Are You Prepared for Some Great Food?

By Jeff Lenard   read

No matter where the road takes you, great food can be found at convenience stores.

April 19, 2024

burger-food-art_380x254.jpgTwenty-five years ago, I attended my first NACS committee meeting. What I remember most wasn’t anything from the meeting—it was the lunch.

Not the food, but the conversation waiting in line to get food. A committee member was very animated about the industry’s future. “Foodservice, it’s either going to be our future or it will destroy the industry,” he said. And from his follow-up comments, I could tell that he was leaning toward the latter scenario.

The numbers show he was wrong—and very wrong.

Total industry foodservice sales—which includes prepared food; commissary; and hot, cold and frozen dispensed beverages—represented 26.9% of in-store sales, up 1.3 percentage points in 2023 from the year prior. Profits from foodservice were even more impressive: 37.3% of total in-store profits.

Prepared food, which includes sandwiches, meals and other food prepared onsite, jumped 12.2% in sales to $51,500 per store per month, making it the No. 1 category for all in-store sales in 2023. Let me repeat that: Prepared food is the number one seller inside c-stores.

Convenience stores are now food destinations that happen to sell gas, and for people on the go, whether in the neighborhood or on road trips. It doesn’t seem that long ago (okay, it actually was 1983) when Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” uttered that line, “I’m so hungry I could eat a sandwich from a gas station.”

Today, convenience stores are destinations for sandwiches and all kinds of prepared food. Photojournalist Kate Medley, author of “Thank You Please Come Again,” celebrates the great food that she found driving through the South. My favorite line is in the foreword, “My favorite restaurant served gas.” Take that, Clark Griswold!

Celebrity Chef Andrew Zimmern, a four-time winner of the James Beard Award (the “Oscar” of restaurant awards), agrees with Kate. On a recent NACS Convenience Matters podcast, he said, “The regional foods that you're able to taste in these convenience stores that are the equal or better than anything that you'll find anywhere else.”

Which brings me to road trips, whether drivers are taking the Wagon Queen Family Truckster to Walley World or visiting family, friends or amazing destinations.

With summer drive season closing in, customers will increasingly be coming to your stores. Some of them are stopping because of desperation—they really need to use the bathroom or get gas—but more of them are stopping because c-stores are the destination (bathroom fueling and the food and beverages they seek out). Food is the key differentiator between those two experiences.

In anticipation of summer drive, we asked consumers a bunch of questions about how they perceive convenience stores, and whether they plan to hit the road this summer.

First, they will be coming inside the store for prepared food. A stunning one in four gas customers (25%) who go inside the store when also buying gas say they purchased a sandwich or meal on that trip.  

And many of these customers will be on road trips. Roughly two in three drivers (62%) say they are likely to take a road trip this summer. Among those who said they are likely to hit the road this year, they would like to travel to a place they’ve never visited before (55%), revisit a place they’ve been to (34%), or they’re undecided (11%). All three options have something in common: These travelers will likely hit a convenience store or two (or more) along the way.

So, how do you make your store the destination for summer travelers who want to share their experiences on the road? Use social media. Celebrate the amazing food you have and create a buzz. And it works.

Last year my colleague Chrissy Blasinsky and I took a five-day road trip with then-NACS Chairman Don Rhoads. Of course, a number of our stops were visiting NACS members, but two stops were because of social media: Spinners, in Sacramento, with remarkable cinnamon buns and other sweet snacks in a 76 gas station. The owners recently sold the business after 36 years, so we were lucky to visit. The other was also in Sacramento: Birria Boys, in a Shell station, also in Sacramento.

The other way to get the word out is to tell some of the other road warriors who celebrate great good at c-stores and gas station. Al Hebert, otherwise known as the Gas Station Gourmet, writes a monthly column in NACS Magazine and has been a regular speaker at NACS events.  Take a look at a few of the places he’s visited. There’s also Stafford Shurden, creator of the video series Gas Station Tailgate Review. There’s nothing like having lunch at a convenience store with them, then driving immediately to another store to have a second lunch at another store…and then an early dinner at a third store.

And, of course, tell us your story so we can celebrate it, whether in print or in person.

See you on the road.

Jeff Lenard’s family supports his road trip requirements: plenty of stops at c-stores, and also allowing everyone to get exactly what they want. And, if you happen to buy a rubber alligator with your food and drink, you’re probably in a Stuckey’s and need to share it on social with Stephanie Stuckey, another noted road warrior.