Revving up quick snacks and portable meals with great ingredients and world flavors can turn a c-store pit stop into something special.
Think of your guests as race car drivers. They’re going the distance throughout their busy days, stopping at your café or c-store, looking to refuel in the form of grab-and-go items that help them keep running.
Sure, today’s onsite customers have a need for speed, but it’s much more than fuel that they’re seeking. The grab-and-go items that really get motors running are more interesting than just plain old salads, wraps and the occasional hummus cup.
There are quite a few different routes to add some octane to your grab-and-go program. From sophisticated global flavor profiles to upgraded ingredients and futuristic ways of serving, here are some grab-and-go ideas, items and strategies that have been helping onsite operations boost performance.
Fast-paced Cuisine Keeps it Moving
The University of Richmond’s impressive-but-compact Passport Café draws grab-and-go inspiration from near and far: local ingredients used in authentic global and regional dishes that are interesting, enticing, conveniently packaged and ready to go. The key component is variety, according to Maya Vincelli, assistant director of retail operations for dining services.
“We’re always adding and rotating product so customers find something new,” Vincelli says. “It could be a tamale or dim sum or even Indian food. We try to keep people on their toes.”
The location of the Passport Café, inside the International Education Building, affords a great opportunity to get ideas for everything from Korean beef bulgogi over rice to bratwurst with apple and onion compote and tofu banh mi sandwiches.
“I think the dialogue and the culture surrounding food is universally appealing, and a nice break from daily work and classroom pressures,” says Karen Kourkoulis, chef/manager of Passport Café. “We have an opportunity to discuss ingredients and recipes with our customers and staff.”
Staples in the refrigerated grab-and-go cases include pastas like red pesto with chicken, sesame beef lo mein and a shrimp Caesar pasta dish. Sushi is brought in daily from a local sushi maker, and there’s a selection of nori rolls, dumplings, seaweed salad, edamame, shrimp shumai, crab salad, avocado salad and rice paper rolls. Rotating items addresses the problem of limited space, while keeping things exciting.
“I think what really showcases our individual flair is our in-house sandwiches and salads,” Kourkoulis says. “We make a spicy peanut tofu sandwich, which highlights a locally produced organic tofu from Luisa County, Va. We pair it with a spicy peanut dressing, fresh basil and green onions and carrots. We season the tofu with tamari, sesame oil, black pepper, garlic and dill. The result is a very flavorful and satisfying healthful sandwich.”
And that’s just one sandwich. There’s also a curried chicken salad sandwich, a rare roast beef sandwich with hummus and feta and a classic Italian deli sandwich. Ingredients like farro, Japanese eggplant, Thai basil, chimichurri, vindaloo spice, green curry, harissa, tzatziki sauce, toasted seaweed and more make appearances throughout the ever-changing menu.
All the packaged variety at the Passport Café promotes an almost picnic-style grab-and-go experience, and guests have been known to do just that: build a picnic from all the variety, grab it and go.
And beverages are just as interesting, with bottled teas, lassi, kombucha, sodas from around the world and more, because, as Vincelli says, “You can’t have an awesome grab-and-go program without really great beverages.”
Another piece is the packaging. It must do a lot: “We have to hit a lot of points with our packaging,” Vincelli adds. “Does it tell our story? Is it sustainable? Is it easy to use? Is it versatile enough to work with many different kinds of products? Is it space-efficient?”
The Passport Café uses a traditional sushi container for many offerings, because “it’s pretty, our goods look great in it, and it’s space-efficient in the case—super important.” A simplified labeling system allows customers to see pertinent info first: allergens, contents and price.
Use All the Dayparts that You’ve Got
It’s been said that we all get the same 24 hours to accomplish things. In the midafternoon hours, though, many business people sitting at desks start to feel the slump. When you provide foodservice at a B&I location, it’s a good idea to pay attention to those hours and supply snacks accordingly.
“We’re seeing snack opportunities between 10 and 11 a.m., and then again between 2 and 3 p.m.,” says John Metz Jr., who heads Sterling Spoon Culinary, a fast-growing, chef-centric contract foodservice firm with B&I accounts as well as commercial restaurants. “Those are the times to enhance sales. Maybe someone came in for lunch and then they’ll come back for a snack.”
Metz prefers to offer a snack selection that’s above all fresh and crisp, and that also creates a “unique experience” for guests. So items tend to feature fresh, local ingredients and fancy touches. Brownies are made with Godiva chocolate. Cookies include varieties like Southern butter pecan. Salads are topped with ingredients like grilled chicken, roasted corn and house-toasted tortilla strips. Something as simple as switching out a plain bun for ciabatta bread on a carved turkey sandwich can make a difference in the experience, too.
Getting the Most Mileage from Small Changes
The grab-and-go setup isn’t perfect at West Georgia Health, in Columbus, Ga. The station where grab-and-go items are found is at the beginning of the hot food line, and doesn’t look especially inviting, due to limitations of the setup, says Linda Mack, MS, RDN, LD, director of food and nutrition services.
But restaurant-style containers, along with “super food” ingredients and a chef’s action station, plus a dash of marketing buzzword appeal, have helped one salad become an employee favorite for on-the-go lunches.
The Super Salad is bursting with fresh, feel-good power, an antioxidant-rich, omega-3 fatty acid dream that features shaved Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach and grilled salmon. Also, meat and fish are not offered on the salad bar, so there’s an opportunity for composed grab-and-go salads to shine.
“It appeals to customers because it’s a healthier choice and it’s about half the cost of a similar salad at a restaurant,” Mack says, adding that a chef action station across the room often supplies upscale salad dressings for the Super Salad, creating a chance to get a really luxurious, feel-good lunch with a lot of value.
When Your Grab and Go Runs Out of Gas
At Miami University in Ohio, the grab-and-go brand, Uncle Phil’s Express, is basically the usual sandwich-salad-hummus selections. Efficient? Yes. Exciting? Not especially.
Miami’s foodservice and marketing teams are working together on a grab-and-go refresh, but they’re being careful to pay attention to the customers and not rush into sweeping changes (as in, do not touch the plain old peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which have a loyal fan base it turns out). It’s an opportunity to—pardon the pun— grab, says Chris Eden, director of dining.
“Students are asking for a lot of grab and go,” Eden says. “We were looking at unit sales, and it looks like a real opportunity.”
So Eden, Executive Bakery Manager Ginger Miller and other members of the dining team started seeking out best practices at other concepts in the marketplace. They paid special attention to student favorite Pret A Manger, a chain that focuses on fresh, organic salads and baguettes. They began looking at making vegan salads more well-rounded with nuts as a protein, and just overall higher quality, more interesting ingredients like pomegranate seeds, Greek yogurt, better breads, kale and quinoa, all while remembering that comfort food keeps many students going, Eden says.
“You’ve got to listen to the students and what they want,” Eden says. “If you’re selling 500 PB&Js a day, you’re not going to stop selling that."
Vending machine to veggie machine
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Alongside New York and LA, Chicago is one of the food cities to watch when you’re attempting to predict the next big trends. Farmer’s Fridge is a kiosk that has the potential to make grabbing a high-end salad as easy as a bag of chips. Fresh salads in jars sell for $8, and the jars change every 24 hours. The leftovers can go to a food bank. The fridge/kiosk is made from reclaimed wood. It accepts credit cards and has touch-screens, easy-to-read nutritional info and bar code scanners for coupons.
The kiosk was developed by a Chicago entrepreneur, Luke Saunders, who recently described it to NBC Nightly News as a way for busy people to “get a salad as easy as you could get a Coke.”
The upscale vending machines have recently made their debut at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, Loyola University and Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
The design is simple, with jars that contain the building blocks for bold, exciting salads: high-quality greens, often organic, a healthy protein, the all-important crunch element in the form of nuts or seeds and a dressing that wakes up the taste buds with ingredients like citrus, maple or ginger.
For example, the High Protein Salad combines spinach, quinoa, broccoli, chickpeas, corn, dried fig, pumpkin seeds and lemon-tahini dressing.
11 Grab-and-go Ideas for K-12
Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, is an author and educator who focuses on school meals. She collects school lunch success stories daily on her Twitter feed and in Making It Happen, a joint CDC-USDA project. Here are some of her best ideas for grab-and-go options that will grab kids’ attention:
▶ Shaker salads! Plastic cups with brown rice or whole-grain pasta, veggies, nuts and dressing
▶ Chopped salads in flavor profiles like Asian, chef salad, apple-cranberry or Buffalo chicken
▶Hard-boiled eggs inside a salad or sandwich package
▶ Baja hummus, veggies and pita bread packaged together for Meatless Monday
▶ Crispy chicken salads, with chicken tenders on top of greens and veggies
▶ Taco salads in fun paper boats
▶ Rainbow wraps with purple cabbage, lettuce, tomato and dressing
▶ Chicken teriyaki dippers
▶ Walking tacos with peach salsa
▶ Cubed watermelon in the summer
▶ Pasta salad, caprese salad or fruit salad in small cups.
For more K-12 grab-and-go ideas, check out Hayes’ Pinterest board on the topic.