C-stores are elevating their foodservice game
LAS VEGAS — Restaurant-quality offerings, better-for-you options and global flavors are trending in new foodservice offerings launching across the convenience channel.
Foodservice sales in convenience stores increased 20.5% in 2021 after falling 10% in 2020, according to the 2022 Convenience Store News Industry Report. Elevated offerings that go beyond the typical gas station fare are key to capturing a bigger share of shoppers’ wallets.
“I think the messaging for the convenience channel has to evolve,” said Bradley Borchardt, strategic account chef for convenience stores at Minneapolis-based Cargill. “C-stores still have the halo of ‘cokes and smokes,’ but a lot of them are doing food that is better than most quick-service restaurants. Getting that message out there is more prevalent than ever before.”
Tyson Foodservice, a division of Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, is helping convenience stores compete in the “fast-food chicken sandwich wars” with its new Hot N’Spicy Chicken & Waffles Sandwiches, made with antibiotic-free portioned chicken breasts and Belgian-style waffles. The company also is gearing up to introduce Southern Style Chicken Sandwiches, made with soft brioche buns and a breading profile featuring notes of dill, onion and garlic.
Convenience stores are challenging the channel’s reputation as a purveyor of empty-calorie offerings with better-for-you options. Veggies Made Great entered the foodservice channel earlier this year with a range of vegetable-forward items in convenient formats. It has continued to expand its foodservice footprint with convenience stores as a key area of focus, said Elliot Huss, CEO of the Rahway, NJ-based brand.
“Convenience store offerings have dramatically evolved in the last decade,” he said. “Today’s c-stores are closer to quick-service restaurants with gas pumps. The core c-store foodservice consumer, Gen Z and millennials, are demanding better-for-you food options everywhere they shop, and the pandemic has only accelerated this expectation for healthier options.”
Veggies Made Great offers individually wrapped sweet muffins made with zucchini and carrots, available in flavors like double chocolate, blueberry oat, banana chocolate chip and keto-friendly cinnamon roll. It also offers a range of savory frittatas, including a plant-based sausage, egg and cheese frittata made with Beyond Meat Sausage Crumbles, and a mushroom and three cheese egg white frittata made with cauliflower and kale.
“Breakfast and snacking remain the core dayparts for c-stores, with breakfast coming back strong as a growth area post-pandemic,” Mr. Huss said. “C-store operators have an opportunity to offer better-for-you on-the-go items in place of sugary baked goods and overly indulgent breakfast items.”
The brand recently introduced a line of Stuffed Cauliflower Bites. The healthier alternative to pizza rolls features a crispy cauliflower crust made with carrots, broccoli and spinach, plus alternative flours like chickpeas and rice, and are filled with a blend of vegetables and cheese. Varieties include margherita, stuffed with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, and spinach and ricotta, stuffed with spinach, ricotta and Parmesan cheese.
“The Stuffed Cauliflower Bites are a great format for c-store customers who want a familiar, crave-worthy hot snack,” Mr. Huss said. “They satisfy consumers craving for convenient comfort foods while still appealing to health-conscious eaters since the bites are a good source of protein and fiber. They can go straight from the freezer into the convection oven, high speed oven, microwave or air fryer with zero prep needed, so they are a great option for c-store operators looking to elevate their warm snack options.”
The Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich. is bringing its MorningStar Farms plant-based portfolio into the foodservice channel. It is testing a variety of meat-free options for convenience stores, including chicken-style tenders, breakfast sausage alternatives, chorizo-style crumbles and spicy black bean burgers.
“MorningStar Farms is more common in other channels, but we see c-stores as a big white space opportunity,” said Daniel DeMeyer, senior director of commercial strategy, small format, at Kellogg. “We’ve been working on things like on-the-go breakfast sandwiches and other meal solutions that just need to be placed under a heat lamp or in a microwave.”
Flexibility and versatility
Data from Cargill show millennials are the top indexing convenience store customers. Better-for-you foodservice offerings are key to capturing the demographic, as are Mexican-inspired flavors, said Jessica McMillan, strategic account lead for convenience stores at Cargill.
“When we look across the consumer base, millennials are actually the first generation to prefer Mexican flavors over Italian flavors,” she said. “If you look at Gen Z, Asian flavors are their top choice.”
With convenience stores facing a challenging labor environment and contending with small kitchens and prep spaces, operators are seeking flexible foodservice offerings that are easily incorporated into multiple dishes, Mr. Borchardt added.
“Finding ways to utilize products in multiple different applications is key,” he said. “You could use a crumble in a breakfast burrito or breakfast nachos, and then use the same crumble as a pizza topping later in the day.”
The company offers Charter Reserve, a lineup of fully cooked, prepared proteins. Featuring a variety of whole muscle proteins in on-trend Mexican- and Asian-inspired flavors, the “ready-to-heat-and-eat” offerings elevate menus in a convenient and labor-efficient way.
“The key with our cooked meats portfolio is that we do 80% to 90% of the heavy lifting and allow 10% to 20% for brand customization,” Mr. Borchardt said. “You could take a pork carnitas that is very neutral in flavor and add barbecue sauce for a barbecue pork sandwich or sour cream for a carnitas taco. That flexibility allows you to do different limited-time offerings throughout the year with the same product, just by changing the sauce.”