich into a comfort meal. And Pilot Flying J just gave its lunch and dinner appeal a major boost with the addition of a new hot soup bar, which is available from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. In addition to soup selections that range from chicken noodle with fresh herbs to hearty loaded potato, the bar features macaroni and cheese and beef and bean chili.

Parents are also looking for healthier meals for their children and, according to QSRWeb.com, many fast feeders are filling the bill with items that are lower in calories and grilled instead of fried. Increasingly popular sides include fresh fruit and yogurt.

For health conscious adults, Technomic suggested that c-stores call out through labeling or signage any products or ingredients that are locally sourced, organic and/or sustainable. Gluten-free is also becoming a desirable attribute among mainstream consumers. Technomic reports that three out of four consumers said they are willing to pay at least a small price premium for more healthful choices, allowing operators to offset these items’ higher food costs with greater ROI.

Track the Trends
Keeping up with popular national and regional flavor profiles and trends can also give c-store foodservice the caché to bridge the gap between snack and meal. Take barbecue, for instance. In a recent study by Technomic, more than half (57%) of the restaurant operators tracked had a least one dish with barbecue sauce.

While consumers crave familiar favorite foods and flavors, Technomic said, they also enjoy mixing things up a bit with a new presentation twist or ethnic accent. For example, Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s General Store, known for its scratch-made pizza since 1984, offers creative varieties, such as taco with refried beans, salsa, beef, two cheeses, lettuce, tomato and nacho chips. A bacon cheeseburger pizza features mustard and ketchup mix, beef, onion and two cheeses.

But, said Weikel, it is more than just the food that can make or break a sale. It is also a matter of service. Some c-stores are also making customized ordering quicker and easier by installing technologies, such as touchscreen ordering, kiosks with automated ordering and payment systems, and drive-throughs.

An increasing number of consumers are expecting to be able to order online and with mobile apps on their smartphones.

Last year, Casey’s took service a step further by offering pizza delivery service at some of its stores. These stores on average are seeing a more than a 30% increase in pizza sales without cannibalizing in-store sales or decreasing in-store traffic.

Pizza delivery service added about 1% to same-store sales even though only 76 of the company’s 1,699 stores offered the service.“Pizza is our flagship product and has been for quite some time,” said Brian Johnson, Casey’s vice president of finance.

Only about 100 stores do not sell pizza. Slices are $1.99 while a large cheese with a single topping is $11.99. Large specialty pizzas,
like taco, bacon cheeseburger and buffalo chicken, are $15.99.

Casey’s fiscal 2013 goal is to increase same-store prepared food and fountain sales by 11%.

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