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Differentiating C-Store Food Service

Identifying Food Service Measures of Merit

Modern C-Store food service layout

ay by day, brand differentiation is becoming harder than ever.  The markets are getting saturated, competitors are using the same methods, and brands and the communication with customers appear almost identical.

If you and your competitor are selling the same thing, the question becomes how do you make your items “POP?”  You must prove to your customers that your services are by far more superior to those of your competitor.  You must have better c-store loyalty programs and understand how to differentiate your C-Store food service.

Differentiating the Food Service Brand

Assuming that only the fittest survive, food service brand differentiation can prove to the world that you're the fittest, and there's no c-store foodservice like yours.  If you don't, you'll be mediocre at best, and probably left behind.

For a powerful brand differentiation, you must:

  • Tailor your food service around customer preferences and requirements.
  • Strive to offer food service options that your competitors don’t – and your customers appreciate.
  • Use innovative techniques to make your food services attract more customers – presentation is important.
  • Continuously improve processes.
  • Have a brand/loyalty program in place.

For all this, you need to carry out extensive research on your competitors.  Determine what your rivals do well and what they don’t do so well.  Review local (and successful) food service providers, such as quick-service restaurants and casual dining establishments, see what they have to offer and see whether you can establish equal or better products.

A customer comes into your convenience store after a long and tiring commute. He’s exhausted from a full day of work, hungry and looking for a quick bite. But when your double doors whoosh open, he’s greeted by the aroma of hot, fresh pizza, smoky barbecue sandwiches and spicy soup. Suddenly, any thought of a $3 bag of chips and a soda are out the window.

Ultimately the objective is to become a food destination that simply has better things to offer in a better way, and oh so beautiful to display – with a process backbone that delivers cost-effectiveness.

Differentiating Food Service

Customer Service:  Despite customer demand for quick, on-demand meals, good service is one of the most important factors for customer retention. Despite customer demand for quick, on-demand meals, good service is one of the most important factors for customer retention. In fact, as a convenience stores, your positive relationships with customers are one of your most important assets.

  • Marketing:  Your new foodservice operation has you going toe-to-toe with the behemoths of the foodservice industry, such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.  Your marketing efforts need to focus on your local trade area to capture your core customer who relies on your store because it’s convenient.  Understanding Brand/Loyalty programs is essential.
  • Service and/or Delivery:  You need to determine what the type of foodservice you want to offer. Will you offer: a) sit-down service; b) drive-through; c) delivery within the trade area; or d) simply “grab-and-go”?  The type of food service/delivery you offer will influence your foodservice products, equipment and c-store floor plan.
  • Menus:  Menu selection should be based on customer preference; competitive delineation; ease of production; inventory management; cost-effective purchasing; and equipment. Select a core group of products for your menu, and remember to keep it fresh, using seasonal and promotional menu items to create a customer “call-to-action.”

C-Stores can expand menus to meet consumer demand, offering potentially hundreds of more choices on beverages, food and non-food items at prices that rival the average fast-food restaurant.  In contrast with quick service restaurants, convenience stores can house a bakery, hot meal kiosks, bottled alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, hot coffee, fresh fruits and veggies and a gas station under one roof. By providing all of these services in one, you allow customers to limit the amount of stops they make before heading to work, school or home.

  • Curbside and contactless foodservice fulfillment:  You’ve more than likely used a curbside or contact-free service at least once in the past year. According to CNBC, curbside pickup alone has surged 208 percent, an astonishing change in customer behavior in mere months. Customers now expect retailers to be aligned with the trends, which stress the need for service that’s sanitary, quick and contact-free. Curbside and contact-free food service is not only convenient, but it reduces in-store foot traffic and allows for minimal handling of customer goods.
  • Awareness of Food Service Trends:  If you’re a fast-food buff, you’re probably up to date on all the latest deals at your favorite quick serve restaurants. Your customers are paying attention, too, and they could be looking to you for their next quick meal. Promotions in particular can be a great way to get more people in the door, and keep them coming back for both the great meals and the great savings.  Examine the current trends and stay focused on incoming behaviors.
  • Healthy Food Service Options:  As the pandemic grinds along, consumer habits have seen a reliable trend toward health and wellness. Customers are increasingly concerned about their mental and physical health—with products like vitamins and plant-based nutrition seeing major uptake. Healthy food options are a natural extension of these trends, and convenience stores are in a unique position to take advantage of them.
  • Eliminate unnecessary costs and food wastage:  Of course, reducing food waste and labor expenses is critical to saving money.  Using technology to track which meals sell the best may assist with planning in regards as to how much food to make, and ensuring that solid warranties are in play to protect equipment are important factors for minimizing downtime.  

More self-service technology, such as open-fronted warming cabinets and sandwich sliders, can help keep labor expenses down.

  • Don’t Lose Sight of Food Safety:  The main issue has been figuring out how to manage fresh, uncooked goods within the limitations of a C-store. There were few food safety concerns with heat-to-order and packed freshly cooked dishes.  This is no longer the case.

On the other hand, Made-to-order programs pose significant food safety concerns, as many of them need greater staff handling of materials and the cooking and storage of raw foods.

  • Controlling Costs:  Be sure to manage these big three cost components: food, paper and labor. Food, paper and labor cost controls are the lifeline of any foodservice operation.  Keeping these costs in line ensures a consistent customer experience, promotes ease of training, and minimizes waste & employee theft, and increases the food service sales margin.


Prepared foods, whether served prepackaged, heated from frozen, or made to order, have become a cornerstone of the C-store food program.  Being able to consume prepared food immediately and without any further preparation by the consumer lends itself perfectly to the C-store’s on-the-go consumer.  Prepared foods have enabled the C-store industry to reposition itself from a place to get cigarettes and a bag of chips to a true foodie destination.  Finally, the many different ways that prepared foods can help C-store brands differentiate themselves from their competition by offering foods that satisfy the increasingly discerning palate of today’s consumer.

October 27, 2023