Travel Centers Add Healthy and Time-Saving Options

Travel centers add healthy and time-saving options.

Today’s time-starved drivers are in the market for convenience foods they can eat on the run, and truckstop and travel plaza operators are responding with grab-and-go foods in their c-stores like never before. Deli sandwiches, salads, smoothies and healthy snacks are some of the top selling items.

Like many operators, Dan Alsaker, president, Broadway Travel Plazas, has seen the growing demand for prepared foods. “I think something related to that is hours-of-service. I believe an unspoken issue with hours-of-service is that it is forcing the driver to eat in his cab. There are studies that show the average driver is eating fewer meals per day and only one is a sit-down,” Alsaker said.

It is well known that professional drivers manage their lives out of their trucks, but many passenger drivers do the same thing. Whether it is a busy mom running between appointments or a Class 8 truck driver trying to make an on-time delivery, Americans are multitasking, and finishing a bite to eat while on the road holds appeal. Plus, lower cost points at c-stores within travel plazas compared to fast-food locations are boosting sales for c-stores.

“You’ve seen a tremendous increase in what stores have done to make their c-stores more appealing,” said Tim Powell, director of c-store food service programs for foodservice consultant Technomic. “As more c-stores have gotten better at making their food service look more attractive, they’ve improved the freshness of the food.”

Scott Harrington, vice president of business development for Ready-Pac Food Distribution, Irwindale, Calif., said the growth in fresh foods started when distributors sought out new foodservice items to replace lower margins that they were receiving on tobacco or alcohol. “Then retailers started picking up on it as consumers started demanding healthier and fresher foods. It was a one two punch,” he said.

“Grab-and-go fresh, ready-to-eat salads and hand-held fruits, such as bananas and apples, are some of the top sellers right now,” Harrington said. “A very emerging trend is a healthy snack that combines fresh sliced apples with dips, such as granola, yogurt or caramel, that are healthy.”

Fresh fruit sales have been on the rise. “When you look at cross channel competition, the c-stores see that if their competition can do it, they can too,” Powell said.

Sapp Bros. TravelCenters have had success with fresh fruit, particularly in the Denver location. Dan Adams, manager of the Denver location, said adding fresh fruit showed drivers that they were committed to giving them healthy options. Drivers can buy fruit by the pound and the location keeps the price the same for each fruit.

As part of The NATSO Show's new focus, NATSO is providing opportunities for members to tap into the expertise of their peers. At The NATSO Show 2011, Sapp Bros. shared information on its fruit program and NATSO featured a fruit stand on the show floor.

To help with the shelf life of bananas, Sapp Bros. doesn’t break them apart and encourages shoppers to buy a whole bundle. Since it is inevitable that there will be fruit that gets too ripe, Sapp Bros. makes banana bread with the unsold items.

Powell said breakfast sales at c-stores have been increasing due to the better coffee programs locations are launching.

Powell said, “Once you get a full coffee program with a loyal base, you can start to complement that with food items.” To help truckstops and travel plazas make the most of their coffee programs, Chairman’s Circle member Caribou Coffee™ and NATSO have partnered together to offer high-quality, craft-roasted coffee. Learn more about this partnership on page 22.

Late last year foodservice provider and NATSO Chairman’s Circle member McLane launched a pastry program that offers c-stores a selection of baked goods, including donuts, danishes, cinnamon rolls, brownies and cookies.

In addition to its pastry program, McLane also launched a grab-and- go hot food program aimed at convenience stores. McLane’s Grab & Go Hot Foods program features roller-grill items such as hot dogs, grilled wraps, egg rolls and breakfast sausages in addition to selections such as breakfast sandwiches, burritos and burgers.

While consumers often say they want healthier options, they aren’t always purchasing them. “The biggest items selling right now are the roller grills. It has to do with the variety. You don’t just have a hot dog, you have a jalapeno mesquite dog,” Powell said.

Although not all consumers are interested in healthy choices, Powell said retailers should be. “Any supplier right now needs to keep an eye on keeping sodium low but also keeping things tasting good. As you have to start posting nutritional information on items, it becomes important,” Powell said.

Before operators launch or expand a grab-and-go program, Powell recommends they research the keys to success. “If shoppers go in and have a bad experience, they’re never going to go in again,” he cautions.

Positioning within the store is a crucial component for grab-and-go foods. Displays close to the door allow customers to get in and out quickly and attractive displays that look full, even if they have minimum inventory, will be competitive. Harrington recommends retailers dedicate 8 to 12 linear feet to produce and healthy, fresh snacks.

“You have to have a dedicated section that doesn’t move around in the store,” Harrington said. “It has to be a destination within the store.”

For fruit, center or island displays are ideal, Powell said. However, he noted that retailers do need to take a few extra steps when offering produce.

“You need a reliable supply chain that is going to get that fruit into your store,” Powell said.

Because produce is perishable, there will be shrink. Harrington told StopWatch that operators can expect anywhere from3 to 5 percent shrink, for those who really know what they’re doing, to 15-plus percent from someone who isn’t as experienced.

To help minimize shrink, Harrington said retailers need to scan items as they sell them, then compare their order to the actual usage. Then they can reorder based on their specific sales.

Harrington also suggests retailers have little back stock of produce. “In this particular case, it is actually better for the mom-and pop type of retailer to run out for a day than to throw two to four days away,” he said.

For sandwiches and salads, big expiration or prepared-on dates on the packages reassure customers the food is fresh and clear packaging allows them to see inside.

For all fresh grab-and-go products, retailers will want to look for distributors that carry a comprehensive, fresh program. “A lot of distributors will say they deal in fresh but they have two to three items and don’t have the logistics to get deliveries out there three times a week,” Harrington said.


This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazineStop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations and provides context on trends and news affecting the industry.

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