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Industry Innovation

Innovation in C-Store Food Service

Next Steps for North American Convenience Stores

A Food delivery drone in flight.

ew c-store approaches to food service are cropping up all the time as convenience retailers battle it out to win over customers in the current competitive climate.  A shift to food services in c-stores highlights the fact that gas stations can no longer simply sell fuel to get by and retailers must create change in their operations to stay on top of the game.

Matching and Exceeding Customer Expectations of Large Competitors

As c-stores are looking to thrive in the food service industry, they are increasingly having to match and exceed customer expectations of pre-established brands and large competitors.  

For instance, although your average McDonald’s may beat c-stores on price, c-stores are creating multi-faceted experiences to drive customers into their stores because the classically simple c-store just isn’t enough to impress anymore.

This includes creating full-bodied experiences filled with artisan coffee bars, meat carving stations, ice-cream parlors, made-to-order sandwiches, salad stops and essentially everything a hungry consumer could ever want.  

This ‘all-in-one-place’ appeal combines the best parts of competitors’ food business plans into one compact location which ultimately makes things much easier for the customer rather than having to visit multiple different stores to find the food that they are craving.  This food service trend is inevitably on the rise and will only gain in popularity as customers begin to expect more and more from retailers.

Secondly, looking across the US, c-store profits are expanding significantly beyond the traditional categories of alcohol, food-to-go and tobacco.  Instead, consumers are taking control of their health, driving a 10% dollar growth in ‘food as medicine’ and health food categories in c-stores since 2019.

C-store food service has always been notoriously unhealthy.  Yet, most Gen-Z and millennial customers are increasingly environmentally conscious and would rather pay slightly more for healthier options.  Particularly, majority-vegan c-stores like The Goods Mart which was founded by Rachel Krupa in 2018 are expected to rise in popularity in the coming years.  

Over 80% of their stock is plant-based, non-GMO,  and affordable with prices ranging from $0.49 per product up to $25.  Hence, this store serves as a model example for other c-stores to follow suit. Kupra states:

At The Goods Mart, we are building a community, making better food more accessible, and creating a store that thinks about its impact on the world and environment. When we forge small, local communities, we are better — our physical, emotional, and mental health is better.

With a location in Los Angeles and two currently in New York including a prime spot at the iconic Rockefeller center, Kupra has certainly set a precedent for affordable health advancements in food service at c-stores.  By prioritizing healthy foods, c-stores will ultimately open their doors up to new clientele that may have chosen to avoid c-stores previously.

Creative Differentiation In Food Service

Another important aspect of c-store food services is being able to stand out from the crowd.  In this sense, successful c-stores are progressively requiring an individual aesthetic that customers can easily identify.  Wally’s for instance is ‘led by design’ and playing up to nostalgic yet sleek ideas of American visuals.

They feature, ‘shareable’ zones in their store including an old Winnebago Brave RV acting as a retail display area and giant murals upon entry reading the slogan, ‘Wally’s: Home of the Great American road Trip’.  This concept is carried through to its food service which goods are packaged in retro 80s logos all adding to an iconic look.  The company, therefore, gains free social media advertisement from its visitors and the company has created a ‘hype’ for itself.

In contrast, many c-store brands are transforming the concept of eating in a traditional c-store where one could expect greasy hot dogs and a can of Coca-Cola to one of high-end modernity and class.  Ultimately, getting customers to want to eat in and relax in-store, hang out with friends or co-workers and do some work on their laptop is becoming a more popular option that c-stores are choosing to adopt.

New c-store approaches to food service also include differentiating through direct ordering and home delivery apps.  Although third-party food delivery platforms like UberEATS and Postmates have been trialed by c-store retailers, many customers prefer ordering directly through a c-store in a grocery-store fashion, allowing them to pick delivery slots and have more control  over distribution.  

Although the traditional nature of c-stores relied completely on foot traffic to succeed, modern delivery technology is becoming increasingly expected by consumers.  One beneficial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was that the use of delivery services for c-store food and products jumped by around 50 percent.  Despite the pandemic cooling down, this trend has not gone away.  Hence, c-store retailers have now recognized how much of a vital part of food service competition home delivery actually is.

Therefore, in order to stay on top of the game, many c-stores are starting to invest in high-quality and functional delivery-specific apps which will take the role of convenience stores to a whole new level.  This method may also help to expand c-store customer bases for those who do not have immediate access to them such as those who cannot drive or those working from home needing a quick and easy bite on their lunch break.

Turning Threats Into Opportunities

It’s safe to say that c-stores have faced their fair share of threats over the last few years and will continue to do so as technology advances.  One of the major threats to c-stores that has recently come to fruition has been an increasing demand for on-site technology from consumers.  

Looking to the future, the expanse of electric vehicles (EVs) for example will soon have to be adapted into c-store development plans, accommodating EVs and their longer refueling periods.  With the average charging time taking anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours compared to 5 minutes of traditional gas refueling, c-stores need to take advantage of EV refuel times by providing more dine-in food service and relaxing environments for customers while they wait.

Tesla is paving the way in California by introducing 24/7 access members-only lounges.  These ultra-modern buildings include access to quality food and beverages, children’s play areas, pet care zones and stunning outdoor spaces.  Customers can also buy Tesla-branded items inside making the whole EV charging experience appear chicer and smoother.

Automation in retail has been another threat to the advancement of food service in c-stores in recent years.  Automation is now so far-reaching that c-stores are not questioning whether they should adopt such technology but rather which ones they need to adopt in order to compete and thrive.

Food service in c-stores is gradually becoming more robotic as seen in companies like Loop Neighborhood convenience store in San Francisco, home to Sally the salad robot who can choose from around 115 ingredients through her programming.  She can also create quinoa bowls, yogurt bowls, cereals and more and just six months into the pandemic was placed in over 70 locations across the US.  This implies that a wider adoption of robotics in c-store food service is on the way.

Equally, we are also seeing a rise in glass front c-stores using automation in a vending machine style.  In this method, customers select items from a touch screen and robotics then collect the items, bringing them to the customer without the buyer even having to leave the comfort of their own car.  

Although the widespread use of such robots may seem far in the future for c-stores right now, the pandemic did cause a rise in concerns for consumer safety due to transmission rates which meant customers began to prefer contactless food preparation.  With the normalization of contactless shopping now increasing, it makes sense that the majority of c-stores would use robotics to their advantage in the years to come.


Overall, the future of food service in c-stores looks bright and it will continually evolve to meet changing demands as they arise.  Advancements in food service are inevitable as customers will continue to expect more from c-stores in the coming years.  

Those who wish to stay afloat and prosper will be the ones who can adapt the quickest to the changing customer desires of the twenty first century.  Those who don’t risk being left behind and forgotten.

August 4, 2023