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What's in Store: Grab and go

There’s hope beyond the “roller grill” as c-stores compete in foodservice arena

Roadside stops that become “mini restaurants” can find success with fresh food. - Photo courtesy of Coco Cove
By Christine Blank
June 01, 2013

Customers who walk into the Coco Cove convenience store in Honolulu immediately notice that this is a store unlike any traditional convenience store they have seen. Fresh foods — from made-to-order sandwiches to a full-service sushi station — are prolific in the small store.

In addition to 15 varieties of sushi, the Coco Cove store also features salmon cakes, seared salmon and bento boxes with seafood, all prepared fresh daily. Coco Cove, a brand of the Sullivan Family of Companies that operates the Foodland grocery chain and other retail formats, is mimicking a growing national trend. More c-stores are now offering a full fresh ready-to-eat mealsprogram — including healthier items like salads and seafood — and are giving restaurants and retailers a run for their money.

“There are huge changes happening right now. Whether it is 7-Eleven or Flying J, the companies that are at the forefront are turning gas stations into mini restaurants,” says Keoni Chang, executive chef for the Honolulu-based Sullivan Family. The company’s smaller-format stores, which include Coco Cove, Accents and Whalers General Store, are snaring customers from grocery stores, quick-service restaurants and hotels.  

“A hotel guest that has to pay $15 for a sandwich or double digits for sushi knows they can get equal to better quality at a fraction of the cost,” Chang says.

Coco Cove is certainly not alone in its expansion of c-store fresh food offerings. “Food continues to be the one item that we can say we are improving upon and those that are the leaders in the channel continue to do it well,” says Nancy Caldarola, R.D., education director for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) Center for Achieving Foodservice Excellence. 

“More than a handful of chains are carrying seafood. They are competing with grocery stores, restaurants and drug stores. We can do a better job than drug stores because we are geared up to deal with food and they are not,” says Caldarola.

“Operators are adding healthy items in response to increased consumer demand. Since seafood fits nicely into the healthy category, it will get more opportunity and play going forward,” adds Darren Tristano, executive VP of foodservice consulting firm Technomic.

Another company with an extensive foodservice program including seafood is Syracuse, N.Y.-based Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes. The chain of 86 c-stores sports an expansive menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner that includes gourmet pizzas, salads, sandwiches, baked goods, wraps and burgers. 

“Even though it is a convenience store, it is everything that it is supposed to be to compete with a typical quick-service restaurant,” says Jack Cushman, executive VP of food services for Nice N Easy.

In addition to other high-quality healthful foods, seafood holds a prominent spot on the menu. “We sell fresh haddock year-round. Haddock is to our area like barbecue is to the South,” says Cushman. Beer Battered Haddock is served as part of a dinner with coleslaw and fries for $8.99 or as a sandwich for $6.99. 

More c-store customers are interested in eating healthy foods and they expect high-quality ingredients, c-store operators and consultants say. 

“Obviously, people are going to have an idea that [c-store food] is not high quality. That is why we use Icelandic haddock on brioche buns,” says Cushman. 

“We are serving raw and cooked seafood in a convenience store. There is sushi that you can get that is frozen and thawed, but the only way we know is to make it fresh every day,” says Chang. 

Sushi sells in all of Sullivan Family’s c-stores because it has become so popular internationally, according to Chang. “It’s big because of the local market but also for the international traveler,” Chang says. 

Still, for fresh foods like seafood, c-stores need to clean up their act, experts say. 

“C-stores have to be careful in demonstrating that the venue is an opportunity for fresh foods. This means establishing an effective foodservice (not retail) strategy and cleaning up their stores, including bathrooms, foodservice counters and overall retail areas,” Tristano says.

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.

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June 2013 - SeaFood Business  

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