5 ways c-stores are adapting foodservice in response to the pandemic
It is an area of growth that has sizzled for c-stores: foodservice, from freshly brewed coffee and freshly baked croissants to prepared soups, sandwiches, ready-to-eat meals and more. Foodservice in Canadian retail (c-stores, supermarkets and department stores) reached an estimated $2.9 billion in 2019, according to Restaurants Canada in a report that noted it is also the fastest-growing sector of foodservice.
However, the pandemic has hit the foodservice industry hard, as more Canadians stay home and make their meals. But foodservice consultants say c-stores that have pivoted in response to the pandemic should maintain their strength in the category and could even build on it.
“Foodservice was one of the hottest and most top-of-mind categories for the c-store industry before the pandemic,” says Diane Chiasson, president of Chiasson Consultants Inc. “Those who changed, adapted and thought out of the box will continue to do well.” From the adoption of new technology to changing their menus and food preparation, we look at how c-stores are reimagining their foodservice footprint.
1. From self-service to full-service
C-stores across Canada shuttered self-service coffee bars and fountain drink stations in the wake of the pandemic and government restrictions. Some have waited for restrictions to be lifted, while others have moved their offerings behind the counter and have cashiers providing customers with their morning cup of java. It may not be self-serve, but this shift has been embraced by customers and has given them peace of mind, says Neil Turkington, national foodservice category manager at Parkland Corporation. “Despite the impacts from COVID-19, we’re delivering strong same-store sales growth across our Canada convenience retail business and have successfully adapted our self-serve food business.”
While some c-stores have hit pause on the roller grill for now, others are moving roller grills behind the counter, so customers can still enjoy a hot dog for lunch or dinner, says Jenny Companion, VP of Eastern Canadian operations for hospitality consulting agency The Fifteen Group. The company worked with a major Canadian gas/c-store chain and recommended their self-serve foodservice move to full-service. “It has worked well in high-volume locations where they can afford to add another body, having someone make the food and serve it.”
Full-service, however, comes with other increased costs. For instance, c-stores have to provide everyone a cup for their coffee, rather than allowing customers to use their own refillable mug. And condiments, such as ketchup and mustard, move to single-serve packets, which is more expensive to purchase than in tubs. But this strategy keeps hungry customers coming in—and potentially making other purchases with their lunch, such as beverages or confectionary.
2. Mobile delivery acceleration
The pandemic has accelerated consumer adoption of digital innovation by as much as years ahead of where we would otherwise be, say experts. That is certainly the case in the foodservice industry. With pandemic restrictions and fears of contracting COVID-19, more and more consumers have turned to apps for easy foodservice pickup and home delivery.
7-Eleven Canada, for instance, has a partnership with Uber Eats in major urban centres, allowing customers to order pizza, chicken wings, corn dogs, Slurpees, breakfast sandwiches and more to their home. It has also created combos with bottled pop and confectionaries to help drive sales. Circle K, meanwhile, has a partnership with DoorDash to deliver items like a steak-and-cheese taquito, sausages, donairs, paninis and chicken wraps.
Parkland’s QSR partner in B.C., Triple O’s, works with Skip the Dishes and Turkington says it is yielding encouraging results: “We are concurrently piloting convenience store delivery, and are pleased with the early uptake and stickiness, demonstrating consumer confidence in our offer.”
By getting into delivery, c-stores also have an opportunity to bring customers food when restaurants and grocery stores are closed—late evening and early morning, satiating customers whenever they have a case of the munchies. “I’ve seen mobile ordering do well after hours, because gas stations are 24 hours and an essential service,” says Companion. “This is a time period when c-stores really have the delivery market all to themselves.”
3. Quality control
Before COVID, customers associated food that was made in-store with freshness. “Previously, many of our c-stores made fresh sandwiches and packaged them on-site, which has its advantages,” says Turkington. “However, the pandemic has shifted consumer sentiment and now many sites make their sandwiches at commissary kitchens. Our sandwiches feature clear labelling indicating they’ve been made by quality, vetted suppliers.”
For independent operators and others that have built a reputation for preparing fresh foods or unique menu items on site, there’s a strong focus on clearly communicating new food handling and cleaning protocols in order to provide customers with added peace of mind about quality and safety.
4. Menu additions and subtractions
Jeff Dover, president of fsSTRATEGY, a consulting firm for the hospitality industry with a focus on foodservice, says there is an opportunity for c-stores to add healthier—and more diverse—fare than typical c-store menu staples, like hot dogs and chicken tenders. “When the pandemic started, comfort food sales went through the roof, but people are now at the point where they want variety.”
Couche-Tard, for instance, is pushing ahead with its Fresh Food Fast program and is adding new options to its ready-to-eat menu, including sweet and sour chicken, spaghetti beef balls and tortellini with rosé sauce, which compliment comfort staples like mac and cheese, shepherd’s pie and lasagna.
5. Reduced customer touchpoints
Customers are naturally uneasy about having to handle doorknobs, countertops and other shared surfaces. That has resulted in some changes in foodservice storage and display.
Self-service bakery display cases have been altered so that doors don’t have to be opened to access croissants, muffins and other goodies. Baked goods and other food items also now come individually wrapped to keep them free from contamination and to avoid customers having to use shared tongs to grab them.
For Parkland, as Turkington notes, “we have always been focused on safety—for customers, retailers and staff—however, the pandemic required us to take additional precautions. We have reduced the number of touchpoints and increased sanitization in the forecourt and c-store including with individually wrapped baked goods and non-touch displays.”