In the convenience foodservice space, some retailers are experienced veterans that have fine-tuned their programs and how they introduce new menu items. Others are starting from scratch with brand-new programs or new prepared food products to fit the top trends and meet changing consumer demand. To succeed with something new, operators must have strong knowledge of the market, a clear goal and a realistic path to reach it, according to industry experts.
“We started with the offer and what we wanted to stand for,” said Ed Burcher, vice president of foodservice at FriendShip Food Stores, which opened the doors to its first food-focused concept store in its hometown of Elyria, Ohio, in July 2018.
The convenience store chain recognized that it needed to standardize many items and offers, as well as the general look and feel of the store, to provide a consistent experience that would draw customers back on a daily basis. This meant making some changes to meet the needs and desires of FriendShip’s existing customer base.
“What did not change was our FriendShip Kitchen offer,” Burcher continued. “FriendShip has a history of food and foodservice, using other brands and programs. The goal with FriendShip Kitchen is to bring all of our offers under our name so that we have consistency with communications and expectations.”
To determine how to meet this goal, the retailer identified what the new prototype would need. This included extra square footage to accommodate the store’s new features and a redesigned kitchen plan to ensure the flow and processes necessary to serve restaurant-quality food. The project required dedication to space, equipment, process and execution, according to Burcher.
While FriendShip created a new concept, c-store operators looking to achieve improvements in their existing foodservice program can follow the same process, even if a new-build store model isn’t in the cards, according to Chef Kyle Lore of Salt Lake City-based convenience store chain Maverik Inc. A smaller-scale change may even make it easier to fill a competitive need.
“Market research in the areas near the stores is the primary driver,” Lore said. “What does your customer want that is not being made available?”
DON’T BE IN A RUSH
At the same time, operators should be cautious about what their foodservice program is capable of providing, and not rush to get ahead of themselves just to fill a niche.
“I am a big believer in process. While there are times that you can skip steps, an operator should understand what it will take to provide an item to a guest in every store the same way, each and every time,” added Burcher. “There is no magic formula, but operators should have a process that ensures that all areas are addressed: supply, ingredients, packaging, pricing, promotion, communication and execution.”
Testing is also an important part of the process.
At FriendShip, the company has used a rigorous testing process in the past, from idea to test market to full rollout. Burcher noted that smaller chains such as FriendShip, which operates 26 c-stores, are often more nimble than the largest players in this area because they are able to make significant changes in a shorter period of time.
“We are evolving our stores and offer at a much faster rate than larger chains can and it accelerates our ability to achieve consistency in offer, brand and execution,” he said.
At Maverik, which operates more than 300 stores, the testing process occurs in phases. A test item will typically appear at a small number of stores, often just five, and then be reviewed by the company’s quality assurance managers, who have a strong background in food safety and work directly with those employees involved in foodservice operations. Together, they evaluate factors such as production difficulties, unexpected secondary impacts on other processes, and real-time customer feedback. If the initial results are promising, Maverik makes adjustments and then moves on to a broader test at 10 to 30 stores.
Hands-on testing can reveal fatal flaws in an item that looks fine on paper.
Both Lore and Burcher agree that limited-time offers (LTOs) are a good way to test a menu item in the market and explore demand. LTOs can help operators determine whether an item has the potential to become permanent or should disappear after the promotional period.
“To become permanent, it must impact the mix in a meaningful way,” Lore said.