More than 20,000 industry professionals gathered to view the latest innovation from hundreds of exhibitors at the 2017 NACS Show.

CHICAGO — Premium was a prominent theme at the 2017 NACS Show, underscoring a shift in the quality and breadth of convenience store fare. Products highlighted at the National Association of Convenience Stores’ annual event, held Oct. 17-20 in Chicago, included nitrogen-infused cold-brew coffee, organic kombucha, and apple chardonnay seasoned pork jerky paired with cubes of gouda cheese.

Such product offerings are elevating consumer perceptions of gas station food, said Jennifer Zegler, global food and drink analyst at Mintel International.

Jennifer Zegler, Mintel
Jennifer Zegler, global food and drink analyst at Mintel International

“Many people don’t think to go into the gas station or convenience store for snacks,” she told Food Business News during an interview at the show. “There are so many brands here that help to make it a destination, that it could be something you think about because you’re not going in and finding that same old stuff, that fountain drink and a roller hot dog or nachos.”

New and fresh food service offerings at convenience stores helped push in-store sales to a record $233 billion last year. Still, negative quality perceptions remain, according to Mintel research, which found that many consumers agree foods sold in convenience stores contain too many artificial ingredients and often look unappealing. Eighteen per cent of consumers who don’t buy food service items in convenience stores believe such offerings are unhealthy.

Many new products featured at NACS highlighted premium, portable sources of protein.

“The quality of food at c-stores is one of the first things that’s called into question, mainly by people who are infrequent visitors of convenience stores,” Ms. Zegler said.

To counter concerns about nutrition, the National Association of Convenience Stores at the show unveiled initiatives launched with the Partnership for a Healthier America that will help operators make healthier food choices more accessible and encourage consumers to drink more water.

More than half of convenience store shoppers are interested in more premium items or products for specialty diets, such as gluten-free or vegan, according to Mintel. However, Ms. Zegler noted, “We have to acknowledge that in this channel there are those consumers that still want the nachos and supersized everything.”

Make no mistake: The core convenience store shopper still craves indulgence.

Indeed, while gourmet is gaining ground in the convenience channel, the indulgent mainstays, including fried chicken, donuts and candy, were abundant at the trade show.

“This might be the start of an evolution in the way convenience stores are challenged to operate,” Ms. Zegler said. “Because you’re going to have the people who are always going in for the hot food service items and the value sized fountain drink, but there’s also people going in and wanting something that’s a little bit healthier.”

Read on for eight product trends at the 2017 NACS Show.