When it comes to serving c-stores, it’s always a matter of convenience. Bakeries and snack producers need to use all the tools at their disposal to quickly grab the attention of increasingly mobile and often impatient consumers who are working at home or want to get on the road again as soon as possible.

For United Dairy Farmers (UDF), a regional c-store chain headquartered in Cincinnati, fresh-from-its-bakery donuts, cookies, muffins, brownies and other baked goods provide a point of differentiation in the market.

In fact, unit sales of donuts rose 18% over last year, led by suggestive-selling promotions and new product innovation, noted observed Chuck Kronyak, retail category manager for UDF. 

The company, which also operates a wholesale bakery in Cincinnati and is known for its signature square donuts, spearheaded a coffee program this fall with an expectation for sales to return to 2019 levels. 

Most recently, the chain added mini-cookies, marshmallow treats and seasonal treats such as apple fritters, orange cranberry muffins, Ohio Buckeye donuts and pumpkin cream cheese-filled muffins.

UDF also offers an array of iced cookies and partners with the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati soccer teams as well as the Cincinnati Reds.

“Those items all have a cleaner ingredient label that consumers are looking for,” Mr. Kronyak said. “They’re fresher products with a shorter shelf life and no preservatives sold impulsively by the checkout counter or on a rack with other bakery items.”

Jeff Lenard, vice president, strategic industry initiatives, National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) calls foodservice “the industry’s future” for c-stores. NACS reported that the highly profitable prepared foods segment climbed 18.3% in 2021 over the previous year.

He admitted that the channel’s offerings have come a long way since actor Chevy Chase said, “I’m so hungry, I could eat a sandwich from a gas station” in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in 1983.

“It’s taken at least 30 years for that joke not to be funny, and there are a lot of people who seek out food at gas stations now because there are exceptional chains and exceptional individual stores for food,” he said.

Nick Sayegh, managing director, International Delights, Clifton, NJ, believes consumers perceive some c-stores as more like restaurants in addition to a place to shop for staples, gas or cigarettes.

“They’re becoming a food destination in a lot of cases,” he observed. “We’re seeing a bigger interest in some c-stores actually wanting to bake products on-site, and not just the typical c-store products. Rather, some more innovative and newer ideas, including scones that we’re now making. We’re seeing a big jump in the individually wrapped and packaged snack items, but also better, healthier, fresh-baked items in the foodservice section of the c-stores.”

Meanwhile, Muffin Town targets c-stores with its diverse selection of food-safe, individually wrapped snacks such as its Muffin Town branded cinnamon toast, whole grain fudgy brownie and muffin tops as well as its Smart Choice Bar Banana Chocolate Chunk. 

Roger Piffer, director of marketing for the Chelsea, Mass.-based company, said popular muffin tops and cornbread complement coffee service, lunch and snacking occasions. He noted the cornbread is sold as a part of its grab-and-go Snack’N Loaves line served with soup or chili. It’s also available in 4-lb bakeable trays with 30 squares for fresh, bulk foodservice.

“We’re the No. 1 best seller of cornbread in the country, and it’s easy to see why,” Mr. Piffer said. “You can have it with a main meal or on its own. You can have a cup of coffee and a cornbread slice, and it’s delicious. We’re seeing catering companies, supermarkets and more places asking for cornbread.”

Jessica Reese, vice president, small format channels, for Utz Brands, pointed out that the Hanover, Pa.-based snack producer partners with c-store meal programs and even places videos on the gas pump’s screen to highlight a new item or pairing a bag of chips with a sandwich meal to encourage visiting the c-store vs. a quick-service restaurant down the street.

“One of the challenges is getting people going from the pump and into the store,” she said. “That’s a behavior that we’re working with our retailers to capitalize on drivers’ awareness to entice consumers to walk into the store.”

Once inside, Ms. Reese added, the emphasis is on merchandising in high-traffic areas, placing incremental displays and adding new products with high-impact packaging. 

“Everybody passes by your products at the register, and it’s the food and especially coffee that drives foodservice traffic,” she observed. “If we can leverage or somehow find an empty space, that’s what we’re really trying to capitalize on for incremental impulse purchases.” 

Utz uses smaller case packs, clip strips, peg-holed packaging and other tools to fit in any empty space in the store. Recently, it began offering a smaller, 2.75-oz canister of its popular barrels of cheeseballs.

“We’re looking at even more capabilities to increase opportunities to place our products anywhere in the store,” Ms. Reese said. “With our focus on supporting operators, we work hard to bring solutions for placements. We are constantly working to remove obstacles so that we can get to win-win placements and not discussions about why certain spaces won’t work.”

Utz tailors its merchandising to the local region, whether it’s the core market serving its direct-store distribution system along the East Coast or in newer areas as it continues to expand nationally.

“We’re really trying to figure out, ‘How do we get our brand, whether it be a regional or core brand, in front of as many shoppers as possible?’ ’’ she said. “Typically, those single-serve and immediate-consumption packages are a great way to drive new product trials in emerging markets.”

This article is an excerpt from the November 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Convenience Stores, click here.