Embracing a Healthier Menu

grabngoFor convenience stores, healthy food offerings are creating a convergence of nutrition, foodservice solutions and profitability.

By David Bennett, Senior Editor

Problem: Customers want healthy,grab-and go-meal options.

Solution: Add fresh cut fruits, yogurts and salads to the  menu. They’re quick, easy and appeal to a wide variety of customers. Also consider more wholesome ingredients like baked chicken and wheat breads.

Since debuting in 1967, c-store operator Rutter’s Farm Stores has spent years honing a foodservice plan based on the principal that customers appreciate quality products at affordable prices.

The York, Pa.-based company has also remained flexible when tastes change—even in this Pennsylvania Dutch region that’s gastronomically associated with hearty meat stews and sticky sweet desserts.

Like many c-store operations, Rutter’s has adapted to America’s growing penchant for healthy food items. Studies show more Americans are substituting fatty, fried and processed foods for no-fat, fresh and nourishing alternatives.

Getting Leaner
Understanding customer buying habits and determining which healthy food items will sell is a key step to enhancing foodservice sales, said Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice at Rutter’s Farm Stores, which operates 59 locations in south-central Pennsylvania. Weiner prescribes to the simple mantra of giving customers what they want.
Rutter’s has expanded its array of nutritious, quick meals like sandwich wraps and breakfast options, like turkey sausage offered on its 230-calorie breakfast sandwich.

“I think we’re at the spot where people are making healthier choices, and we certainly have options; we do very well with salads, and wraps are popular,” Weiner said. “I think the industry is moving there. Many players are moving that way with even more and more choices, and I myself am looking for more options that we can effectively execute.”

To meet more demand for healthier food options, Rutter’s features an assortment of yogurt cups, grab-and-go sandwiches and wraps and customized, convenient meals made on site right in front of patrons. Rutter’s customers can also purchase a made-to-order salad, which includes picking their fixings from a touchscreen menu.
Creating a healthy food experience isn’t necessarily tied to packaging colors, or over-the-top displays, but showcases the actual product, Weiner said. As trending data indicates, the fresher and more wholesome, the better.

Extending its platform of menu development, Rutter’s Farm Stores in the last several years has installed ovens for baking fresh bread and induction wok stations that allow customers to order customized dishes made in front of them. By offering healthier ingredients and food choices, the chain has expanded its foodservice offerings to satisfy most healthy palates, Weiner said.

Healthy is Smart Business
A typical convenience store today generates about $250,000 per year in foodservice sales, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). A growing slice of that volume is attributed to the sale of fresh cut fruit, high-fiber baked goods, low-calorie sandwiches, and natural snacks. That’s because Americans—bombarded by television ads, healthcare reform mandates and doctor’s orders—seek food with inherent health benefits, said Nancy Caldarola, education director of the NACS Center for Achieving Foodservice Excellence (NACS CAFÉ).

“Today, the median age of Americans is 38 years old,” Caldarola said. “Our customers are getting older. In our 38-year-old median age, going to those convenience stores, what are they seeing and what do they want?”she said, adding, “Today’s person is not going to buy what they bought at 23.”

A dietician by trade, Caldarola travels the country, visiting c-stores and observing foodservice processes and plans. She also makes note of how the c-store industry is responding to c-store patrons who search out food favorites for a fitter lifestyle.

Certain c-store companies like Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes Inc. and Wawa Inc., have set the market standards when it comes to expanding healthy food offerings, Caldarola said. Wawa, for example, sells more bananas annually than most local grocers.

“I think we have several chains that are doing a fantastic job, and we have individual success stories all over the country,” Caldarola said. “As an industry, we can always do better.”

Caldarola points to one c-store operation in her hometown of Atlanta that is breaking new ground in terms of innovative foodservice selections for the health-minded:  RaceTrac Petroleum Inc.

RaceTrac has embarked on building spacious, 6,000-square-foot prototype stores that offer patrons a wide variety of nutritious products, including variety of frozen yogurt flavors and other healthy snacks.

“I call them food cathedrals,” Caldarola said. “You have these huge, fantastic high ceilings with pictures of food all over; then you have in front of you an open expanse on the left side with a nice refrigerated display unit that has all kinds of grab-and-go sandwiches, salads, bowls you can heat up. You name it, it’s there.”

Fresh Fruit Here
So what can c-stores do to bolster their health food packaging and presentation?

Offering fresh fruit is a good starter. In a grab-and go-display, fresh fruit and other wholesome foods can be just the ticket.

In fact, fresh fruits and vegetables brought in more sales last year, according to the United Fresh Product Association. In 2013, sales of fresh produce jumped 4.8% over 2012 numbers. Recent trends show that even with increases in retail prices, volume sales continue to grow in all organic fruit and vegetable categories. The growing demand for organic produce resulted in dollar and volume increases, roughly 20% for both organic fruits and vegetables.

Jack Cushman, executive vice president of food services for Canastota, N.Y.-based Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes Inc., knows the value of fruit, and presentation.
“You can buy fruit like most school cafeterias, it’s pre-done, but it tastes like something in a hospital,” Cushman said. “We cut up fruit fresh and it’s healthy.”

Convenience stores vying for customers’ dollars can leverage growing food preferences by stocking a variety of healthier food options, according to Caldarola. For example, more people are refraining from processed sugar and using honey. Also, whole wheat pizza crust is becoming a viable alternative to regular pizza crust.
Healthy wraps, dessert cups and high-fiber bread products are popular as well. Still, items have to taste good, or customers aren’t going to eat them.

Sometimes trial and error is required, Cushman explained, to develop a nutritious product that will eventually add to the bottom line. For example, when Nice N Easy, which operates 78 stores, introduced whole wheat sub sandwich rolls eight years ago, they didn’t sell well—ordered by less than 10% of patrons. However, after the company changed the recipe to a honey wheat bread, Cushman said, the replacement bread is served on 30% of all subs sold by the store.  

Nice N Easy has also worked with Cornell University on foodservice studies in an attempt to get a handle of what is going on in the foodservice industry, and to gauge the preferences of its own customers.

Customers can access the nutritional information of all of the dishes offered by Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes by going to the company’s Website.
Online or on location, demand for healthy food options at c-stores isn’t going away anytime soon.

“This is one of those paths that is arriving at its own pace, but obviously demand is what creates stores to go after (healthier food options) and the need is growing and growing,” Weiner said.

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