Are You Driving Foodservice Change?

By  Jim Bursch, Senior Vice President, Group Publisher & Editorial Director

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Having this page to tell you what’s on our minds at CSP every month is invaluable. And for September, I’m handing over this space to Abbie Westra, editor-in-chief of Convenience Store Products magazine and EduNetworking development for our Foodservice at Retail Exchange (FARE), so she can share some thoughts with you on the state of c-store foodservice.

At our sixth annual FARE, held in June, Michelle Barry, president and CEO of “brand anthropology” firm Centric Inc., gave a spirited 15-minute “lightning talk” on decoding the retail-foodservice consumer experience. She showed aspirational images of bountiful food displays, handwritten chalkboard menus and indulgent sandwiches bulging with premium ingredients. She talked about breaking out of the uniformity of food manufacturing and merchandising to create a memorable experience around the eating occasion.

This theme was repeated throughout the two-day conference. Bob Pascal, CMO of Centerplate, shared how extensive demographic research and mirroring regional food cultures allow his contract-foodservice company to follow its philosophy of “executing extraordinary experiences” in a very personal way for each of its 115 million guests annually. Mike Sherlock, Wawa’s vice president of fresh food and beverage, said that upon the company’s expansion into the Sunshine State, above and beyond the hoagies, smoothies and espresso drinks, “the most important thing we took to Florida is our culture and our people.”

Providing an experience is important even for the quickest of transactions. But when Barry was asked what percentage of the industry reflects what she was showing, her answer was in the low single digits. Ouch. To increase those numbers, she said, we need to focus on the less sexy elements of the foodservice puzzle: logistics, distribution and procurement.

This sentiment carried through to the next day, when one of the most passionate conversations occurred in the breakout session on distribution led by Joe Chiovera, Jeff Gosline of Exel/DHL Supply Chain Americas and Steve Hammel of the U.S. Navy. Heated opinions from the podium and the audience—c-store retailers, college operators, suppliers and distributors alike—cropped up during this seemingly unassuming session. The bottom line: Everyone needs to get together to clear the path to make Barry’s vision and Pascal’s and Sherlock’s successes a reality for the greater industry.

However, when attendees gathered for the FARE Roundtables Lunch and chose discussion topics, nearly 100 people made their way to the tables designated for menu trends and ideas. I was disappointed to see the distribution table netted only about 20.

Following Barry’s assertion, which I agree with, this would mean everyone has procurement and distribution perfected—that retailers are delivering fresh, high-quality product on a frequent basis to capture both the existing customer base and busy moms/millennials like me who’d love to feed themselves and their families at a c-store.

We should all agree that we’re not quite there.

So what would I do to fix that? I’d start by sitting at that distribution table. Cool menu items such as what you find at Wawa or QuikTrip are the reward for doing time in the trenches with logistics.

One more point: During our annual proprietary State of Foodservice at Retail study, which we conduct for our FARE Advisory Board members, 17% of the surveyed c-store operators said they expected their foodservice business to improve greatly in the next year. Sixty-four percent said conditions should improve somewhat, and 17% expected business to remain about the same. Only 2% of operators expected a slight or substantial decline.

These figures are encouraging, because I often fear the advent of foodservice fatigue—that the excitement drummed up around foodservice in the past five or 10 years will yield to disappointment from riches not yet realized. But we’re at merely the cusp of the revolution.

Big things are still afoot in this evolving category. There’s still time to put yourself at the forefront and, in the words of Centerplate, execute extraordinary experiences. But to create that indulgent sandwich bulging with trendy, premium ingredients, set on a bountiful food display, we must revolutionize the logistics behind it. 

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