The way Americans eat is changing. Consumers are eating more meals away from home, and eating out isn’t always a special occasion. But even when grabbing breakfast on the way to work, buying a snack between meetings or picking up a weeknight dinner, consumers expect fast service, fresh ingredients and a fair price.
Places that people turn to for on-the-go meals also are changing. Once considered a gastronomic last resort, prepared food from grocers and convenience stores is gaining popularity. More stores are emphasizing prepared food that includes fresh, healthy ingredients and on-trend flavors. Consumers are turning to these stores as an alternative to quickservice and fast-casual restaurants, sometimes even viewing them as a dining destination in their own right.
Several education sessions at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show addressed this change in the foodservice landscape. In a session titled “Convenience Stores’ Prepared Food Future,” Don Longo, editor-in-chief of Convenience Store News, and Joe Sheetz, executive vice president of the Sheetz convenience store chain, discussed how c-stores are stepping up their food and beverage offerings.
Convenience stores saw $708.2 billion in sales in 2012, up 2.8% from 2011, according to CSN market research. Longo said prepared-food sales were a driving factor. Drugstores are seeing a similar increase in demand for fresh, prepared food, and Longo predicted “the future of the drugstore industry colliding with the future of the c-store industry.”
The Sheetz chain offers an extensive menu of food and beverages, and touch-screen ordering allows for seemingly endless possibilities for customization. While most orders are taken to go, the retailer is starting to include larger dining areas, including a convenience restaurant in Altoona, Pa., that features an outdoor patio.
Longo and Joe Sheetz agreed on the importance of beverages to c-stores looking to capitalize on prepared food. When discussing food and beverage, Sheetz said, “I’m the guy that always stands up and says, ‘Don’t forget the B!’ ” Sheetz stores offer hot and cold beverages, with a range of coffee and espresso drinks that could rival large coffee shops.
Longo said coffee can be a good tool for measuring the quality of a c-store’s foodservice offerings. “If you can’t get your coffee right, you’re not going to be a good foodservice operator.”
Longo and Sheetz said one advantage of c-stores over traditional restaurants is shoppers’ ability to cross multiple things off their to-do list. Sheetz said the convenience chain caters to a combined mission, but “we think like a restaurant … everything we do is through restaurant glasses.”
Grocers can offer a similar one-stop-shopping approach, and many are stepping up prepared-food offerings and opening in-house restaurants. In an education session titled “Grocers and Restaurants: Learning From Each Other,” Jim Dudlicek, editor-in-chief of Progressive Grocer, led a panel discussion about how grocers can bring in diners, as opposed to only shoppers.
More than a quarter of shoppers visit a grocery a least once a week to get dinner, and more than one-third have expressed a desire for more kinds of prepared food, Dudlicek said. Prepared food and restaurant offerings can increase grocery sales, because such items usually are made with produce, meat and other ingredients that can be found in the store. Creating a meal for busy shoppers, then showing them how to make it at home, will keep them coming back for more.
Adam Saper, chief financial officer of Italian market and restaurant Eataly in New York City, said the store’s philosophy is “we cook what we sell and we sell what we cook.” Chef Mario Batali, one of Eataly’s co-owners, came up with the concept of a “vegetable butcher” to help shoppers with in-home cooking. Shoppers can select produce and have it prepped by the store’s vegetable butcher at no extra charge. No more crying over onions or spending an eternity breaking down artichokes.
Louisiana’s Rouses Supermarkets caters to busy home cooks and chefs, said Jack Treuting, executive director of culinary operations. Seeing local chefs pick up ingredients for their menus can be an inspiration to home cooks, he said.
Treuting said the focus should always be on cooking, and the goal of in-house restaurants — in addition to providing a great meal — is to help consumers cook. Front-of-house employees are trained not only to know what ingredients are used in a dish and which flavors combine well but also how to store and reheat specific dishes.