Understanding guest experience key for food, dispensed beverage success

By: Chuck Ulie | April 19, 2023

It seemed more like old times in foodservice and dispensed beverages in 2022.

Talks with finalists for CSP’s 2023 Category Manager of the Year Awards showed optimism and desire for innovation.

“We’re seeing more and more guests transfer over to the food world, whether it’s cold-case items or our prepared items,” said CMOY winner Savannah Johnson, manager, category-food at Knoxville, Tennessee-based Pilot Co. “Based on trends we’re seeing, customers are going to gravitate toward those areas a bit more than they have in the last few years.”

This means customers are buying more of Pilot’s hot foods, soup, pizza and grill items—and cold foods such as fresh sandwiches, salads and fruit, Johnson said.

“But selections also consist of pre-packaged items, so Lunchables, pickles, things like that,” she said, adding that this is the most exciting time to be in the food industry.

And the key to success, Johnson said, is understanding the guest experience in food and beverage.

“Consumers have evolved so much over the last few years, changing the dining experience in the convenience world by positioning food and beverage as a primary traffic driver for the future,” Johnson said. “A greater emphasis on food and beverage this year allows us to be more creative on new [limited time offers] and guest comfort food.”

Pilot Co. has been intentional about making food the star of the show through its “food forward” concept.

“We position food and beverage up front and in view so it’s the first thing you experience when you walk in a store,” she said.

Breakfast was one of the brighter spots at Pilot in 2022, exceeding expectations, Johnson said, with offerings like the Honey Maple Chicken Waffler LTO, expanding on Pilot’s successful 2021 chicken sandwich campaign.

Hot Case Happenings

Donna Hood Crecca, principal at CSP sister research firm Technomic, said she’s seeing a post-pandemic return to innovation and menu development among foodservice-forward retailers.

“One area of innovation is around the hot case,” Crecca said, adding that Technomic data shows one-fifth of operators in late 2022 increased the number of SKUs in the warm grab-and-go case, compared to pre-coronavirus pandemic. In addition, about two-fifths increased SKUs on the roller grill.

There’s also innovation in dispensed beverages, particularly coffee, spurred by retailers feeling the need to differentiate offerings in an increasingly competitive landscape, she said. “Coffee is really competitive right now, c-store to c-store and also with coffee cafes and fast-food restaurants,” she said. “They have to innovate to differentiate—and meet the needs of their specific consumer.”

Drew Whitefield, category manager, hot and iced coffee, at Irving, Texas-based 7-Eleven, said he’s working on several new coffees for 2023.

“They are well balanced and taste great,” Whitefield said. “Two I’m really excited about are a new Central American blend coming this summer and a Caramel Macchiato later this year.”

Whitefield echoed Crecca’s comment about meeting customers’ tastes, saying he watches flavor trends and looks for innovative and craveable ideas to keep customers returning. Later this year, 7-Eleven will roll out Pinky’s Strawberry White Chocolate—and bring back its fall staple, Pumpkin Spice.

At GPM Investments, dispensed beverages category manager CMOY winner Jim Rastetter is excited about the Richmond, Virginia-based chain continuing to expand bean-to-cup coffee after launching it in more than 550 stores in 2022. In addition, the chain, whose brands include Fas Mart, Shore Stop, Scotchman, BreadBox and Young’s, is looking forward to more innovation in frozen dispensed, he said.

GPM has a partnership with Frazil, Salt Lake City, Utah, which continues to innovate with items like new frozen energy drinks, Rastetter said.

Rastetter said the industry experienced sharp declines during the pandemic in the dispensed category, and it has taken time for customers to return. “Fortunately, it looks like 2023 is going to be a great year and customers appear excited to get back out and shop their favorite beverage,” he said.

Crazy for Customization

Charleston, South Carolina-based Parkland USA, owner of On the Run c-stores, aims to lure customers into stores by adding flavor shots to boost the customization possibilities in hot and cold dispensed drinks, said Jarrod Morrill, category manager for foodservice and dispensed beverages.

Technomic data supports this strategy, with a recent survey showing 64% of c-store customers expect a coffee counter where drinks can be made to order today, with the remaining 36% expecting this in a couple of years.

Trends Morrill is watching include keeping an eye on soda-fountain shops such as Fizz and Swig. In markets where Parkland has c-stores, particularly locations with drive-thrus, they have begun offering similar offerings to compete.

In addition, Morrill said frozen dispensed has performed well in the last year. “Frazil has done well for us,” he said. “It’s quite easy to roll out and consumers love it.”

Another way of differentiating and spurring excitement is promoting recipe hacks, which Whitefield said help customers create new tastes from existing flavors in stores, such as the popular Coffee with Cream and Lavender Honey Syrup. Hacks coming later this year include Espresso Soda and Turtle Mocha.

Wills Group-owned Dash In stores, La Plata, Maryland, is going beyond a new recipe and introducing a new menu and format at its c-stores, said Ben Lucky, senior category manager, foodservice. The new format debuted at the company’s first third-generation c-store, which opened March 3 in Chantilly, Virginia. The format will expand from there.

“We’re going to be doing griddle-pressed burgers, fried in-house miniature donuts and our own in-house potato chips we’ll fry and season in front of the guests,” Lucky said. Four seasonings will be used, he said, including an Old Bay flavor, popular in the Mid-Atlantic area.

“We’re trying to change the foodservice landscape,” said Lucky, noting another new item resembling a taco he calls “a rib of tortilla.”

“You can turn your head a little bit sideways, and the ingredients aren’t going to be falling out,” he said.

For breakfast, Dash In has Impossible breakfast sausage items at the Chantilly location. They’re also selling Impossible burgers.

Plant-Based Possibilities

These offerings align with a recent Technomic report revealing 37% of c-store customers expect plant-based alternative proteins be available today at their favorite c-store, with 63% expecting them in a couple of years.

On the beverage side of things, Lucky said there are new in-house Refresco beverages, non-carbonated beverages in bubbler machines. “We worked with some designers out of Chicago to come up with our own flavor profiles,” he said. “One might be a strawberry hibiscus tea.”

Dash In also is introducing six versions of yuzu, a cold, non-carbonated beverage “new to the American palette but not unfamiliar to most people around the world, especially in both Latin America and Asia,” Lucky said. “It’s a somewhat peachy, pear-y kind of a flavor with citrus notes.”

Kate Weisman also has been watching trending flavors. “There are more hot-and-spicy flavors, kind of a con queso flavor profile,” said the category manager for roller grill, fruit and floral and franchise brands at EG America, Westborough, Massachusetts, whose brands include Cumberland Farms, Certified Oil, Fastrac and Kwik Shop.

In addition to flavors, EG America, like the third-generation Dash In’s new menu, is in middle of rebranding its entire food category offerings, Weisman said. Called Farmhouse Kitchen, it features a new color palette on packaging for sandwiches, roller-grill items, bakery, pizza and more. It’ll also be on window signs, Weisman said.

When it comes to the roller grill, she said she loves this mature category.

“I can shake it up,” she said. “It’s kind of the same old thing that’s always on there, so I love the fact that I can put new products. If they win, they win. If they fail, at least I tried.”

Weisman also is playing to the trend of people snacking more and eating fewer full meals. She currently is testing what customers are more apt to choose for a grab-and-go option: two roller bites in a sleeve in the hot slide marketed more as a snack versus the items available individually on the roller grill. She’s looking forward to seeing the data to see which is more popular.

Technomic data supports the attention given to warm self-serve formats. Compared to pre-pandemic, operators in a recent survey reported a net increase in the number of items they offer via these formats: 37% said they offer a greater number of roller-grill items versus 14% offering a smaller selection; 40% said they offer a similar selection, and 9% said they didn’t offer roller-grill before the pandemic.

“I’m looking forward to all the innovation in 2023,” Weisman said. “I’ve recently heard from all my vendors about how they’re ready to try new things. I’m looking forward to seeing how some of our more fun, out-there LTOs perform.”

Source: CSP