A Lot Has Changed Since the Days of the 1980s Gas Station

As ridiculous as it might sound to anyone who remembers the days without iPhones, convenience stores are shedding their image of the old-line gas station. I often quote the famous line from the movie Vacation, where Clark Griswold claimed he was so hungry “he could eat a sandwich at a gas station.”

This statement is completely outdated today. Both Millennials and Gen Z didn’t see the 14-year-old hot dog slowly turning on the squeaky roller grill, while “Al” at the checkout counter handled the money in one hand and the hot dog in the second while balancing his cigarette between his lips.

Fuddrucker’s and The Founding of Fast Casual

We spoke about Fast Casual in the early 2000s as an “upscale,” fast-food joint. One of the first concepts to gain the distinction was Fuddrucker’s. The next iterations included St. Louis Bread, Einstein’s and Pei Wei. There was art on the walls, “runners” to bring your food to your table – and sometimes permanent ware such as plates, cups and utensils. This deviated greatly from the “fast food” offerings of foam clam shells and paper bags seeping with vegetable grease.

In 2021, we seem to be experiencing the same changes, only this time convenience stores are challenging the QSR model and moving right into the fast casual space. While Sheetz and Wawa have for years been in a separate quasi-segment, the likes of Murphy’s, Yesway, Texas Born, Thornton’s and Stewart’s Shops have quietly shifted to fresh prepared foods and coffees in a clean and appealing upscaling setting.

Manufacturer Implications to C-Store Upscaling

Let’s take a few attributes that are typically related to fast casual stores and see how they stack up against the “new” c-store experience, which includes a modern, crisp, upscale design, foodservice acumen, super-clean bathrooms and tech-forward initiatives. We have also included the implications to manufacturers as 2022 approaches – with a hint to consider expanding into this growing foodservice segment.

Foodservice Consumer Demands Convenience Store Response Manufacturer Implications
Drive Thru Cumberland Farms, Rutter’s and others have tried in the past, but that was more than 15 years ago. Today, concepts like Parker’s are investing in drive-thrus as the new generation expects it. Manufacturers are in an excellent position to share best-practice insights with c-store customers on operating successful drive-thrus in QSRs.
Delivery Dashmart and Doordash are making it possible for c-stores to deliver fresh baked foods and beverages directly to consumers. Think of the c-store’s dining area as now being a five-mile radius of the store. It opens variety and options – and innovation.
Store Cleanliness With Covid-19 simmering, stores like Crosby’s answered with a Safe-Shop Assured program that has been adopted by many other concepts. Store cleanliness attracts females and other affluent buyers. Think variety and health and wellness.
Catering to Multiple Demographics “Bubba” is not the only target –though he is still important. Rutter’s boasts baristas and others have followed suit. Upscaling beverages means more complementary occasions for manufacturers to add greater options to c-stores.
Price to Value The average check for a c-store foodservice meal is around $6, including beverage, while a fast-casual visit is double that. Convenience store foodservice has upped its quality with the help of manufacturers. There are opportunities to capture higher margins by improving the food perception – and pricing it accordingly.
Fresh Prepared Foods – Grab and Go Convenience stores are taking their grab-and-go foods to a new level by investing in cloud kitchens and relying on central kitchens for fresh fruits, salads and deli sandwiches. The opportunity for manufacturers to partner with central kitchens and cloud kitchens supplying c-stores is endless.


The C-Store Evolution is Now

This is not to say that all c-stores have evolved and ensured every light bulb is lit and every bathroom spotless, but the changes from just five years ago to today in the segment are astounding.  So, why aren’t you targeting the c-store segment?


Tim Powell is a Managing Principal of Foodservice IP. Tim serves as a trusted foodservice adviser to management at several food companies. To learn more about FSIP’s Convenience Store Foodservice Study, click here.

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