America’s New Favorite Restaurants: C-Stores

Hungry? Visit your local convenience store.

January 14, 2020

NEW YORK—In National Lampoon's 1980s movie, “Vacation,” Chevy Chase jokes, "I'm so hungry. I could eat a sandwich from a gas station." That line got big laughs years ago, but today many convenience stores and gas stations have made tremendous improvements in their food offerings, CNN reports.

Chains like Sheetz, Wawa and Kwik Trip now offer meal kits, salads, keto snacks, Kombucha and espresso, an innovative move that keeps store doors open while other retailers are closing, CNN notes. While delivery from Amazon has changed what convenience means for many Americans, the 24-hour, 3,230-average-square-foot convenience store still meets the needs of time-strapped customers.

Convenience stores have reinvented themselves to adjust to the changing way Americans eat. Snacking is becoming consumers' preferred meal of choice, and Americans are cooking fewer dinners at home as they eat out or order in from their sofa. To keep up, chains are hiring executives from restaurants, expanding their snack choices and preparing food in kitchens on site.

"People simply don't have the time to sit down a whole meal at night like they used to," said Carl Rick, leadership development specialist at Kwik Trip, which is building about 40 stores a year and just opened its 700th. "The more places there are where people can duck in, be out in three minutes with milk, eggs, maybe a sandwich, something to drink—those places are doing very well," Rick told CNN.

The Southland Ice Company opened America's first convenience store in 1927 in Dallas. The chain, which is now 7-Eleven, recognized an opportunity to sell staples on Sundays and in the evenings when grocery stores were closed. Thanks to the growth of car ownership in the post-war period, the convenience industry took off.

In 1965, there were 5,000 convenience stores in the United States, and today, there are upward of 153,000, more than all the U.S. grocery stores, drug stores and dollar stores combined. 7-Eleven is the largest U.S. convenience store chain with more than 9,000 outposts.

For years, c-stores drew customers with tobacco, soft drinks and fuel, a business model often known as "gas, Cokes and smokes." Now, Americans are smoking less and steadily cutting out soda, which has forced convenience stores to adapt.

Top chains see opportunities to serve breakfast, a quick snack or a prepared dinner. From 2009 to 2018, foodservice sales in convenience stores grew at a higher rate than any other area in the store, according to NACS. In 2010, spending on food away from home surpassed spending on food at home for the first time.

Many retailers are looking to millennials, the generation that eats out most often and visits grocery stores less frequently than their parents. "Our bullseye is kind of that younger age group—the late teens to the early thirties for food and beverage," Travis Sheetz, chief operating officer at Sheetz, a family-owned chain that has more than 600 stores, told CNN. Sheetz offers made-to-order sandwiches and salads and has espresso bars. Customers place their orders on touch screens, which it introduced in the 1990s.

Wawa, with 800-plus stores along the East Coast, is famous for its hoagies. The chain has added custom salads, artisan sandwiches and organic coffee, while Casey’s General Stores, based in Iowa, has grown to become the country's fifth biggest pizza chain. Meanwhile, 7-Eleven has launched private-label meal kits and tested keto and paleo snacks at 125 Los Angeles stores.

More than half of Casey's stores are in towns with fewer than 5,000 people, and Darren Rebelez, CEO of Casey’s, believes Amazon will have a difficult time reaching those rural customers. “I don't think that [Amazon Go] is something that's likely to show up in our footprint anytime soon," he said. "It's tough to really disrupt this industry in a meaningful way."