By Frank Beard
MIAMI – The taxi driver seemed confused when we arrived at the intersection SW 17th and SW 1st in Miami.
“Turn left,” I said. “It’s the gas station right there.”
To be fair, this was probably the first time that three well-dressed guys from a nice hotel had asked him for a ride to a gas station. But if the driver had gone inside the convenience store, he’d understand why we decided to visit El Carajo.
If you want to see examples of foodservice innovation in convenience retailing, look no further than Miami. From independent owners to small chains, everyone seems willing to experiment and rewrite the playbook.
I had the opportunity to visit various retailers after speaking at an event last month. Here are three that stood out.
I suspect that my dinner companions were uncertain after learning that I made reservations at a gas station.
And at first glance, El Carajo does resembles a typical Mobil station. The fuel pumps are modern and attractive, and the well-lit canopy stands as a welcoming beacon from the corner of the intersection; but few would suspect that a destination restaurant is tucked away inside the convenience store.
Once you look past the beverage coolers and registers, you’ll notice that something is different. For starters, the hot beverages counter resembles what you might see at a local coffee shop—complete with a range of meticulously designed, mouthwatering pastries and cakes. And when you look towards the back of the store, you’ll notice a bar counter, wait staff in white shirts and black neckties, and the beginnings of an upscale restaurant.
The walls are covered with shelves housing a diverse selection of wine. Choose whatever you prefer, and the staff will ensure that your table has the appropriate style of glassware. Should you want something a bit unique, a climate-controlled room includes everything from Penfolds Grange to sought-after Grand Crus. This harkens back to the gas station’s decision to sell quality wine during the 1980’s.
The menu is based around a variety of high-quality tapas. One of our favorites was the “Pulpo A La Gallega.” The octopus was perfectly tender, prepared with olive oil and sweet paprika.
Can other convenience retailers replicate this concept? I have my doubts. But El Carajo is an example of what’s possible with a bit of creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking.
If you want to learn more, be sure to watch this NACS Ideas 2 Go segment.
Milk Gone Nuts
The small Texaco station near Afton Road and Dade Blvd may seem like an unlikely destination for healthful fare, but visitors will find a menu well suited to anyone leaving the gym or finishing a run along nearby South Beach.
I chose two things: a small portion of avocado and salmon in a bowl that resembled a coconut, and a larger bowl of blended acai with granola, fresh fruit, and coconut flakes. I’ve had similar meals at gyms and boutique health cafes, and I must say: the quality was as good or better than any of them.
The real secret of Milk Gone Nuts, it seems, is providing something that their local community wants. Indeed, GasBuddy’s 2017 Foot Traffic Report found that approximately 50% of customers limited visits to gas stations and convenience stores within 6 miles of their home and place of employment. Understanding your customers and their path to purchase is an especially effective way for convenience retailers to gain a competitive advantage.
Panna New Latino Food
I noticed right away that every type of customer was present at Panna. I visited the location in nearby Weston, and from millennials in athletic clothing to elderly locals enjoying coffee and pastries, the convenience store’s restaurant was clearly unaffected by a “fuel stigma.” We had to circle around the parking just to find an empty spot.
That’s because the defining quality of Panna’s customer experience is exactly that: quality. From the curb appeal and modern interior design to its expansive menu of Venezuelan and Columbian fare, Panna is a shining example of what’s possible with convenience retailing. The company has even created upscale quick-service restaurant locations.
I sampled many items from the menu, but the areapas really stood out. My favorite included a mixture of avocado, mayonnaise, and shredded chicken. The cooked dough resembled soft, grilled flatbread with a taste reminiscent of pancakes.
Maurico and Beatriz Meneses founded the company in 2000, and it has since grown to include restaurants, convenience stores, and a factory producing a variety of high-quality Latino food. A customer overheard my conversation as I spoke with Mauricio. He was at Panna enjoying coffee and pastries with his wife.
“I only have one complaint,” he said. “I need a location closer to my home.”
Frank Beard is a regular NACS Daily contributor who has traveled to more than 1,000 convenience stores in 24 states. He raised awareness of the industry's healthful food options with his “30 Days of Gas Station Food” experiment, and he's an analyst/evangelist for convenience store and retail trends at GasBuddy. Follow Frank on Twitter here.