Convenience Goes Gourmet C-Stores at the Crossroads of Gourmet and Convenient

The name speaks for itself: convenience stores are all about quick and easy accessibility. Frequented by time-pressured consumers looking to multitask, they are the best destination to park, pump and pick something up to eat at the same time. As a preferred stop for on-the-go refreshments and meals, the trend of gourmet food being sold in convenience stores has fully emerged. Once exclusively designed for convenience, C-Stores have been rethinking their foodservice strategies for years, tapping into a growing market need and striving to show customers that gas station fare can also be prepared fresh and in a gourmet fashion.

The Obvious Evolution of Grab & Go Solutions
Customers depend on convenience stores for sandwiches and other food necessities, and they now expect the same quality as they would find in any retail store or quick service restaurant. Breakfast products are consistently the most popular category items among all types of food purchased in C-Stores. According to a report from the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, convenience stores should look into expanding their breakfast and snack offerings, since these categories have both experienced more than 20 percent growth in the past year. The awareness and popularity of these portable items among consumers make them an ideal fit for on-the-go snacking.

According to the Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, foodservice is the fastest growing segment of the convenience store industry, accounting for 27.1 percent of gross profit nationwide. With the average store cashing more than $20,000 a month in foodservice sales, there is a good potential for developing an appealing food offering in C-Stores, and the demand for more healthy options has helped fuel this trend. The profit from the food section in these stores is now accounting for a larger share of the pie than gas or cigarettes. According to Convenience Store and Petroleum (CSP) magazine’s 2010 Category Management Handbook, more than 40 percent of c-store customers have purchased foodservice items, and these shoppers are starting to demand a greater variety of options. Facing this changing customer demand, operators came
to understand that selling premium products can generate higher profit margins and enable them to earn more revenue.

C-Stores have increased their ability to deliver quality food in addition to keeping the value and convenience solutions that have traditionally defined this sector. The industry is succeeding in changing consumer perceptions and making convenience stores a good alternative to other food venues instead of a last resort for meal options.

One Stop for Many Options
Anyone stopping at a QuikTrip (QT), for instance must have noticed the fresh, customizable and numerous on-the-go solutions displayed in the chain. From bakery items to customized coffee options, slush and soft serve machines, customers will find items from breakfast to lunch, dinner and desserts to fit their needs. More than just displaying products on shelves, these stores have in-store bakeries and dedicated stations for creating customized hot dogs or other meal items as well as a friendly staff to offer similar services as quick service restaurants. QT Kitchens is the gas station’s brand that offers sandwiches, salads and wraps that are delivered fresh daily to every QT store. Like any traditional restaurant, the chain proudly promotes its kitchens, chefs and highly trained staff preparing food combinations made of the freshest ingredients available. The chain’s offerings are the largest found in the gas station sector, with breakfast items such as fresh donuts, rolls, muffins, traditional glazed donuts, cinnamon rolls, apple fritters, and lunch and dinner solutions such as handcrafted sandwiches, wraps, salads and fruits. The chain is a top-rated destination for a quick stop because of thier customized grab-and-go solutions, wide offerings, quality and service, .

Partnership Opportunities for QSRs and Retail Brands
Leveraging this trending consumer preference for quality C-Store offerings, gas stations and convenience stores are now partnering with major QSRs such as Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts, along with local eateries. The past few years have been challenging for quick service restaurants as many of their customers switched to c-stores for cheaper breakfast and lunch solutions. For QSRs, partnering with convenience stores became a way to co-brand between the two sectors.

Food manufacturers are also seeing an opportunity to expand their markets by providing c-stores with broader choices of on-the-go products. Many famous consumer brands are now partnering with convenience stores and work on designing products for the store’s limited facilities and time-pressed clientele. Food companies and marketers are developing specialty solutions targeting convenience stores such as high-quality breakfast and desserts programs that are now available to operators looking into business expansion. C-store operators are also expressing the desire to move from the usual extended shelf-life products to focus on fresher, tastier alternatives that are delivered to stores more frequently, even if it entails reducing the shelf-stability from 30 days to 3-5 days. After studying the results from reports and researchers, these business owners came to the conclusion that consumers would rather pay more to get fresh and tasty products such as bread, cheeses and meats.

The profit curve is going upward in C-Store foodservice. Over the past few years, foot traffic and check averages have increased consistently. Operators are more committed to developing their food offerings by investing in higher-quality products, more sophisticated equipment and hiring full-time staff. Reinventing how food is perceived and presented by offering innovative food combinations and deliveries is the new approach for many C-Store businesses. The basic plastic sealed sandwich from 10 years ago and aging display case in the corner of the store belong to the past.