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Truckstop Travels: Lessons from the Road

Posted in: Truckstop Business, Marketing & Retail

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I am so fortunate to get to visit truckstops and travel plazas across the country and see first-hand the ways NATSO members are serving their communities. As we have noted before, operators are witnessing a rapid pace of change and many are responding with new and diverse offerings to attract customers. This need to adapt is not unique to our industry, and during my travels I see first-hand the ways other businesses are reacting to our today’s reality.

We can learn from those outside of our industry in addition to each other. Here are some key trends I am seeing from other businesses working to remain relevant.

Focus on Convenience
Our industry is known for convenience, which is what today’s consumers are seeking out. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. has said it is tapping into consumer demand for convenience by introducing a platform for off-premise meals for larger groups.

“Studies show that consumers continue to rank convenience as a leading factor in choosing the foods they eat in both food-at-home and food-away-from-home occasions,” said Sandra Cochran, Cracker Barrel president and CEO, in a fourth-quarter earnings call with analysts. “As people are more pressed for time, they will continue to look for meal solutions that offer flexibility and convenience.”

The off-premise platform offers meals for small groups of six to 10, or large groups of 18 to 24, that can be ordered online or in-store and picked up at the restaurant. Initially it will have a limited offering of 20 entrée offerings, such as ham, egg and cheese casserole or yogurt and fruit parfait for breakfast, and roast beef with gravy or chicken and dumplings for lunch and dinner.

Know Your Customers
I’m always promoting the benefits of knowing your customers. It is important to understand who your current customer is and how any changes to the business may affect them.  Applebee’s had worked for years to reposition itself and reinvent Applebee's as a modern bar and grill. It was pursuing a more youthful and affluent demographic with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset, and the company said it hoped to attract Millennials.

In the process, the chain lost much of its core customer base and has said it is changing its strategy.

“In my perspective, this pursuit led to decisions that created confusion among core guests, as Applebee's intentionally drifted from its -- what I'll call its Middle America roots and its abundant value position. While we certainly hope to extend our reach, we can't alienate boomers or Gen-Xers in the process. Much of what we are currently unwinding at the moment is related to this offensive repositioning,” said John Cywinski, Applebee's brand president.

The Applebee’s story helps us remember the importance of understanding who is stopping at our locations and why.

Get Creative with Menus
Food service competition is ramping up with grocery stores, big box stores and even some furniture stores offering grab-and-go and fast-casual dining experiences. In the face of growing competition, Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., said restaurant operators must own menu innovation.

“Competition is everywhere, taking a little bite here and a little bite there,” Kruse said. “But when the going gets tough, it seems to me the tough really crank up their menu R&D.”

Kruse said she expects to see more ethnic foods, more fresh and clean foods, and fun menu options, such as Burger King’s line of shakes made with breakfast cereals like Froot Loops and Lucky Charms.

Cracker Barrel has said it is planning a menu-variety initiative, which will introduce a new coffee platform with iced and flavored lattes.

Emphasize Value
Customers today are still looking for a bargain, and Cracker Barrel’s Cochran said the restaurant chain will aggressively market the value of existing and new menu items. Those include a $7.99 price point for loaded macaroni and cheese at dinner and biscuit French toast breakfast for $4.99.  The initial promotions will be tested in 100 restaurants.

Continue to Learn
Staying current on trends and learning from others is so important for long-term success. In July, NATSO members took part in a Food and Fuel Study tour, learning from some of the most innovative food-service operations in Chicago. Three key takeaways from the tour were the focus on fresh foods, the need to create an overall experience and the importance of convenience. As you visit businesses around you, keep an eye out for the creative, innovating ways they are engaging customers. There is always something new we can learn. 

Photo Credit: Brittany Palmer/NATSO

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About the Author

Darren Schulte

Darren Schulte

Darren Schulte serves as Vice President of Membership at NATSO. In this role, he directs recruitment, retention and customer service for truckstop and travel plaza members. He is also responsible for developing NATSO products and programs, particularly those relating to education, research and training for truckstop and travel plaza operators.

Schulte also leads NATSO's Profitable Retail Review program. A Profitable Retail Review is a custom assessment of your truckstop, including recommendations for every aspect of your facility, from actionable ideas to improve revenue to tactical ways to improve your net operating costs. Learn about NATSO's Profitable Retail Review program here.

Schulte joined NATSO with nearly three decades of experience in truckstop and travel plaza operations and merchandising. Schulte has worked for: 

  • Love's Travel Stops and Country Stores,
  • HESS Corporation, 
  • Petro Stopping Centers, and
  • TSC Global/Barjan LLC.