Is wholesome consuming necessary for C-stores?

While C-stores have historically not been known for nutritious food options, many top quartile chains are now prioritizing healthy dishes amid growing consumer demand for healthy menu items.

The convenience store channel is still a relative “newcomer” to food service, although it has been gaining in importance over the past 25 years. Most of the industry is familiar with Clark Griswold’s famous quote from the 1980s film Vacation, “I’m so hungry I could eat a sandwich at a gas station,” which summed up the majority perception of C-store foodservice 40 years ago .

Before the 1990s, the convenience store was more like holding a pot of coffee and a couple of old hot dogs spinning endlessly on a grill.

Fast forward to the 2010s and C-store food service became more mainstream as chains began offering drive-throughs, dinner options, freshly cut fruit, grab-and-go salads, cooked-to-order meals, and even baristas experimenting in stores.

The changed perception of C-stores is due to both operators’ desire for higher margins on convenience foods – to replace falling margins in other categories such as cigarettes and fuel – and the changing demographics of US consumers.

Today, the core demographic of C-store shoppers includes both Millennials and Generation Z, who came of age after many top-quartile C-stores began upgrading their food service areas to include a Panera bread or a Order similar fast casual concept with freshly prepared healthy food.

Health focus

Enter 2020. This year, like no other, the C-Store world has faced unforeseen challenges. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grasp the country, C-stores are losing daily commuters who used to look for breakfast and lunch options on their way to work.

While retailers have had to adapt to technology, roadside collection, delivery, social media, and hygiene, consumers haven’t necessarily rearranged the order of the top five critical factors in choosing and prioritizing out-of-home events.

In a typical year, the choice of food prepared is based on the location, the food on offer, the taste, the affordability and the speed of the transaction. However, convenience store customers have not shied away from the importance of health and nutrition in concept selection during the pandemic. It joins the next selection level with factors such as courteous employees, high-quality ingredients and portion sizes. Meanwhile, most C-stores still lag behind several competing channels when it comes to healthy food options.

That said, healthy and nutritious food desires are no longer a fad. As Millennials and Gen Z become the main consumers of out of home meals, their cravings for social responsibility and the demand for healthy – but great tasting – products will only increase.

Consumers across the board are keen on healthier options, but millennials and Gen Z in particular are the main consumers as they have been presented with a wider menu than Gen X and baby boomers ever were. With Gen Z and Millennials prioritizing healthy food, it’s unwise for C-stores to ignore this food service segment. As a result, many top quartile C stores are doubling their healthy menus.

The need for healthy food options is expected to increase as consumers generally restrict travel – and more so during the pandemic – and continue to work from home and attend school with no end in sight. Meal kits, for example, are already on the rise as consumers seek convenient ways to maintain a balanced diet during lockdown.

In addition, C-stores provide an ideal one-stop shop where they can stock up quickly while ensuring social distancing as customers try to minimize journeys. Instead of going to a fast food restaurant and supermarket, shoppers can get gasoline and milk and prepared groceries from a single C-store location.

This shift in shopping habits makes stocking a variety of healthy food options key for C-stores vying to be the store customers chosen for that single trip. CSD

Julie Guy is a Senior Associate at Foodservice IP, www.foodserviceip.com. Foodservice IP is a research-based management consultancy and is launching a comprehensive C-Store grab-and-go foodservice study with buyers and retailers. Further details can be found at https://foodserviceip.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/FSIP_c-store_8_2020.pdf

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