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Nutrition Pioneers

By Scott Orr

With vision, optimism —and perhaps a dash of audacity —a pair of convenience store pioneers have embarked on parallel experiments that could determine the future of nutritional food options industry wide.

And if the two succeed, they could well be setting new standards for how the industry feeds on-the-go Americans. If they fail, well, it wouldn’t have been for lack of effort, desire or investment.

Meet Sonja Hubbard, CEO of Texarkana, Texas-based E-Z Mart Stores, and Gil Moore, president of Sacramento, California-based Gil Moore Oil Company. Both have vast experience in the convenience store sector and long-established ties to NACS. And both are making heavy investments in pilot programs to see what it takes to sell fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthier fare to the snack-and-sip set.

Both Hubbard and Moore said they heard the call to nutritional arms in the wake of First Lady Michelle Obama’s criticism of foodservice industries over the continuing growth of America’s waistlines. To some, the first lady’s message to retailers and restaurants has been taken as a threat: Either give consumers healthier options on your own, or the government will force it on you.

"I know that I was inspired by Michelle Obama and her campaign to fight obesity. I see indications everywhere that this is something the public wants. It’s a sign of the times and we should all be thinking about offering the customer something different, something a little better," Moore said.

"Today, it is more important than ever that we make some progress in this direction. The continuing spread of regulation and the bashing, a little bit, of our industry make it critical that we respond," Hubbard added.

Healthy Leadership
The convenience store industry and NACS have long sought ways to offer healthier eating options to help Americans as they wrestle with obesity and its health effects. At the same time, the industry also hopes to head off potential new government regulations brought on by activists who have no problem blaming stores and restaurants for the health choices of consumers.

With the shrill voices of food police in the background, governments at all levels are considering regulatory means to pressure retailers and restaurants into offering healthier options, whether consumers want them or not. While some stores are reporting success in selling fruits and vegetables alongside more traditional c-store fare like snacks and drinks, there have been few —if any —efforts to reexamine marketing strategies from the ground up.

"Sonja and Gil are showing real leadership by taking steps to feature healthier products in their stores," said John Eichberger, NACS vice president of government relations.

"Their willingness to share their experiences will help others in the industry implement successful strategies to attract more health-conscious customers to their stores. There is a renewed focus on nutrition in our country, being led by First Lady Michelle Obama, and convenience retailers have an opportunity to serve this growing segment of consumers," Eichberger said.

Change the Store...
The programs at both E-Z Mart and Moore Fuels began with a significant investment in remodeling stores to create new, accessible and attractive cooler space for produce and frozen items. At the same time, the stores are seeking innovative new marketing approaches to let customers know that they don’t have to run to the supermarket every time they need some bananas or oranges.

Hubbard says the investment made at her pilot Arkansas locations in Texarkana and Hot Springs was significant, but she hopes it will pay off for both her business and her customers. The remodeling included the addition of more open-front coolers for fruit, yogurt and juices and new freezers for frozen foods, including prepared meals.

"What we saw initially was that the most popular products were frozen pizza and hot pocket type meals, not the healthier options like frozen vegetables.

But we are seeing some progress lately. We were wondering: Has it taken that long for people to realize we have these products? Maybe we need to do a little more marketing," Hubbard said.

So Hubbard and E-Z Mart began working with the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Arkansas First Lady Ginger Beebe and government agencies to draw attention to the healthier options. The Arkansas Children’s Hospital was asked, for example, to help identify which c-store options could be considered healthier.

"We needed somebody reliable to say that they are the one publicly deciding on the value of these products, so it’s not us making that call; We worked with the Department of Agriculture and they told us that it doesn’t necessarily have to be fresh to be healthier. Frozen spinach, for example, is just as healthy as fresh spinach. It’s cheaper and it’s not perishable, so it’s a win-win for us and for the consumer," Hubbard said.

If the initial results have taught Hubbard anything, it’s that the move toward healthier eating habits is not going to come overnight.

"In the convenience store industry, we want to succeed now and if something isn’t

working right a have to get beyond that. What we’re doing is adding marketing pieces and partners to make sure consumers are aware of these options. Before we would just put product out there and let them find it; that wasn’t successful," Hubbard said.

...Change the Perception
Moore, meanwhile, has gone even farther in reshaping the look of one of his stores in suburban San Francisco. He’s installed an octagonal "gondola" with a refrigerator unit for vegetables and fruits; there’s a five-foot-tall "banana tree" and an eight-foot-tall set of bins for nuts. And it’s all done in cherry wood finish to match the counters and coffee stations.

"It’s unique and it looks great," Moore said. "We’re going to try lots of different products, starting with cantaloupe, honeydew, several kinds of oranges, three kinds of apples, grapefruit and berries. The vegetables will all be prepackaged to start, celery sticks, carrot sticks, things like that. We do believe these will be profit items, not just something to draw in customers," Moore said.

On his first day selling fruit, Moore hadn’t finished hanging bananas on the banana tree when he made his first sale. He was so excited he gave the customer a free basket of strawberries to go along with the bananas. Later, he started giving each customer samples of the fresh strawberries he bought from a local farm.

Moore notes that he is not planning to convert his business into a health food store, despite the new options. "We understand that America has a sweet tooth and some people are not going to go for healthier options no matter what we do.

We’re still a convenience store, but one that is trying to move into a new area," Moore said, noting that his store still has a Wendy’s fast food outlet in it. "I want to make this a destination spot for people to shop, so it’s more than just a place to stop because it’s convenient. We’re aiming at everyone, but especially women who care about their families and want them to eat better," he said.

Moore said he received enthusiastic responses when he set about finding suppliers for his produce, noting, for example, that Del Monte Fresh Produce is offering retailers fresh cut fruit, parfaits with granola, sliced vegetables and other items in attractive packages that are small enough to fit into car cup holders.

"Del Monte sees the value and the potential for future growth in the convenience store industry," he said.

Nutritional Awakening
Steve Kenfield, vice president of sales and marketing for HMC Group Marketing Inc., told The Packer, the fresh fruit and vegetable industry publication, that initiatives like those undertaken by Hubbard and Moore are necessary if convenience stores are going to succeed in marketing fruit and vegetables.

"There’s a wide range of convenience stores," Kenfield said. "There are some that look almost like a fresh market, and there are some that you pump your gas and buy beer and cigarettes, which won’t hold much value for produce."

"You put a one-off item in a convenience store, and nobody will see it or expect to find it there no matter how much the concept resonates with upper management," he said. "I think you’re going to see it in the right venue, with the right product€¦but you’re not going to see it overnight."

Russ Klettke, co-author of A Guy’s Gotta Eat: The Regular Guy’s Guide to Eating Smart and a certified fitness trainer in Chicago, applauds the nutritional awakening at convenience stores and notes that they already carry healthier options, whether or not they are marketed that way.

"The best news on c-store nutrition is that major companies are waking up to nutrition," says Klettke. "Chains located near residential areas already have entire produce sections featuring various types of fruit as well as lettuce, tomatoes, onions and avocados."

He added that even stores that do not offer fresh fruit and vegetables do carry health items if you know what to look for. He recommends: protein bars with protein-to-fat ratio of at least 3:1, nuts, peanut butter, fruit chips in re-sealable pouches, hardboiled eggs, beef jerky, oatmeal packets, protein drinks, vegetable drinks, whole grain crackers and breads.

Hubbard and Moore agree that convenience stores need to find ways to make the existence of these options better known to their customers. And while both said profit margins are important, they feel that their initiatives could have societal benefits that cannot be overlooked.

"This is very important, not just to our industry but to our state and federal governments as well. It can be part of a series of initiatives that could change the health quality of the next generation. In terms of health-care costs, Medicare, Medicaid, it could mean not millions, but billions," Hubbard said. "This is bigger than just trying to gain for yourself and offering something different," she added.

"I’m glad to be in a position to be able to do this, not just for me and my stores, but for the whole industry," added Moore. "What we’re doing and what some of the other c-stores are doing could be the start of something very big for our industry. We’re hoping to show what can be done if you look at your business a little differently and take a risk. This might not work at all, but we’ll never know unless we try," he said.

Scott Orr is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.