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What's in Store: Big gulps

C-store seafood sales surprising, encouraging

By Christine Blank
August 01, 2010

While buying seafood is not the first thing most people think of when they stop to pump gas or grab a quick bite at a convenience store, the format is becoming a more popular spot for sushi, frozen seafood and even fresh fish.

The convenience store (c-store) format has become a hotbed for foodservice of all types over the past few years, as consumers seek fast, inexpensive meals or snacks away from home. While the industry was challenged by harsh economic conditions last year, some chains are thriving 
by offering restaurant-quality food to their shoppers. In fact, c-store foodservice sales grew by around 1.5 percent in 2009, according to foodservice consulting firm Technomic of Chicago.

In addition, foodservice contributed 20.2 percent of overall c-store/gas station profits last year, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), also in Chicago. Foodservice accounted for the most (close to a whopping 30 percent) of in-store gross margin dollars, says NACS data.

"The importance of foodservice - a category that 
includes food prepared on site, commissary items and hot, cold and frozen dispensed beverages - continues to grow," according to a statement from NACS.

Sushi, perceived by many consumers as a quick, healthy snack or meal, is the most common seafood-related item in c-stores. Nearly 1,850 7-Eleven stores in California and the Chicago area now sell five varieties of sushi. Instead of preparing sushi in its stores, 7-Eleven buys pre-packaged product from retail supplier Okami Sushi of Sun Valley, Calif. The sushi, which 7-Eleven started selling about 12 years ago, is sold in sealed packages of six-count to eight-count pieces, for snacks and meals.

Okami, which also supplies Costco, Safeway, Winn-Dixie and other national grocery chains, is planning to expand distribution to Denver, Atlanta, Florida and Northeastern states.

"Consumers are familiar with buying Okami through Costco or a normal retail market, so they trust the product that is in 7-Eleven. Plus, it is prepackaged and doesn't have the appearance of being rolled in the store," says Tracey Schram, director of sales for Okami Foods.

The ampm stores in California, Nevada and Arizona, along with Circle K stores in Arizona, also carry Okami sushi, which has a seven-
day shelf life. "All of our items - including crab, imitation crab and shrimp - are fully cooked, and that is what gives them their shelf life. Also, the rice is made with a special vinegar mixture that helps preserve it," says Schram.

While sushi is most common, other seafood-containing foods are being picked up by convenience store buyers. Los Angeles-based Famima, a five-store chain started by t he massive Japanese c-store chain FamilyMart, features a few different seafood products. Famima's latest introduction is a fried fish taco hand roll for $4.99 each. "It tastes similar to the fried fish tacos you have at your [typical] Mexi-Cali joint around L.A. The only difference is it's healthier," according to a Famima statement.

In addition to fresh seafood, 7-Eleven and other large c-store chains now offer shrimp pasta and fish sticks in their frozen cases, alongside items like pizza rolls and traditional TV dinners.

But what about raw seafood and seafood meals being served alongside traditional c-store items such as gasoline, potato chips and cigarettes? A handful of unique stores around the country are doing just that - and excelling at it.

Chef Point Café in Watauga, Texas, is a critically acclaimed restaurant that just happens to be located inside a Conoco gas station and c-store. Its varied menu is heavily weighted toward upscale seafood fare such as escargot, scallops and blackened catfish. Dallas-based wholesaler and distributor Seafood Supply Co. provides a good portion of the restaurant's seafood. The restaurant's chef and co-owner, Franson Nwaeze, has received awards and the eatery has been profiled on the Travel Channel.

The upscale concept happens to be located in a Conoco gas station, says public relations manager and co-owner Paula Nwaeze, because that was the building the bank would give the co-owners a loan for nearly eight years ago.

Word soon spread about the unique restaurant and its even more unique location, and the owners kept prices for the upscale food relatively low. "It is not like you can charge $40 for duck in a gas station," says Nwaeze. As a result, sales rose 30 percent last year for Chef Point, despite the difficult economy. Nwaeze also attributes the company's success to surprising people with quality food at a gas station. "When people come into a gas station [for food], their expectations are way down. We meet and easily exceed their expectations," says Nwaeze.

Howard's Seafood and Convenience Store of Wilmington, N.C., has also successfully combined two concepts for the past 25 years. The 1,800-square-foot fresh seafood market - featuring about 15 different seafood species daily - is the focal point, while the convenience store happens to be a place to pick up accompaniments to seafood along with snacks and other traditional c-store items.

"It is very convenient for a customer to get some fish, and then buy their butter, seasoning and everything else they need for their fish," says manager Feras Abdel. He moves around 90 bushels of crab - the store's biggest seller - weekly.


Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.


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