New Ideas and Trends in Food Service


For truckstops and travel plazas, restaurants are among the most important profit centers at the locations. Sit-down and quick-service restaurants alike attract four-wheeler traffic, professional drivers and locals. Even better, restaurant and foodservice sales are expected to reach a record high of $660.5 billion this year, the National Restaurant Association reported. That’s a 3.8 percent increase from 2012.

Growth is good, and staying current on the industry’s latest trends can help operators maintain current sales and even tap into new customers.

Consumers Make Ease And Convenience A Top Priority
Within the truckstop and travel plaza industry, which primarily serves customers who are on the go, ease and convenience is as important as providing a quality product.

Chris Rose, who oversees restaurant operations for Iowa 80 Group, said he is seeing an increase in the company’s quick-serve offerings.

“A good portion of that is because of the hours of service the drivers adhere to. They have a limited amount of time they can drive for, and if they’re going to stop during that time frame, it is for something fast,” Rose said.

Orion Food Systems, which monitors trends on an ongoing basis, has found that consumers are replacing traditional meal times with several snack-type occasions. What’s more, consumers are looking for good food fast and don’t necessarily care where they purchase it.

Sarah Odde of Orion Food Systems said there is a blurring of channels among fast-casual, quick-service restaurants and c-stores. However, there are unique opportunities within each category that operators can use to meet customers’ needs and increase sales.

Consumers Grab And Go
Big Boys Truckstop in Kenly, N.C., is tapping into the trend of faster food while also coupling it with healthier options. Manager Wendi Powell said the location is adding more cooler space to house packaged salads and sandwiches produced in the location’s restaurant, Lowell Mill. Powell has plans to step up the quality of their sandwiches. “We already buy good quality deli meat, but we want to put in something that is a sliceable product,” she said. “These guys are out there eating fast food so much and they get so tired of it.”

White’s Travel Plaza in Raphine, Va., has installed open-air coolers to house its grab-and-go offerings, which include salads and sandwiches. Putting the products out in the open has helped increase sales, said Corey Berkstresser of Vesuvius Inc., that operates both White’s and Lee Hi Travel Plaza in Lexington, Va. “If it is behind glass, it doesn’t catch people’s eyes,” he said.

Sandwiches are a staple when it comes to grab-and-go offerings. The “Sandwich Consumer Trend Report” by Technomic shows that more than half of respondents said they purchase grab-and-go prepared and wrapped sandwiches—an increase from 39 percent in 2010. Those surveyed said convenience, speed of service and portability were the primary drivers for grab-and-go sandwich purchases.

Younger consumers—those 18 to 34 years old—are the largest purchasers of grab-and-go sandwiches, with 70 percent saying they sometimes buy grab-and-go sandwiches. Forty-eight percent of consumers 35 years old and above purchase them.

Those who don’t purchase grab-and-go sandwiches said they’re concerned the sandwiches won’t be fresh and that they won’t be able to customize them. To combat this, Technomic suggests operators put toppings and sauces on the side to prevent sogginess, ensure that the sandwiches maintain their flavor and freshness longer, and give consumers the ability to customize their sandwiches.

While cold sandwiches make up an important part of grab-and-go sales, Lee Hi Travel Plaza has had success with hot grab-and-go foods, including cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches, in hotboxes on the counter so customers can grab them as they’re checking out. “We also have hot apple pies. We bought a new hot box with baked and fried chicken and offer a three-piece fried chicken dinner along with sides— green beans and mac and cheese,” Berkstresser said.

Lee Hi has also added biscuit and bagel breakfast sandwiches in its hotbox, which are selling well Berkstresser said. That fits in with a national trend, according to Odde. She said Orion Food Services has found that the breakfast category is growing at a faster clip than lunch.

“We have been focusing on using technology in convenience stores to understand traffic patterns tied to day-part penetration,” Odde said, adding that by identifying high-traffic timeframes, food service managers can maximize product availability in the grab-n-go warmer and increase sales.

Fresh fruit is a popular grab-and- go item no matter what time of day it is. Berkstresser said he started stocking fruit in small quantities he bought from a vendor, but he has found it sells well and he needs to replenish it often. Because it is perishable, he finds it is easier to pick it up at a local retailer and then refill the fruit baskets within his c-store. “I go to Walmart or Kroger and will buy a box of bananas. I’m frequently running errands, so before I go out, I look at my fruit baskets so I know what I need. I can pick up bananas or some apples,” he said.

Price-Conscious Consumers Seek Value
Quick-serve dining options, also known as fast food, save drivers time and are typically less expensive than sit-down options. That’s important in today’s economy as value remains a top priority for a number of consumers. An online survey conducted by Harris Interactive and commissioned by the Dairy Queen system found price is an important consideration for diners when deciding where to go for lunch. According to the survey, 93 percent of American adults that dine out for lunch said that price is important when choosing their destination. In addition, more than half—51 percent—of millennials (aged 18–34) are more likely to make a complete meal choice for lunch if it includes a dessert.

When it comes to sit-down dining, truckstops and travel plazas are working to provide value while also offering quality.

“Just because of the sheer cost of food, we’re trying to get creative and put a good variety out there and still be cost effective,” Rose said, adding that the prices of meat have increased across the board, but particularly for beef. “You can only pass so much of the cost onto a consumer.”

To maximize their offerings, Rose said Iowa 80 has added casserole dishes to the buffet. “They are filling and appetizing but aren’t as expensive as putting out a whole pork loin,” he said.

Consumption Of Poultry Is On The Rise
In addition, Rose said Iowa 80 Group’s restaurants have increased their pork and chicken offerings, which can also appeal to consumers’ tastes while keeping costs down. Although poultry is well represented on most restaurant menus, more than half of consumers want restaurants to offer a greater variety of chicken entrées, Technomic reported.

“Escalating prices for beef and pork are nudging more consumers toward poultry,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. He added that 40 percent of consumers said they want to see more options for turkey entrées on the menu. “Operators and suppliers can leverage shifting expectations by exploring a wider range of versatility for chicken and poultry. These proteins are both highly adaptable to flavor innovation; look for opportunities to promote more poultry for breakfast, appetizers and snacks.”

Technomic found that poultry is trending up for breakfast, snacks and appetizers. In particular, breakfast entrées featuring chicken are up by 16 percent on full-service restaurant menus since 2011. Three out of 10 consumers say they’d order chicken- and turkey-based substitutes for beef or pork.

Powell is planning to add turkey barbeque to the menu. “It is a lot healthier for you. It gives you similar flavors,” she said.

Big Boys also has a chargrill and offers grilled porkchops and grilled chicken, which are healthier alternatives to their fried foods, Powell said. “We do baked turkey as an option at least twice a week on our menu and buffet,” she added.

Rose said Iowa 80 doesn’t have as many steaks on the menu as they have in the past. “Every once in a while we can get a deal and get different types of steaks for a good price, and we’ll jump on them,” he said, adding that ribeye and t-bone steaks sell the best.

Meat in general seems to resonate with diners. The National Restaurant Association said other top trends include locally sourced meats, produce and seafood. Restaurants are also taking advantage of new cuts of meat, such as the Denver steak, pork flat irons and teres major.

However, Rose said he has found the newer cuts of steaks don’t move. “They’re okay if you’re going to use them in something, but they don’t sell on their own,” he said.

Consumers Want Locally Sourced Produce And Meat
When it comes to using locally produced products, Big Boys tries to use as many as it can, including cornmeal, sweet potatoes, sausage and meat. “I have recently introduced locally grown, steroid-free beef from Wheeler Cattle Farm to our drivers and they love it. It’s amazing the difference quality makes to them,” she said. “We’re looking at a poultry supplier and some steroid-free opportunities.”

Big Boys will start changing some signage to highlight the local goods it uses and add a small retail area to their restaurant to sell local products. “We already serve a great deal of local products we’ve just never capitalized on it,” Powell said.

Restaurants Increase Ethnic-Inspired Dishes
The National Restaurant Association said one of the top trends in 2013 is the increase in ethnic-inspired menu items, particularly in certain regions of the country. Odde said Mexican cuisine accounts for the majority of all ethnic food sales, and operators told Stop Watch they’re having success with Mexican dishes.

“There’s an influx of Hispanic drivers. That influences what we put on the menu and we do some items for them,” Rose said. Iowa 80 has added new menu items to appeal to Hispanics, including enchiladas, a tortilla lasagna, a taco bar and a Mexican buffet.

Restaurants Offer More Healthy Options
Fresh descriptions and high-quality products are resonating strongly with consumers, particularly those who visit family-style restaurants, Technomic reported. In addition, the National Restaurant Association said 44 percent of chefs said low-calorie/low- fat entrees are a continuing trend.

Odde said, “Most recently, we have seen a surge in healthy or perceived healthy menu items, especially as more caloric counts are being posted.”

Powell said Big Boys is doing a healthier take on southern offerings. “We’re not putting those heavy oils and seasonings on our vegetables anymore. We have a healthy salad bar with mixed lettuces instead of iceberg lettuce, and we’re trying to incorporate more fruit in our new and upcoming menu,” Powell said.

In an effort to take advantage of calorie-conscious diners, Orion Food Systems will be launching a line of under-400-calorie pizzas.

Sbarro recently introduced its Skinny Slice, which marries the public’s love of pizza with a growing desire to eat healthfully. At only 270 calories per slice, the Skinny Slice is topped with roasted red and green bell peppers, portobello mushrooms and sweet, caramelized onions in addition to mozzarella and pecorino Romano cheeses.

Consumers Seek Out Specialty Pizzas
When it comes to pizza, diners are purchasing more innovative specialty pizzas, according to a survey by Technomic. Pizza is also showing up on the menu in more and more locations, such as quick-serve sandwich shops. It makes sense, since pizza is one of the most popular foods in America. 

More than four in 10 consumers said they eat pizza once a week, compared to 26 percent just two years ago, Technomic reported. “Consumers increasingly view pizza as the go-to food when they don’t feel like cooking,” Tristano said. “Operators can emphasize convenience in their marketing message, positioning pizza as an easy, convenient and affordable meal solution that will appeal to an entire group or family. It’s a message that resonates with many customers.”

Food For The Whole Family
Truckstop and travel plaza operators looking to grow their restaurant business should consider increasing their efforts to attract families, either those in their local community or families hitting the road. Technomic found that 49 percent of families visit a family-style restaurant at least once a week.

Rose sees an increase in the number of kids dining at Iowa 80’s locations in the summer. “You’d be surprised how many drivers drive with their kids in the summer time,” he said, adding that they increase kid-friendly menu offerings in the summer months.

Chauncey Taylor of Johnson’s Corner in Loveland, Colo., works to attract families year round. In addition to offering a kids’ menu and providing crayons and coloring sheets, Johnson’s Corner gives children “Kids’ Bucks” they can spend in the location’s gift store. “That allows the child, when they’re done eating, to go from the restaurant to our gift area and they can use a Kid Buck to buy something. It motivates the kids to go and shop, and our gift area is a high-revenue, high-margin, high-traffic area,” Taylor said.

In it’s Family-Style Restaurant Consumer Trend Report, Technomic found that 69 percent of those surveyed said they visit family-style restaurants because they’re looking for an affordable sit-down meal and 45 percent said they’re looking for comfort food. Amenities that make the dining experience easier for moms in particular are likely to be well-received at family-style restaurants; 50 percent of moms and 34 percent of dads say toys and games for children are highly appealing at these locations.

At Lee Hi Travel Plaza, kids eat free on Mondays, and Berkstresser recently changed the children’s menu so children or their parents can choose fries or fresh fruit. Those who opt for fruit can select it themselves from the salad bar.

Technomic found that healthy kids’ options are more important than expansive kids’ menus. More than half of parents—56 percent—place high importance on healthy options, compared to just half of consumers who say expansive menus for young children, tweens and teens are important.                                            

Restaurant Sales Expected to Increase
The National Restaurant Association expects restaurant sales to reach a record high of $660.5 billion this year, and the national trade group is anticipating sales increases at full-service and casual-dining restaurants alike. The association said the full-service restaurant segment is projected to post its third consecutive year of real sales growth this year, and it expects full-service sales to total $208.1 billion in 2013, up 2.9 percent from $202.2 billion last year.

The limited-service eating-place segment is expected to post $225.4 billion in sales this year, up 4.6 percent over $215.4 billion in 2012. Within the segment, quick-service restaurant sales are expected to total $188.1 billion, up 4.9 percent from 2012. Snack and nonalcoholic-beverage bars are projected to register $29.1 billion in sales, up 4.3 percent. Cafeterias, grill-buffets and buffets are expected to post 8.3 billion in sales, up 0.1 percent.

The National Restaurant Association said 48 percent of the casual-dining operators it surveyed expect business to improve this year. As for family-dining operators, 43 percent expect business to improve.

New Ideas: Expand Offerings to Boost Sales
For years Johnson’s Corner in Loveland, Colo., had been known for its cinnamon rolls, but now the location is taking its baked goods a step further and adding new items, including custom cakes, donuts and brownies.

“We hired a cake artist and added a bakery component to our restaurant,” said Chauncey Taylor of Johnson’s Corner. “Just today there is a large cake going out for a contractor’s birthday.”

The bakery additions are boosting sales both in the location and with locals as well.

Taylor is also planning to grow his business by offering boxed lunches and hopes to create a route that delivers prepared lunches to businesses in the area. “It is using the kitchen to prepare meals that encapsulate a form of catering,” he explained.

Taylor has already seen success with catering. The business ebbs and flows and is most busy around the holidays, he explained.

Wendi Powell of Lowell Mill Restaurant at Big Boys Truckstop in Kenly, N.C., said she has been steadily growing the catering component of their business. “We just bought a new catering van and are looking forward to doing more,” she said.

The catering business has grown organically. “I’ve had to go slow and build it into the way we work. I couldn’t go out and establish a whole separate entity, but we’ve been able to work it into our business as is,” Powell explained, adding that she most often serves 200 people or less.

One of the biggest benefits of the catering is raising awareness in the local community. “It has put the reputation of our restaurant out there, which is huge for our local business. As an independent truckstop, I count not only on my drivers, but also on the locals,” Powell said.


Dining Guide
Operators looking to expand their food offerings can tap into the expertise of NATSO’s allied members who can share their latest insights into top dining trends.

Burger King
C.H. James

Chester’s International
Justin Lobdell

Gourmet Gardens
Kara Hancock

Huddle House Inc.
Mark Whittle

Hunters Reserve Inc.
Debbie Schold

International Foodsource LLC
Stephen Kleinman

Interstate Dairy Queen Corp.
Kevin McNaboe

McAlister’s Corp
Tony Valles
Phone: 601.519.8985

McLane Co. Inc.
Steve Brady

Old Fashioned Cheese Co.
Joe Clark

Orion Food Systems
Ed Brown

Dave Gleason

Jeanne Marchitto

Yum! Brands Express
Sheryl Fox


Photo Credit: Iowa 80 Group


This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazineStop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations.

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Mindy Long's photo

Mindy Long

Before launching a full-time freelance career, Long edited NATSO's Stop Watch magazine. Prior to that Long worked as a staff reporter for Transport Topics, a weekly trade newspaper, covering freight transportation, fuel and environmental issues. In addition to covering the transportation sector, Long has written, reported and edited for a variety of media outlets. She was the Washington correspondent for WCAX-TV (CBS) in Burlington, Vt., a criminal court reporter in Chicago and a freelance copy editor for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine in Washington D.C. Long hold a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Westminster College in Salt Lake City.More
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