DALLAS -- Southland Corp. is giving its 7-Eleven customers a taste of what's to come with the rollout of a new sub sandwich that signals an entire menu renovation.
No exotica is in the offing, just improved versions of the tried-and-true, which will form the core of a mix that's being developed with extensive customer input, chain executives said.
Sales of the first new menu item, the Super Big Sub, and customer comments, indicate the company is on the right track, the officials told SN.
With a renewed focus on two-day parts -- lunch and breakfast -- that already brew significant sales at its convenience stores, Southland is aiming to further whet the appetite of its existing customers, officials said.
"We're trying to develop products that will attract our present customer base. We have 1,200 customers in our stores every day, but only a small percentage of them currently buy fresh products. We think there's a huge opportunity for us there," said Joe Horres, fresh foods category manager, for Southland which operates 5,000 7-Eleven convenience stores across the U.S.
The company had tested chilled, prepared entrees in selected stores here last year (as reported in SN 3/24/97). It now has put that effort temporarily on hold, and instead is focusing on improving its breakfast and lunch menus first, Horres said.
The strategy is to solicit customer input on current menu items and then, using the feedback, reformulate them to make them.
After a run of customer intercept interviews here and in Austin and Denver last fall, and conferences with store operators in all its areas, the company surfaced with the "Super Big Sub," which has been overhauled and given a distinctive proprietary label and logo.
"We found that our former sub sandwich wasn't flavorful enough. So we enlisted the help of outside consultants who specialize in menu development to reformulate the product," said Horres.
The company has upgraded the ingredients and has created a new package on it that sports a new green and white "Super Big Sub" logo.
"We've gone to a higher quality turkey and ham that have a better flavor profile and we're also using real, natural cheeses as opposed to processed products. We're also using an entirely different bread," Horres said.
The company's consultants created proprietary sauces for each variety of Super Big Sub to increase their flavor profiles, Horres said.
Three varieties -- turkey, honey-baked ham and four-meat Italian -- were launched the first week in April, and a fourth -- a turkey and honey-baked ham combo -- was added last week.
Those four varieties are the core of the sub selections in all stores; two varieties, possibly tailored to individual regions, will be added. The regional varieties will be rotated on occasion to make way for new ones. "We expect rotating of product to prevent menu fatigue," Horres said.
Excellent sales of the Super Big Subs reflect its customers' acceptance of the product, said Dana Manley, spokeswoman for Southland.
"Sales have been really phenomenal. We did introduce the Super Big Sub with several promotions and the stores have been regularly sampling them, too," Manley said, pointing out that the company gave them a dramatic send-off.
Huge banners featuring two characters -- Russ, who portrays a 7-Eleven employee and Gus, a familiar figure from previous beer commercials -- draped the front windows of 7-Eleven units, for the launch. They showed Russ and Gus carrying an enormous, overstuffed submarine sandwich several times bigger than the characters themselves.
7-Eleven employees wore T-shirts depicting the huge sub and a life-size cut-out of Russ was placed in strategic locations in-store.
In addition to getting a new taste profile, the sub has been given better portability with a new type of packaging, Horres pointed out.
The Super Big Subs are placed on a tray and then over-wrapped, instead of just being placed in a plastic bag as 7-Eleven subs had formerly been packaged.
The subs, like other sandwiches and baked goods, are produced for Southland by eight independently operated, USDA-approved commissaries located strategically across the U.S. The fresh products are delivered each morning to each of 2,500 of the company's 7-Eleven stores.
The fresh foods pipeline is not complete, however. The company needs to link up with additional suppliers to provide product to its other 2,500 locations, Horres said. But where it's in place, the system is working well, he added.
"The infrastructure we've established enables us to offer fresh products and it also drives down costs," Horres said. He was referring to the commissaries and to a series of consolidated distribution centers at which Southland receives and cross-docks perishable items from various suppliers.
"We haven't finalized our menu, but it will give the customers what we've found out they want: high quality food at a reasonable price that tastes good and is easy to eat in their car," he said.
The breakfast menu is next in line for a renovation, Horres said. Asked how much variety will be added to 7-Eleven lunch and breakfast menus, Horres said, "We're in our infancy stages right now. We need to develop the core menu first."
"We'll continue to use the same approach as we roll out other products. That is, we'll get the information about each product that we need [from customers and store operators] and then go through the process to make improvements to satisfy the customer."
Horres said the company will do more intercept interviews at selected locations and will make unprecedented use of feedback from store operators.
"Every week, at all of our field locations, we have a managers meeting to talk through the previous week's activities and to input comments and suggestions. The information is then fed back. That's the catalyst through which headquarters is brought into the loop," Horres said.
"We're listening to both the customer and also to our store operators, a lot more than we ever have before," he added.