Evolving Consumer Needs Call for a Fresh Game Plan

It’s no secret. The old c-store profit-matrix is shifting away from tobacco sales, fuel and consumer packaged goods while prepared foods are shoring up the bottom line—to the point that c-stores are directly competing with QSRs and other restaurants for market share.

For example, “food taste and flavor” and “food quality” beat out other attributes like “friendly service,” “convenient location” and “speed of service” in a recent CSP Magazine survey asking customers what they value most in a c-store.

With that opportunity, however, also comes rising consumer expectations.

In other words, if you want to take advantage of the changing consumer perception that c-stores rival restaurants, you’ve got to step up your food game.

And customers are putting their money where their mouths are. NACS reports that c-store operators in the top quartile of their industry sell three times more prepared food than operators in the bottom quartile.

Within the prepared foods category, one trend dominates them all: fresh.

Here are three areas in which c-store operators can capitalize on the fresh trend without the need for additional staff or space.

Area #1: Fresh Fruits and Veggies

Much of the momentum behind the fresh trend comes from its healthful associations, nowhere more evident than with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Whole, natural ingredients—free from any suspicious processing, unwanted preservatives or artificial flavors—are a staple of nearly every healthy diet, no matter how traditional or faddish.

Leafy green and fruit salads are two possibilities for adding more fresh to your mix. Vintners Distributors, Inc. recently added build-your salad bars to the more than 120 c-stores it owns and operates across California, alongside prepackaged salads for customers in a hurry.

But, when “freshening up” your food options, beware of cutting corners. Fresh means fresh, and for a number of reasons, it’s best to avoid pre-cut produce when possible.

Area #2: Fresh Baked Goods

Fresh doesn’t only imply fruits and veggies, however; it also includes food items made on the spot, such as baked goods.

Fresh baked goods, like sweet loaves, muffins, pastries and bagels, align with growing consumer preferences for grab-and-go breakfast options and diverse snacking choices across all dayparts from morning to late night.

In fact, according to Dataessential, “fresh/warm bakery sweets” and “fresh bakery breakfast items” were two of the top prepared food items sought by c-store customers, with 69% and 70% of surveyed customers looking for them.

While you could contract a local bakery to truck in baked goods every morning, there are compact, restaurant-grade ovens on the market that enable you to produce fresh baked goods in house, with limited space, for a better profit-margin, as well as warming merchandisers with steaming-capabilities to keep your fresh baked goods moister, longer.

Plus, consider how the just-out-the-oven aroma will waft through your establishment, redefining consumer perceptions about how you do fresh.

Area #3: Fresh Sandwiches, Made-to-Order

Among the top-40 performing c-stores in the country, sandwiches are the most popular entrée on the menu, seeing 7% year-over-year growth in 2017.

Similar to a build-your-own salad bar, the sandwiches bring a level of personalization to the fresh category that resonates with consumers. With just a handful of breads, meats, cheeses, toppings and condiments, customers can customer-tailor a sandwich to their taste-specifications, inching c-stores that much closer to a delicatessen-quality experience.

Some c-store chains are already offering sandwiches so good that they’re actually outranking traditional sandwich shops. East Coast c-store chain Wawa was ranked the nation’s best spot for a fresh-made sandwich earlier this year, making it the first time in history a c-store has taken the number-one spot.

Strike the right balance between made-to-order capabilities and a quality grab-and-go section by setting up your own sandwich-making station. With a countertop panini press and a few other food-prep items, you can vastly expand your prepared-food menu to include ever-popular breakfast sandwiches, burritos, quesadillas, ciabatta-bread sandwiches and more.