DALLAS -- Convenience store giant 7-Eleven is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the grab-and-go foods arena.
The company last month rolled out a new line of wraps under the company's "Big Eats" label. In keeping with the chain's recent efforts to emulate fast-casual dining trends with the commissary-prepared label, the initial line of three wraps, retailing for $3.69 each, features a mix of bold flavors and upscale condiments, including a chicken with soy ginger spread, a turkey and Cappicola club, and a chicken breast with Southwestern mustard, all in flavored tortilla wraps.
Similarly, for the Big Eats sandwich line, 7-Eleven's prepared food development team has created spreads such as tomato basil, roasted pepper, tomato feta, olive pesto, Southwest mayonnaise and jalapeno hollandaise.
"Our goal is to create a lighter meal substitute, given all of the heavier lunch options out there," said Kevin Gardner, director of marketing and communications for the 5,800-store chain. "The wraps are also portable and easy to eat," he added, noting that the packaging was specially developed to have the wraps stand upright in a car cup holder.
Over the last 10 years, c-store operators have looked increasingly to food service, fresh foods and grab-and-go foods as a way to draw customers, particularly women, into their stores. The focus represents a sea change for an industry that's historically relied on gasoline and cigarettes to generate traffic.
As a whole, c-stores have faced an uphill battle reversing widespread perceptions of high prices and low quality. Yet the tide has begun to turn for chains that have emulated the retail model of companies such as Wawa, Pa.-based Wawa Stores and Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz, who are recognized leaders in the c-store food-service arena.
Many independent operators still face hurdles in terms of dealing with shrink and sourcing small, frequent orders. Nevertheless, chains have found that even a small fruit and salad department can help enhance the image of a food-service operation and attract more women shoppers inside the store.
"There's going to be some kind of fresh produce supplier that could suit a convenience store's needs anywhere they happen to be," said David Brewster, a partner with ISUS, a Dana Point, Calif.-based design and food-service consulting company for small format retail. "Many operators just don't have the imagination to attempt it."
Notably, Brewster said, many St. John, New Brunswick-based Irving Oil locations in New England now feature fresh fruit and in-store bakeries. To reduce shrink on items such as bananas, the bakeries make homemade banana bread throughout the day.
Louisville, Ky.-based Thornton Oil during the past two years has opened several 5,000-square-foot Quick Cafe and Market formats featuring upscale sandwiches, fresh baked bread and baguettes, fruit and dinner salads, and a limited selection of popular produce items including bananas, apples, oranges and tomatoes. The chain describes the concept as "a solution to those in-between trips to the supermarket."
Family Express, another independent based in Valparaiso, Ind., has been successful with its "Cravin's Market" concept, featuring sandwiches, fruits, vegetables, salads and a selection of floral items.
Through a growing network of combined distribution centers, 7-Eleven's U.S. operations have been working to make such items available to their corporate and franchised stores nationwide, by building a supply and ordering network similar to the one used by 7-Eleven's Japanese division. There, in small, mostly urban locations, fresh foods and grab-and-go foods account for the majority of sales.
For example, 7-Eleven's newest combined DC, opened in Seattle a few weeks ago, uses a fleet of 22 dual-temperature trucks to make daily deliveries of commissary-prepared sandwiches and salads, bakery items such as doughnuts, dairy products, fruit, fruit salads, fresh-squeezed juices and other fresh foods to stores in its Puget Sound region in suburban Seattle, and Portland, Ore.