A Point of Difference

How to make your foodservice program stand out from the pack.

By  Robert Lillegard, Freelance writer

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If you have a foodservice program at your c-store, Al Hebert is the guy you want in your corner. The self-proclaimed “Gas Station Gourmet” travels the country to find the best, most authentic, most creative c-store food, then tells the world about it on his web­site. His mission is to get people to take a chance on what he calls “America’s great undiscovered treasure.”

“I really would love for people to take a short walk from that pump and see what’s inside,” Hebert says. “People don’t always expect there to be this amazing, fresh, great food at a gas station. But it’s there.”

In Nacogdoches, Texas, Mr. Will’s serves super-tender barbecue ribs and fabulously rich pies. It might be a Mobil station, but it’s also a family-run restaurant, with the owner and his kids both hanging around. In Blacksburg, Va., Snuffy’s Country Store saw a 300% increase in its food business after owner Kelly Graham brought in fam­ily recipes. And in Mississippi’s deer coun­try, Vine Bros. is connecting with hunting culture. In addition to a huge Sunday buf­fet of soul food such as collard greens, fried chicken and corn bread, employees smoke up to a ton of sausage over green hickory each day throughout hunting season.

But it’s not just independents who are getting into the act. All across the coun­try, c-store chains are going toe-to-toe with restaurants. In August, Restaurant Business, sister publication to CSP, com­pared food items from c-stores with their quick-serve equivalents, and it wasn’t an obvious win for either side. (See p. 215.) Steven Johnson, the “Grocerant Guru” of consulting firm Foodservice Solu­tions, Tacoma, Wash., has worked with several national c-store chains and says the industry is evolving quickly.

“Sheetz calls itself currently a restau­rant that sells gas,” Johnson says. “Wawa has just opened stores in Florida, and they feature fresh, ready-to-eat food. It’s creat­ing incremental value for the c-stores. It drives customer loyalty and frequency simultaneously—if they do it right.”

That, of course, is the tricky part. Is your foodservice program just like everyone else’s, or are you doing some­thing truly different? CSP scouted out some great ideas that are separating certain retailers from the rest, as well as some unique concept ideas that are there for the taking.

Select the Right Menu

It’s almost a question of the chicken or the egg. Is local food local because res­taurants serve it, or do restaurants serve what’s already local? Either way, it’s smart to listen to what people are asking for. Johnson gives the example of York, Pa.- based Rutter’s Farm Stores, which has begun selling waffle sandwiches.

“Know your local customers,” Johnson says. “Because many convenience stores are decentralized, they’re able to really know their local communities and focus on that.”

Hebert has seen a lot of options, from chicken shawarma to freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and salad bars. Instead of trying out new products in focus groups, he says, successful c-store owners take risks.

“If people don’t buy it in a week or two, they get rid of it and go right back to what they’ve been doing,” Hebert says. “These small operators are very, very creative and very quick to try new things.”

As a result, Johnson says the options have proliferated. Increasingly savvy c-store operators are muscling in on res­taurants in almost every area.

“Any product that’s sold at a restau­rant you can find at convenience stores,” Johnson says. “There is no food product that a convenience store can’t sell.”

Some, though, hold that view to be overly optimistic. While it’s easy enough to say anything could work in a c-store environment, practical realities make some foods harder than others.

“I talked to a c-store owner in south Louisiana who tried a chicken sandwich. Didn’t sell,” Hebert says. “A chicken sand­wich might go over huge somewhere else. That all depends on where you are.”

And some types of cuisine will present an even bigger challenge. Yasuko Holt grew up in Japan and wanted to share her culture with her new country. So she opened the Zen House, a full-service Japanese restaurant, in an ICO gas station in Hermantown, Minn. The restaurant itself is elegant, with plenty of hanging paper lamps, bamboo shades and tinkling harp music for background music.

She carefully considered the menu. It includes deep-fried octopus fritters and seaweed salad, crunchy fried tempura and healthy sashimi. There are even grab-and-go sushi trays for drivers who want to pop in and get on their way.

But Holt feels trapped between two extremes. On the one hand, drivers look­ing for something quick and simple are reluctant to stray away from familiar foods such as pizza and hamburgers. On the other hand, customers looking for a nice place to eat have made negative comments about the gas-station environ­ment, or shied away entirely in favor of more conventional rivals.

“Being in a gas-station restaurant— it’s not a positive,” Holt says. “It drives a lot of people away.”

The lesson? Feel free to be creative, but be sure to test the waters first.

Get the Right Equipment

Even after you have your idea, starting a dedicated restaurant in a c-store isn’t easy. Setting up a foodservice area means taking away retail space, and depending on how much equipment you need, that can mean a hit to sales—at least initially. Seeing the need for more efficient systems, some manufacturers have stepped up with kitchen equipment especially designed for the c-store environment.

Herman Cothran is one. He’s the inventor of the TotalKitchen Oven, an all-in-one system that can bake, broil, braise, smoke and grill. The idea for the product started in the 1980s, when Cothran was the president of a super­market group in Canada.

“We were always looking for new products to put in our delis,” Cothran says. “One day someone said, ‘Herman, why don’t we bring American barbecue to Canada?’ And someone else in the meet­ing said, ‘What’s all this great stuff about American barbecue?’ ”

From that point on, Cothran continued to think about the ideal barbecue oven. By 2007, he had his patent. The TotalKitchen Oven was designed to achieve the flavors of slow, wood-smoke barbecue as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“I can cook chicken and ribs ready to plate in an hour,” Cothran says. “I can cook brisket in three hours. We can do quite a few things. By design, it’s a barbe­cue oven. By accident, it does more.”

“More” is fairly expansive. The Total­Kitchen Oven has two separate compart­ments and can bake pies, cakes, bread, or pizza in one oven while slow-cooking a pot roast in the other. It can be used to cold-smoke salmon, grill vegetable kabobs or barbecue 60 chickens at once.

For demonstration purposes, Cothran developed a pop-up unit with a much smaller footprint. But there was so much demand for the 12-foot-by-12-foot TK PopUp 144 that it became an important part of the business.

“All you have to do is roll it in, plug it in and start cooking,” Cothran says. “It doesn’t require a fixed exhaust hood. They don’t have to remodel their store to fit it in. You can do it all in 144 square feet.”

For stores where kitchen space and labor are at a premium, Cothran is also offering food to go with the ovens. He’ll sell cut, trimmed, vacuum-marinated and vacuum-packed meats such as chicken, beef back ribs, baby back ribs, turkey and sausage to provide an all-in-one solution. Another creative product is Delfield’s GoCart. (Delfield is part of Manitowoc Foodservice.) This mobile kiosk plays off the food-truck trend and can be set up outside during summer months. It’s an easy way to experiment with foodservice without doing a costly remodel, or simply tap into increased summer tourist traffic if the economics of your store don’t justify a year-round foodservice operation. The cart has lighting, sinks, a water filtration system, electrical hookups, a system for music and more.

Try New Things

Having an innovative foodservice program doesn’t have to be all about the equipment. Several concepts have found unique angles that make them stick out.

In the southern part of the United States, Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q has several locations and sells sauces, smoked meats and even gift baskets for barbecue lovers.

Texas Monthly, the Dallas Observer, and D Magazine have all praised the tacos at Fuel City Tacos, a family-owned c-store near Dallas.

And then there’s U-Gas, a St. Louis-based chain with 19 locations. In addition to one location of Gigi’s Fresh Café, a dedicated quick-service restaurant, every U-Gas store sells a variety of food such as wings, toasted ravioli (a St. Louis staple) and fruit cups. The new focus on fresh food has driven a 20% boost in foot traffic to the stores, says Curtis Springer, director of foodservice, and the chain has even started catering. It’s a small but growing percentage of their business.

“We’ve done some giveaways and that’s really helped,” Springer says. “We’ve catered quite a few events at the St. Louis Science Center. Once they try our food, then they’re hooked.”

Why not? Convenience store foodservice is getting more creative and vibrant by the year, so it’s no wonder it’s drawing favorable comparisons to restaurants. By offering food that fits the market, using the right equipment for the space and taking creative approaches from sausage smoking to catering, c-stores across the country are making memories.

And some memories are stronger than others. Snuffy’s Country Store, the Virginia site that saw a 300% increase in its food business, has more than dedicated fans. It also has hosted weddings—twice.

“It seems crazy, but when you stop and think, this is really nostalgic,” Hebert says. “They’re not just selling gas and honey buns. They’re making food and they’re connecting to the people in the community.”

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