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Alberta retailer finds foodservice success

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For Fred Bexte, food is his world. In the kitchen, this trained chef experiments with sushi, pad Thai, and butternut squash ravioli. But his operation isn’t a fine-dining restaurant – it’s a convenience store with a very impressive foodservice program.

“We do a lot of different stuff that the basic, regular convenience stores of the world don’t do,” says Bexte, who co-owns Red Basket Foods in Brooks, Alb. with his wife Twylla and business partner Greg Beck.

Regular customers often pick up lunch before heading out to work in the oil patch, so Red Basket decided to offer hearty lunch options to better serve their customers.

Now staff members make between 700 and 1,300 cold food items a day, including sandwiches, salads, and fruit salads. On top of that number is hot food, including flame-broiled hamburgers, pulled pork sandwiches, and fried chicken.

To find this level of success, retailers have to do foodservice right. Here’s how they found success at Red Basket:

Start with coffee

Coffee is at the heart of any good foodservice program, so the owners knew they had to improve their offer.

“Eight years ago we put the word out that we were looking to revamp the program, and of course, every coffee purveyor for a million miles was here because our store is fairly high volume,” says Bexte. “We probably tried 10 different coffee suppliers. They came here, brewed, and we tasted the coffee.”

Once they found the right one – Club Coffee – they branded it. Their personalized coffee program is called HavaJava Coffee Company, and each month, they sell between 500-700 pounds.

Keep it fresh

The perception of freshness is key, and if they can make something in-house, they will. “It goes a long way if people see that you’re grinding your own coffee beans or that your sandwiches aren’t labeled by some big box store,” he says. “If you concern yourself with quality first, that’s what will set your store apart. Don’t shop with your wallet – shop for quality.”

The best part about the offer is the price. “I know that I could charge more. We’re charging $3.89 for a fresh sandwich. Other places in town are charging $4.49 or $4.99,” says Bexte.

Understand wastage

When Red Basket Foods started offering sandwiches, they set up shop behind the counter. Staff members made four egg salad, four tuna salad, and four bologna sandwiches every day – a far cry from the 1,300 items they now make during peak season.

The number seems high, but it’s all based on careful calculations.

“We make that many a day, which means they’re moving. We’re not just making it to throw it away,” says Bexte, who admits food wastage is something that took some time to understand.

Heand his staff aim for 5-8% shrinkage. “If you’re making 20 egg salad sandwiches today, I expect there will be one left tomorrow that needs to be thrown away,” he says. “That means that every customer who came in looking for an egg salad sandwich yesterday got one.”

Train your staff

“Once someone has shown initiative and I’ve trained them as much as I can in house, we’ll send them to the local health authority and they take the foodservice safety program from them,” he explains. There, employees learn about issues such as sanitation and cross-contamination.

Bexte’s advice to other retailers is simple: “If you put out the best quality product that you can and don’t gouge people on price, you will be successful with foodservice.”

Bexte’s top tips for foodservice success:

Understand wastage. Wastage is expected in the convenience world – it ensures product freshness and availability.

Find your day part. Determine if your focus will be breakfast, lunch or dinner (or any combination of the three) and focus on doing itsuccessfully.

Research equipment. Talk to other operators about equipment, or read reviews online, to ensure your investment is a smart one.

Train your staff. Train them in house, but also make use of food handling safety courses in your community.

For inspiration, check out their facebook page here: Red Basket Facebook