Hungry for More

Exclusive Technomic report reveals what consumers want from their c-store foodservice program and shows who's delivering it.

By
Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Special Projects Coordinator

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If you’re looking for a retailer to model your foodservice program after, consider two venerable operators with radically different approaches: Wawa and QuikTrip.

It’s not the price that beats all for these retail leaders. Rather, it’s their remarkable consistency of execution and customer service; their high-quality value and atmosphere; and their attention to increasingly impor­tant side issues, such as portion size and healthy options, that had consumers rat­ing their foodservice offerings as best in class in a recent groundbreaking study on c-store foodservice.

Mike Sherlock, director of foodser­vice for Wawa Inc., Wawa, Pa., is pleased with not only his company’s ratings, but also those of the other top scorers. “Had you done this study five, 10 years ago, you probably would have seen very dif­ferent scores,” he says. “The industry as a whole is going in the right direction, and Wawa as well.”

In one of the most comprehensive consumer-driven studies conducted in the channel, foodservice expert Tech­nomic Inc., Chicago, surveyed consumers to identify the most important attri­butes they consider when buying food at c-stores, and then rank how well 20 separate regional and national c-store brands delivered on these attributes. So the scores come from the very shoppers who patronize these convenience chains.

Technomic gave CSP an exclusive look at its 2012 Consumer C-Store Brand Met­rics Study to peel back consumer motives and perceptions, and find out how the industry is doing in the race for share of stomach. We also benchmarked the results against the restaurant industry (see “Rating the Restaurants,” p. 54) to measure how c-stores are competing against quick-service restaurants (QSR) and fast-casual chains.

The retail chains featured in the Technomic study represent a who’s who of the c-store industry, a collection of some of the largest companies, all offer­ing prepared food programs of varying complexity. Of the 20 chains, Wawa and QuikTrip ranked highest in many of the 10 food and beverage attributes—includ­ing food taste and flavor, visual appeal and variety—and appeared in the top three nearly every time.

Others represented the next tier of strong foodservice players, including Midwest stalwarts Casey’s General Stores and Kum & Go, the Stripes concept from Susser Petroleum, travel center behemoth Pilot Flying J, and Atlanta-based RaceTrac.

Despite the accolades for the leaders, the overall rating for the c-store industry and performance of some of the nation’s largest chains also showed room for improvement. The c-store channel is delivering on some important attributes, but it is barely passing on too many— especially when compared to QSRs.

That said, among the Technomic study’s most interesting findings is that there is a heavy halo effect emanating from certain chains that transcends the food itself. This discovery is prompting experts to agree that a successful program must be about the food—and the experience.

Some of the study’s other conclusions:

  • Big Misses: C-stores overall are falling short on several fundamentals, including food quality and taste/flavor.
  • Good Looks: Several retailers, notably Wawa, QuikTrip, RaceTrac and Pilot Flying J, had more than 90% of consumers ranking them “good” and/or “very good” on food visual appeal.
  • Uniquely Yours: When it comes to unique food items, c-stores perform modestly, with not one chain hitting 80%. However, four companies—Quik- Trip, Wawa, Stripes and Casey’s General Stores—had scores totaling at least 70%.

The 3,755 consumers in the Tech­nomic shopper panel purchased food­service from a c-store within two months of the September 2011 report. They were asked to rank the level of importance of approximately 50 attributes, and then how well 20 large c-store chains delivered on these expectations.

The operators were selected by store count, the estimated percentage of units offering prepared food and foodservice share of in-store sales. (One major retailer with a prominent foodservice reputation that is missing from the list is Sheetz Inc. The Altoona, Pa.-based chain just missed the top 20 by these metrics for the study, according to Technomic.)

Within the top 10 most important attributes (see chart on p. 52), c-stores overall are delivering at or above impor­tance levels in only four categories: con­venient location, beverage quality, speed of visit and order accuracy. Food quality, taste and flavor, service, cleanliness and value all need work.

When examining the 10 attributes that focus purely on food and beverage (as we did for this article), c-stores overall delivered below expectations on some of the more important attributes such as food quality, taste and flavor, variety and availability of healthy items.

The study confirmed that c-store retail­ers have mastered dispensed beverages, meeting consumers’ high expectations for this critical product with highly satisfying offers. However, in other areas—quality of kids’ menus, craveable and unique items, and limited-time-only offers—chains were ranked higher than consumer expec­tations, but those were low to begin with.

A Tale of Two Retailers

Among the 20 chains rated in the Tech­nomic study, Wawa scored highest among consumers for seven of the 10 food-spe­cific attributes measured.

This is no big surprise. Indeed, “the Wawas of the world” is a common refrain for an industry person talking about the pinnacle of c-store foodservice, leaps and bounds ahead of most others. Consum­ers have their own fanatical love of the chain, whose emphasis is made-to-order hoagies and a recently revamped coffee program. Wawa stores sell more than 195 million cups of coffee and 52 million hoagies per year.

Wawa’s foodservice legacy goes back to when the chain began offering deli meats and cheeses in the 1960s. Along with the iconic hoagie, Wawa has since pioneered programs such as smoothies (launched at the same time as McDonald’s own plat­form); coffee from airpots instead of glass carafes; and breakfast items such as the Sizzli breakfast sandwich. In April, CEO Howard Stoeckel announced stores will begin offering full-service, barista-style coffee and more items that embrace con­sumers’ desire for “freshness,” such as a new California Classic Hoagie, with bacon, avocado and cucumber.

Wawa has now turned its focus to the store experience, redesigning its proto­type to fit Stoeckel’s vision for his chain: fast casual to go.

“We cleaned up the clutter,” Stoeckel shared with attendees of CSP’s Restau­rant Leadership Conference earlier this year. Bright colors, sleek display cabinets, digital menu boards and touch-screen ordering terminals all make for a stream­lined, restaurant-like experience.

“Wawa has always been viewed as a c-store, but we now want to be viewed as a restaurant that sells gas. We want to be more like you when we grow up,” Stoeckel told the audience of restaurant franchi­sors and franchisees at the conference.

With nearly 600 stores in the fold and a new café-style store being unveiled in Florida, Wawa ranked toward the top of the study in both theater and fundamen­tals, scoring high on customer services and cleanliness. And, like QuikTrip, the company taps its store associates to elevate the food experience.

“They are the greatest brand ambas­sadors,” says Sherlock.

That manifests not only in granular tools such as employee taste testing and feedback, but also giving them what they need to execute consistently. For Wawa, that has meant investing in new technology such as touch-screen ordering. It is a ser­vice to customers, and it streamlines pro­duction as orders appear on the screen in an intuitive way for employees to execute.

The same thought is given to new menu platforms, whether it’s a smoothie program or transitioning from glass coffee pots to thermals. “How do we make it as easy as possible for the associates to deliver a high-quality experience on a consistent basis?” Sherlock says.

Meanwhile, QuikTrip’s path to food­service excellence is a winding one. Less than a decade ago, the Tulsa, Okla.-based company owned one of the best fountain programs in the convenience channel. But its approach to food was driven more by size than quality. Spokesperson Mike Thornbrugh said the chain figured out that wasn’t necessarily the case. (For more on this topic, see p. 59.)

Then in 2006, the company hatched QT Kitchens, a bakery and commissary creation that delivers fresh sandwiches, wraps, salads, fruit and pastries daily. So confident is QuikTrip today that the 600- store operator most recently launched what it calls the Generation Three store, which places foodservice front and center (CSP—May ’12, p. 18).

The store features a broad array of prepared foods, nearly two dozen flavors of smoothies and frozen drinks, more hot dogs and hot food, and an emphasis on take-and-bake food, such as lasagna and pizza.

And while QuikTrip was forced to embrace a speed course in foodservice specifics, the company had the critical intangibles in place: namely, a phenom­enal corporate culture and coveted base of die-hard customers.

So it wasn’t surprising that QuikTrip ranked first in the Technomic study for friendly service, staff product and concept knowledge, as well as store cleanliness—in addition to food taste and flavor, portion size for price paid and unique items.

“QuikTrip is leveraging their employ­ees,” says Tim Powell, Technomic’s director of research and consulting. “They under­stand they have that point of contact with the customer.”

It’s this sense of culture and environ­ment that the Technomic report finds to be at least as important as the food quality itself in building a dynamic foodservice program.

“Customers have to trust that the employees are top-notch,” says Thorn­brugh. “You have all these great ideas, but without people, stores and cleanliness, you can forget it.”

And despite the strong ranking, the company is not ready to rest on its laurels. “Selfishly, we want to be No. 1 in every­thing,” says Thornbrugh. “We freely admit this is still new for us. [QuikTrip CEO Chet Cadieux] has said many times it’s taken us 20 to 30 years to get to be good in selling gasoline and other merchandise. We’re going to be patient, continue to learn the business and continue to get better.”

Consistency Is Key

Despite their different paths to foodser­vice excellence, what Wawa and Quik- Trip both have ultimately achieved is consistency in execution—a quality that is built into the DNA of their foodservice programs, which creates a brand promise to the customer.

Indeed, a lack of consistency from store to store is often what separates most c-stores from QSRs. Franchise models, stores that were folded in via acquisition and a general backpedaling to get into the foodservice game all lead to a collection of stores at which a customer doesn’t know what to expect from visit to visit.

“Everyone uses the McDonald’s model,” says Powell of Technomic, citing the fast-food behemoth’s reputation for consistent—if not consistently excellent— food, despite its franchise base. “Wherever you buy that hamburger, even if it’s bad, it’s going to be consistently bad. You know what you’re going to get.”

Consumers’ uncertainty about c-stores, meanwhile, bears out even among the most prominent chains. The Technomic report shows some national brands scor­ing in the low 70s for food quality, flavor and taste, variety and visual appeal. The number drops even lower—mostly 50s and 60s—for less significant categories such as appeal of limited-time-only offers (LTO) and availability of healthy foods.

“When you’re a little more decentral­ized and you have franchised stores, it’s more difficult to keep it consistent,” says Powell. “That’s just inherent in the seg­ment right now, the inconsistency.”

For San Antonio-based Valero, it can be challenging to correlate execu­tion with sales projections, says Geoff DeCastro, senior category manager of foodservice. This is doubly so because Valero also does not have the same food offer available at all sites.

Of its 1,000 Valero Corner Store locations, only 300 stores offer the full program—or “real food,” as DeCastro describes it—which varies from straight grab and go, such as fresh hot dogs and other roller-grill products, to breakfast tacos made with homemade tortillas, fried chicken and chicken sandwiches.

“We have a good field organization, but you never really know 100% that the execution is there or not,” says DeCastro. Valero area managers each visit 10 stores monthly to evaluate execution of the foodservice offer, while zone managers and Ecosure perform quarterly checks.

For QuikTrip, consistency comes with not only offering the same retail offer at each store, but also vertical integration. The chain runs its own commissaries and distribution, ensuring consistent product and deliveries. “I think we’ve been superb at it,” says Thornbrugh. “There have been a couple of times where you’ve had ice and snowstorms. QuikTrip—not just for a c-store but any retail outlet—was one of the few that was still able to get product out for people to purchase. But our folks deliver regardless of the weather.”

Joe Chiovera, vice president of food­service for Alimentation Couche-Tard’s Circle K Stores, focuses on what he calls “functional intent.” Start with what you want out of a product or program, such as extended shelf life. Through that lens, answer questions of storage, distribution and operations to find the product that meets your goal.

“Not training your people prop­erly, along with a complex conceptual model—you put that with our high turn­over ratio in c-stores, and it’s a recipe for disaster,” he says.

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