Anyone selling anything in a convenience store has seen health fads come and go. Some make the cut and become a trend with staying power—I’m looking at you alternative snacks like beef jerky, energy bars and nuts and seeds. The alternative snacks category jumped into the top 10 categories for merchandise sales in 2015 and hasn’t left since, according to NACS State of the Industry data. Should we change the name of the category, since alternative is the norm?
Actually, that just shows how an alternative can become mainstream.
I’ve penned my fair share of NACS Magazine and NACS Daily articles about food trends. What’s next, what’s hot, new flavor profiles, unique ingredients, comfort foods, etc.
Sometimes I got it wrong, even though I really wanted the concept of “brinner” to take off. Pancakes and French toast for dinner will always be a winner in my book.
The one trend that will never go out of favor in our channel is offering choice. I would go as far as saying that providing choice is our industry’s superpower, and I challenge anyone reading this to prove me wrong. Our stores are no larger than a typical QSR format and offer more than combo meals—you can customize hundreds or thousands of different meal combinations in c-stores.
And then there’s variety. We have seen some amazing foodservice options, especially within the prepared food space. One of my personal favorites was when York., Pa.-based Rutter’s launched a customizable wok offer in 2008—a convenience store serving made-to-order stir-fry.
The sky’s the limit for what’s possible in c-store food. Programs are often market and customer driven and cater to thousands of customers who frequent a local c-store each day. One-size-fits-all is not a good descriptor for our industry—never has been and probably never will. One customer wants to down a chicken sandwich now, while another wants to grab a salad for lunch or a take-home meal for the family.
Beyond what type of food you can find in a convenience store, the growth itself is impressive—and so much so that other channels are watching.
In 2006, prepared food accounted for 6.11% of in-store sales and increased slightly to 6.60% in 2007. Back then foodservice was lumped into overall in-store category reporting for our annual NACS State of the Industry survey. Today, our State of the Industry Report® has an entire section dedicated to foodservice data, analysis and trends.
In 2021, foodservice accounted for 22.5% of in-store sales—significantly higher than the 16.8% reported in 2011. Foodservice now accounts for 35.5% of in-store gross profits, compared to 29.2% a decade ago. Sales of prepared food—the largest foodservice segment at 66.7% of foodservice sales dollars—surged 25.9% in 2021 and were 15.2% higher than in 2019.
So what’s next? Our NACS Research team surveyed retailers to find out, and packaged those results in “Enhancing the Foodservice Offer.” The report suggests that most retailers (91%) plan to invest significantly in foodservice expansion and/or innovation in the next two years, an indicator that we can expect great things to come in the foodservice space.
The report also suggests that the concept of grab-and-go is evolving from buy now/eat it now (or soonish) to grab-and-go-for-later. For example, forward-thinking retailers are leveraging take-and-heat and better-for-you food options to capture evening daypart sales—a daypart that often comes in third behind breakfast and lunch.
Sampling is a great way to showcase take-and-heat options, according to the report, as well as create excitement about a c-store brand. Keep in mind though that sampling isn’t meant to get rid of your unsellables or food close to expiration. You want to showcase your food at its best, because of first impressions and all, and showcase newer items customers may not know about yet—your soon-to-be top-sellers.
Nobody wants to eat food that’s heading for the trash. Come on.
I tried to find the first foodservice article I wrote for NACS Magazine and failed. But I do remember my first Ideas 2 Go shoots in 2007 and visiting food-focused retailers like Parker’s, MotoMart, NOCO Express and Flash Foods. We absolutely could have predicted back then that foodservice would become the profit center it is today.
And next time someone says they’re so hungry they could eat a sandwich from a gas station—like Clark Griswold said in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” join them because it will probably be one of the best sandwiches ever.