Developing a Healthier Foodservice Menu

stirfryOrganic, sustainable and locally-grown foods are all trends hitting the country, but are convenience store customers ready for these items?

By Erin Rigik, Associate Editor.

Numerous “healthy” foodservice trends are sweeping cities across the U.S., from sustainable to local to organic to all-natural, and of course fresh, but is the time right for convenience stores to dive in? 

Depends on who you ask. According to one report, U.S. families are increasingly embracing organic products in numerous categories, with 81% purchasing organic at least sometimes, according to the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA’s) newly released 2013 U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs Study, conducted January 2013. The report seems to have merit. The U.S. organic industry increased to $31.5 billion in sales in 2011, and continues to grow.

But as c-stores are still finding their way in foodservice as they compete with the likes of quick-service restaurants and supermarkets, delving into the organic market might seem like a tough sell. 

“While the numbers might be growing nationally, I have not seen anybody pushing organic at c-stores,” said Nancy Caldarola, education director for NACS CAFÉ. “Some chains have organic products that I have seen, but if I go to Europe I’ll see it a lot more than in the U.S.”
While U.S. c-stores are known to follow their European counterparts, from cigarette rules and mobile communications to fresh foods, some key differences could impact what happens in U.S. c-stores with organics in the coming years.

In Europe, stores are pushing all-natural and fresh-made, but customers there are also highly against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. “In the U.S., the FDA is saying there is nothing wrong with GMOs, and Americans are already a little ambivalent about genetically modified anything,” Caldarola said. “So it’s going to be interesting to see how it works here in the states.”

Meanwhile, U.S. food sales trends tell a different story. Organic is big in restaurants, and other niche trends are climbing the charts as well. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) reported among its top trends for 2013: No. 1 sustainable meats and seafood, and No. 2 locally grown produce.

Restaurants are already hopping on the bandwagon, touting local and sustainable foods. Meanwhile, drugstore giant Walgreens has opened two super-sized stores in Chicago, both of which feature fresh and organic foods.

Demographic Due Diligence
When it comes to deciding whether to carry organic, local, all-natural and sustainable products, demographic is everything.
“In Chicago, you have a local audience that is receptive to these trends and so Walgreens is providing it. But in Newark N.J. that’s not going to work,” Caldarola said. “I think we need to be very sensitive to what our customers are buying locally. If I’m going to be in certain parts of the country and there is a Saturday farmers market that is so packed you can’t get into the place, then if I own a nearby c-store, I should take advantage of that.”

Bringing in a local farmers market to the c-store parking lot is a great way for a convenience store to tap into the organic segment and build good will among the community while evaluating local interest.

“Certain cities and areas, especially higher economic areas, are more likely to want organic products. Some stores might be in an area where they could benefit by saying, ‘Look we’re supporting local and pushing local and making sure we’re part of the solution and not a problem,’” Caldarola said. “But as a whole I think c-stores are going to have to make decisions based on the demographics they serve and what’s trending in their markets.”

Fresh is Best
If your store isn’t in an organic-friendly area, fresh is still top of mind for consumers everywhere when selecting a foodservice item.
If a food item isn’t fresh, customers know right away. And as convenience stores already worry about consumer perception as a fresh food destination, it’s even more vital that your stores are marketing your fresh foods.  “If you’re offering fresh food you have to let your customers know. Post a sign that says ‘made fresh here,’ and let them know, ‘we made it fresh just for you,’” Caldarola said.

Not only does food need to be fresh, but it needs to also look fresh, and that comes down to packaging that portrays your fresh food as a craft item.  “People buy craft beer.  They also buy craft food,” Caldarola said. She recommended cellophane sealed bags that are heat sealed with a band around each. Then merchandise those sandwiches interspersed with fresh fruit for color.

NACS Café teaches retailers to use stainless-steel shelves, and if that’s not available, add a shelf liner in a color such as green. Another tip is to avoid selling food in black-bottom containers. “When is the last time you went to a restaurant and had food served on a black plate?” Caldarola said.

When it comes to buying fresh, customers prefer to be able to see their food being made. “I suggest coming up with an in-house sandwich-making program that is feasible, if you have the operations to do that. If not, find a quality local warehouse or commissary group that will make your product for you and deliver at least twice a week, or ideally 3-4 days a week, if possible,” Caldarola said. “You don’t need to serve everything. You need to serve just a few key items, but you need to ensure the utmost quality.”

Made Fresh
Rutter’s Farm Stores, with 58 locations in York, Pa., has been at the forefront of c-store foodservice for sometime.
“Fresh food is basically the bulk of our program,” said Jerry Weiner, senior vice president of foodservice for the 58-store chain in York, Pa. “Our system is mostly made to order. At our order kiosk people enter what they want and how they want it and we assemble it fresh.”
Rutter’s has recently seen huge growth in the breakfast and snack time occasions, as well as with Hispanic products. “We rolled out quesadillas, walking tacos, walking Fritos and soft shell tacos. Each of these has done extremely well for us,” Weiner said. The chain recently introduced a mini taco in a snack-size portion. Rutter’s is also well-known for its made-to-order stir fry dishes, among other meals.

Weiner is among those in the industry that believe customers are gravitating toward healthier foods. “I’ve watched this trend slowly develop over the past three decades and I view it as a natural evolution,” he said. “Years ago people didn’t care about healthy, and then we moved to where people cared, but didn’t change their buying choices. I think we finally have arrived at a point where customers want to eat healthy and they are making healthier decisions, but are still not necessarily eating as healthy as they could be. Eventually, I think we are going to reach a point where everyone will be after healthy food. This is a generation turn that is going to take a little more time to fully evolve.” 

As this slow shift in food decisions takes place, Weiner said he can imagine a day when more c-stores are featuring organic foods on their menus. “As people start demanding it, we’ll find a way to do it,” he said. “I think this is going to be about consumers expecting certain products, and then we’ll be obligated to fit them into our programs. This really isn’t a question of whether it will happen. The question is really, “To what degree will it happen, and how fast?’” 

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