Hotbox pizza, roller grill franks, premade-somewhere sandwiches and muffins of a certain age. Oh, and lots and lots of chips and soda.
Welcome to C-Store Stereotype Land!
While college dining halls were busy adding ethnic fresh food stations and campus retail food courts were taking branded stations into the post-QSR-chain era, campus c-stores seemed set with the old reliables. After all, “convenience” is their middle name and the old reliables are reliably convenient.
But the reality is different. Sure, chips and pizza still fly out the door and you could float an oil tanker on the soft drinks the typical campus store sells in a week. But at the food station, things are happening that mirror the trends driving dining across all campuses.
Just ask Dean Wright, director of dining services at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, and one of the nation's leading experts on campus convenience retailing. For years, Wright has been a leader of the NACUFS working group devoted to campus c-stores. He also oversees NACUFS' annual “Best in the Business” awards program, which recognizes exemplary campus stores.
As part of his work with that initiative, Wright has visited numerous college stores around the country to see what's bubbling up out there. Meanwhile, at BYU, he oversees a series of retail outlets, including Creamery on Ninth, generally recognized as the first full-fledged grocery store on a U.S. college campus.
We asked Wright to share some of his thoughts on college c-store foodservice trends. Here are some of his observations.
Flatbreads are hot. Pitas, quesadillas and so forth can be low-cost items made fresh and served quick and hot.
We're seeing a rebirth in traditional deli meats like pastrami, corned beef and other smoked meats, but they are being served with sauces and spices that make them unique: for example, seasoned mayonnaise that has a basic American flavor but adds an exotic spice that gives it a hint of Southwestern, Asian or Near Eastern flavor.
Turkey goes great with fruit, so use that in the deli. Try adding unique sandwich options like turkey with lettuce and apple or orange, or cranberry spread with slices of orange, or mayonnaise with pomegranate. Adding fruit adds nutrition, which customers want.
Any kind of ethnic twists on grab-and-go are also in — like Asian street foods or noodles and sauce in a little Chinese container.
Emphasize equipment that puts on a show, such as stones for warming tortillas (but not full-blown tortilla ovens) or fusion ovens for toasted sandwiches.
Anything that can be put on a roller grill — such as sausages and premium hot dogs — is back in fashion. Our customers would rather pay $2 or $2.50 for a really nice hot dog, than accept one of those three-for-a-dollar deals you see in some commercial stores.
Hot dog sales can be juiced with different condiments: traditional items like peppers, pickles and sauerkraut but also unusual relishes (tomato base, mustard, etc.), different cheeses and cheese sauces and different ethnic flavors like a hot-and-sweet Oriental sauce.
I think we've gone through the high caffeine stage in beverages, and what we're now getting more demand for is nutrition-added products — those with extra vitamins and minerals, as well as organics.
Breads and rolls are have recovered from the low-carb diet period, with students discovering breads from around the world — such as multigrains and sunflower seed breads — that give you good price points. Some stores even bake bread onsite to have that enticing aroma that draws customers.
Don't neglect sweeter, flavored breads like chocolate, orange and all kinds of fruit breads. Some stores add value with smears, such as vanilla honey or strawberry honey. Customers like it because they are not getting added fat as they would with buttering.
Breadsticks aren't just comfort foods but also something you can share. Students like getting a stick and then taking turns pulling pieces off — literally breaking bread together — and sharing that warm, baked sensation.
Premium oatmeals with different toppings can drive higher breakfast sales. Our Jamba Juice unit recently had great success with $2.95 cups of hot oatmeal — not those instant packets but good steel-cut oatmeal made fresh — with toppings like cinnamon crumble, blueberry, blackberry, apple or banana.
Soups that are meals — gumbo, chicken tortilla, chicken and dumpling, steak, potato and cheese — are still portable and convenient but fill the demand for economical meal solutions.
Forget breakfast all day. That just wastes space and doesn't really move much product after 11 am. If you want some kind of all-day breakfast food option, try packaged products. I especially like the microwaveable flavored pancakes — infused with maple or chocolate — we now have in our stores.
Emphasize recycling and simplicity in your packaging because students are increasingly critical of American overpackaging.
Use minimally priced items to encourage add-on sales. For example, we've found that students like getting our $2 hot dog and then supplementing that with the purchase of our 99-cent mac-and-cheese or shepherds pie to get a full meal (just make sure you have a microwave available to heat it).
We also merchandise add-ons before the daypart begins. For example, a nice display of premium yogurts during the morning could prompt some customers to pick up one to have with their lunch. So even if you don't get them back for lunch, you've at least captured part of the sale.
I think America has rediscovered the fresh sandwich. Look at the major chains — the top ones all feature fresh sandwiches — so I'm not sure that the c-store that continues to feature a sandwich that's nitrogen filled at a plant a thousand miles away that comes to you frozen will continue to sell.
Don't be afraid to consider unusual items. For example, a hot seller in the UK now is a cheese and onion sandwich. Students in our focus groups loved it, though I think we'll have to come up with a different name.