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Convenience stores vs. restaurants

Fern Glazer is a regular contributor and a Consumer Trends editor for Nation's Restaurant News.

Electric blue Slurpees. Aisles filled with packaged candies. Soft pretzels lazily spinning under a heat lamp. These are my earliest and fondest memories of convenience store food. I can still picture my neighborhood 7-Eleven with its distinct orange and green sign, dim fluorescent lighting and linoleum floor. I even remember the storefront curb where I’d sit slurping, getting brain freeze. Quality? Freshness? Never entered my mind. I went there purely out of convenience — it was the closet place to get a treat or to pick up milk and a pack of Salem Lights 100’s for my mother.

Times have certainly changed since then — at least for me. These days no one in my family smokes, I eschew artificial colors and flavors, and my expectations of c-stores are much higher. I expect higher quality, fresher and more interesting c-store foods. And I’m certainly not alone. For some time now consumers have been demanding fresher food on the go and finding it everywhere from supermarkets to the growing number of fast-casual restaurants.

What about the country’s nearly 150,000 c-stores? To get a sense of how much they’ve changed and where they need to improve, The Hartman Group recently deployed a team of typical consumers into c-stores in Boston, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and New York. Hartman’s report, “Convenience Stores and the ‘Fresh’ Opportunity,” details what they found: While some c-stores are meeting consumers’ elevated expectations, most have a way to go. That may be an opportunity for c-stores, but it’s an even bigger one for restaurants.

For example, some c-stores the team visited offered a plethora of interesting, portable snacks such as prosciutto, cheese and taralli bread crackers; heat-and-serve Indian meals from well-known restaurants; made-to-order sandwiches; and steam tables with hot foods. In contrast, many others were stuck in my 1970s past, still serving up dated items such as shrink-wrapped tuna sandwiches, steamed hot dogs and microwaveable sandwiches. These stores offered a very low proportion of fresh, high-quality foods. Though independents offered the broadest selection of unique, fresh food, major c-store chains, such as 7-Eleven, Wawa and Sheetz, excelled at offering a more sophisticated and consistent approach to fresh and prepared foods, according to the report.

Convenient food is important to me and to the large number of consumers like me who lead far busier lives than our parents did. Sure, when I hit a c-store today, sometimes it’s still for milk — just like my mom needed. But more often than not it’s to grab a bite that will sustain me through a day packed with meetings and no time for lunch, or for a snack for my kids when we’re running from one activity to another. Unfortunately, I rarely find enough choices that meet my expectations, so I only visit in a pinch. If more c-stores started offering fresher choices, I and many others would visit more and buy more. Just don’t ask me to sit on the curb to eat.

For now, I’d rather visit a restaurant.

Are c-stores impacting your business? Join the conversation in the comments below.

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