In today’s foodie culture, quality sells. “Right now, you can’t do something processed elsewhere or sitting on a warmer and expect it to sell,” said Mario Spina, CEO, The Pride Stores, Warrenville, IL. “People’s expectations of food have risen greatly in the past five or 10 years. People expect made-to-order, fresh food made with good ingredients. They expect that regardless of it’s at a convenience store or not. People are still hesitant about convenience stores because of that preconception that everything is on a roller grill.”

This means c-stores need to step up their game on the foodservice side. Dave Gonnella, vice-president of sales, Gonnella Baking Co., Schaumburg, IL, sees the journey as a trend shrinking the separation between levels of dining — of the blurring of fine dining, casual, quick-service restaurants. As trends move down the chain, they elevate each level. It was only a matter of time before some restaurant trends started elevating the c-store’s foodservice business.

“Some of those items are starting to enter the foodservice side of the c-store channel,” he said of the likings favoring gourmet sandwich breads. “The trends we’ve seen over the past year or two for breads in the restaurant side of the business will be an opportunity for convenience stores’ foodservice use of pretzels, brioche and ciabatta.”  

Roller grills and large serving sizes for less money are what convenience stores are traditionally known for — gut stuffers. But it’s a perception that’s changing. “It’s starting to be acceptable that a smaller serving size is okay,” said Steve O’Donnell, managing partner, Hill Country Bakery, San Antonio, TX. “In the past, it seemed that most convenience stores were into the biggest portion size of anything they could do for the lowest price. That’s where they got the reputation for being gut stuffers. What’s happening now in convenience stores is that they are more focused on the quality of the product they are selling, even if that means it’s a slightly smaller serving size.”

Higher quality often means more expensive ingredients, and smaller portion sizes can help bakers and snack manufacturers deliver a tasty, high-quality product at a reasonable price point. Hill Country Bakery’s Danish and muffins are both a half-ounce smaller than its competitor’s product, but this doesn’t hinder the company’s sales because of the high-quality ingredients it uses to make those smaller muffins and Danish.

Portion control also helps balance quality and taste with calorie count. “We do not need to compromise on the quality of our ingredients to achieve a calorie count,” said Debbie Marchok, vice-president of marketing, The Eli’s Cheesecake Co., Chicago. “We can use portion control to provide the consumer a sweet indulgence and deliver the quality taste they expect from the Eli’s brand.”

People stop at gas stations to fill up their cars and enter the c-store to pick up drinks and snacks for the road and wherever it takes them. These are the one-stop shops that interrupt the busy on-the-go nature of daily life.

The c-store channel and portion control trend have accommodated this, according Joan Axelrod Siegelwax, executive vice-president, Love and Quiches Gourmet, Freeport, NY. “We grab our meals on the way to the gym, the train and the office,” she said. “We eat in airports, at our desks, at school and in between meetings. We feed our kids on the ball field or in between activities.” The easy pre-portioned snacks at these gas station pit stops can help satisfy people as they live their lives.

When it comes to opportunities in the c-store channel, bakers and snack producers can benefit from bundling their new products into these stores’ existing foodservice programs. By complementing these, products have a better bet of being picked up by c-store operators and their customers.

Hill Country Bakery approaches its c-store customers in this way. If a the store focuses on fresh-baked goods, such as donuts, Hill Country Bakery can then offer flash-frozen, pre-portioned cake products that, once thawed, give the appearance of fresh-baked.

“If you take our products and unwrap them in the fresh bakery case with donuts, it gives the consumer the perception that those are just as fresh,” Mr. O’Donnell explained. “In a way, they are because we flash-freeze them so when you thaw them, they taste great.”

This bundling approach could also be as simple as pairing consumers’ morning coffee purchase with a breakfast sandwich. “C-stores certainly get a lot of food traffic in the morning coming in for gas or coffee,” Mr. Gonnella said. “If they can bundle that with a hot breakfast sandwich, that’s a win.”

Consumers are constantly on the look-out for snacks that will satisfy their hunger as well as their nutritional needs, but they are increasingly seeking indulgences that won’t blow their calorie counts. And all of these needs have to be met on-the-go. Portion-controlled products in the c-store channel are the perfect intersection of form and function.