Winning the Fresh Foodservice Battle

grabNgoBusy Americans are increasingly going the grab-and-go route for lunch and dinner solutions. But even the most time-starved consumers have definite standards about what foods they will choose.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.

Grab and go is a close to $13 million category, with everyone from quick-service restaurants to pharmacies competing for share of stomach and wallet. While supermarkets have the largest share of the market (22%, over $2,850 million), convenience stores are hot on their heels with 19% ($2,500 million), according to Chicago-based Technomic research firm.

In the course of a month 36% of respondents in a Technomic survey said they buy grab-and-go food items 3-5 times; 26% said between six and 10 times. Sixty-five percent said they expected to maintain their current purchase frequency, while 26% said they planned to increase the number of times they choose grab and go.

At United Express convenience stores based in Lubbock, Texas, grab-and-go sales are experiencing double-digit growth, said Eddie Owens, the company’s director of communications and public relations. The largest share of the growth has been for lunch fare.

That fits with Technomic’s report that lunch accounts for 65% of grab-and-go purchase occasions, while dinner makes up only 13%.

“Many of our customers will purchase their lunch foods when they come in for their morning coffee run, so we have to have everything out and ready for them to pick up early in the day,” Owens noted. “Then we replenish throughout the rest of the day to keep our displays full and everything fresh.”

Satisfying Needs
According to Technomic’s Food Trends for 2014 predictions, consumers will be looking less at dayparts and catering more to their cravings by eating breakfast for dinner and vice versa, more often. As a result, the company said, more restaurants are introducing innovative breakfast items—like chicken, turkey or steak breakfast sandwiches or super-spicy wraps with chipotle or Sriracha—and making them available all day. Some are also promoting late-night breakfast menus.

Consumers are turning snack-size items such as half- or small-size sandwiches into meals by pairing them with fruit or other sides, said Adrienne Nadeau, Technomic senior consultant. To take advantage of this trend, Mathew Mandeltort, manager— research and consulting at Technomic, said that it is now more important than ever to “curate” food items, which means simply selecting complementary products to display together to produce maximum sales.

“Curation, is the new buzz word for grab-and-go, Mandeltort said. “A lot of it is about what you pair together, such as putting a wine display next to an upscale sandwich display and adding a dessert element to get customers to buy one or more additional things.”

While 50% of Technomic respondents said that reasonable price is important to their grab-and-go purchasing decisions, almost 70% named a food quality attribute, such as “food is fresh” or “food tastes just as good as made to order food.” More (49%) said they would be deterred by food that was not fresh than by too high a price (42%). In a report published in September, Packaged Facts research company said that 68% of consumers named high quality food as the most important motivator for buying grab-and-go food, said David Morris, the firm’s foodservice consultant. Twenty-four percent said low price.

In terms of doing a good job, 40% of the Technomic respondents said convenience stores were on point when it comes to freshness. Thirty-nine percent said the same about the food quality, 43% the pricing and 47% the food variety.

Creating Foodservice Theatre
Nadeau explained that use of on-trend ingredients such as heirloom tomatoes, different cheeses and nuts can help to drive home the store’s commitment to food quality. In its 2014 food forecast, Technomic said to look for more variety in the way of flatbreads, wraps and all kinds of artisan breads, including healthy whole-grain varieties. Walmart has stepped up its game with upscale grab-and-go selections, such as chicken pasta salad, and Walgreens is venturing into the exotic with tikka masala, Mandeltort pointed out.

On any given day, United Express stores serve up a wide range of single serving heat-and-eat entrees, such as chicken spaghetti, King Ranch casserole, boneless chicken wings, tamales and green chile chicken enchiladas, Owens said. The prices average around $3-$5. Three varieties of chicken salad—classic, cranberry walnut and grape—are sold by the half-pound tub at prices ranging from around $3-$3.65.

Owens noted that while traditional items, such as burritos and corn dogs, still sell well at United Express stores, customers are increasingly looking for more healthful fare. To meet that demand, the stores are ramping up their selections of green and fruit salads and whole fresh fruits.

“This is one way we’re showing that we’re attuned to our guests’ expectations,” he said.

Because many c-stores do not have kitchens, often it is up to the package descriptors to convey the message of freshness, Mandeltort said. And consumers are noticing both ingredients and dates.

Freshness Reigns
In the Technomic survey, 41% of consumers said they responded most favorably to a stated company policy that food is made fresh every day and that all unsold food is donated to a food bank. Thirty-nine percent responded positively to the display of a “made by date” and 21% to a “sell by” date.

“Just by doing something as simple as changing a ‘sell by’ date to a ‘made by’ date can make a big difference in how consumers perceive your food,” Mandeltort noted.

He cited an article in a scientific journal in which two groups of people were given yogurt that was set to expire that day. One group’s yogurt package displayed the expiration date, the other group’s did not. The group that saw the expiration date said that their yogurt tasted spoiled. The other group said nothing.

Mandeltort also pointed to a study that showed a 20% lift in sales for foods that were showcased in transparent or window packaging over non-see-through packaging. Fifty-two percent of respondents in the Technomic survey said that c-stores did a good job on packaging.

Eighty-five percent of information comes through your eyeballs, so it is definitely true that people eat with their eyes first,” he said. “So if you’re selling a turkey sandwich, make sure to break up the sea of beige meat and bread with some fresh greens or other colors and make sure the lettuce isn’t wilted.”

The importance of proper packaging for grab-and-go foods also transcends the visual. Packaging must be able to keep hot food hot and cold food cold on the drive home, Nadeau said. Cup holder-size and other car-friendly containers are also gaining in popularity at quick-service restaurants, a trend that c-store operators should be noting, she said.

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