The convenience store and petroleum industry is as dynamic and diverse as it has ever been. I have been fortunate to have a front row view of the industry’s evolution through the years, first as a young child learning the automotive and fuel industry at my father’s stations in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., then as an associate category manager for Dairy Mart in New York’s Hudson Valley.
The transformation from two-bay garages to convenience stores was impressive, if not a complete leap of faith for traditional mechanics like my father, who would have rather taken a jackhammer to his buildings then to ponder the ROI of a coffee program.
Even after I entered the trade magazine business in 1996, the budding convenience store industry was still finding its way, heavily dependent on tobacco sales and packaged snacks, which offered limited margin potential. The cold vault was predictable, the roller grill was the butt of jokes, innovation was nonexistent and safety for customers and employees was a genuine concern.
But here we are, 18 years later, and the cold vault is as vibrant as it has ever been, e-cigarettes are shaping the future of tobacco sales and the convenience store industry is now considered an employer of choice for thousands upon thousands of Americans. The exceptional work done by convenience store chains of all sizes is a remarkable story. Yet, nowhere is the industry’s evolution more profound than in the area of foodservice.
Hiring practices, state-of-the-art buildings and cost-efficiencies have all evolved well beyond anyone’s expectations, making this industry a lean and well-oiled machine of innovation and precise vision. Still, it is foodservice where this spectacular transformation has had its biggest impact.
Convenience store retailers are battling harder for their share of the retail foodservice pie—one customer at a time. The stakes are high as operators grow ever more reliant on profitable growth in this area of the retail business. Competition among operators for the food-away-from-home dollar is getting more challenging as consumers have a broader range of options as to where to satisfy their on-the-go needs.
But convenience stores are 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.
Leading c-store chains are driving sales of healthy, portable foodservice offerings like packaged sandwiches, wraps, salads and some roller grill items. But, historically, the industry has seldom gotten the attention it deserves for its healthy food options. Changing that perception, and making consumers aware of the healthy items c-stores carry will take some effort.
T. W. MacDermott, president and principal of the Clarion Group in Kingston, N.H., pointed out that most c-stores have a high level of repeat business from their immediately surrounding area and commuters who stop for gas or a coffee en route to work. Thus, it should be relatively easy to communicate any new initiative to them with minimal effort and expense.
“The trick is to make sure that the healthy foods being offered are really healthy, and especially fresh,” MacDermott said. “There can be no shortcutting on quality, or the store will sell its product only once.”
Retailers have been quick to understand that a whole different mindset is required when it comes to working with perishable products. This is an area that convenience stores need to understand and perfect to boost food sales. But I am confident the industry understands this important message.
To help c-stores get foodservice right, this issue is Convenience Store Decisions’ annual foodservice issue. It is loaded with facts and figures aimed at helping you grow your foodservice business by meeting the needs of today’s demanding c-store customers. Use this information as a guide to expand your share of stomach feeding this well-oiled retail machine.