Dinner to Go

Dinner to Go

Dinner to Go


by Meline Beach

Increasingly blurred lines between retail foodservice, QSRs and even grocery stores, create a competitive advantage for c-stores wanting to compete in the dinner category with their foodservice offering. The quantity and quality of options available for consumers are at an all-time high.

One growing c-store competitor is Rabba Fine Foods. All of their 34 locations across the Greater Toronto Area offer customers a fresh and hot foodservice program covering all main meal occasions, including dinner. The European-style store has been in existence for over 40 years and resembles a hybrid between a c-store and a mini market. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Rabba features all the amenities of a convenience store, such as lottery, tobacco, Automated banking machines and phone cards, as well as fresh foods of a market, complete with produce, meat and an extensive foodservice offering. 

What’s for dinner?

Category Sales Manager Peter Lombardi states that their most popular proteins fall within two categories: Home Meal Replacement (HMR) of several chicken combination meals and fresh with various bean offerings.  In addition to that, Rabba also offers a hot table featuring chicken, lasagna, chili, grilled vegetables and an assortment of rice, potatoes and even sushi and shawarma at select locations.

McCain has a variety of craveable dinner foodservice options that are versatile and hold well, including McCain’s Potato Wedges and Potato Bites.  Prepared and served on location, these products are cost-effective in terms of labour, making them a great option for operators who want menu items that will be both profitable and popular, while looking to manage operating costs.

“It is very important to have a variety of products available to suit the needs of both the convenience store customer and operator,” says Greg Boyer, marketing director at McCain. “For the operator, that means products that are simple to prepare and have a longer hold time, so that if they’re prepared in advance, they still taste great when the customer picks them up.”

Boyer adds: “We also find that successful C&G operators offer products that are easy for the customers to recognize. For example, Tater Tots are a great option for operators who want menu items that will be both profitable and popular. They are one of the fastest growing sides in Canada, growing at more than 12 per cent annually.”

Relatively new to the Canadian market, US-based White Castle also offers hamburgers and cheeseburgers to the consumer on the go who craves beef as part of their dinner meal occasion. With portability a top benefit, packaged six in a box, White Castle’s famous sliders are sold frozen for at-home re-heating, available at Rabba Fine Foods.

“We are quick to proclaim the power of pairings,” says Jamie Richardson, vice president at White Castle. “With some sides and the right mix of beverages to complement our sliders, an affordable meal solution is something C&G stores anywhere are uniquely qualified to bring to their customers.”

Similarly, Pinty’s products of wings, burgers and chicken breasts are also available frozen for take home and hot for immediate consumption in the C&G channel. Its popular Pub & Grill skus are distributed through Core-Mark and include salt and pepper wings, buffalo wings and honey garlic chicken breast chunks. Items served hot at Circle K c-stores include breaded wings and boneless, tender chicken breast chunks.

Lombardi has spent the last five years focusing on providing customers with fresh convenience offers, first with Shoppers Drug Mart’s emerging convenience format, and most recently with Rabba Fine Foods. Throughout his tenure in the foodservice industry he has seen the category evolve.

“The evolution of our foodservice offering is driven by consumer trends and demands,” says Lombardi. “One example is our barbecue chicken category. We just recently introduced a free-range chicken that is grain-fed without antibiotics or growth hormones. This item is extremely popular and addresses the growing trends of healthier choices.”

Other foodservice items related to healthier choices include veggie burgers, plant-based cheese, plant-based pasta and cauliflower pizza – just to name a few.

Who’s Buying?

When it comes to dining, convenience continues to be top of mind for today’s consumer. According to Boyer, last year, delivery and take out outperformed total traffic across full service, QSR and retail foodservice channels.  And, with an abundance of third-party online apps to choose from, it is easier than ever to take advantage of delivery and takeout opportunities to grow a foodservice business in the C&G channel. For example, as stated on their website, 7-Eleven now facilitates delivery of food, snacks and everyday essentials through foodora in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto and Uber Eats in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Regina.

Unlike older generations, who may associate c-stores as a place for cigarettes and soft drinks, many younger generations, including Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2010) do not share the same stereotype and are fully accustomed and comfortable with purchasing foodservice at c-stores. Today’s customers are strapped for time and are looking to purchase a decent meal on the go, in perhaps a more convenient manner than a QSR.

For Rabba, their busiest time of the day is often between 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., where they could prepare upwards of 10 chickens in that three-hour window.   Depending on location, another busy time is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. for one of their stores located near a downtown Toronto hotel.

“In either instance, people are hungry for substance and we’re pleased to satisfy their cravings with something wholesome, nutritious and quick,” says Lombardi.

Finer Details

In terms of advice for foodservice success, Lombardi suggests that C&G retail owners and operators keep current with what’s trending by reading various publications and to use their supplier network.

“Suppliers know what is working and what is not – try various products until you find the right ones that address your customers’ needs and eating habits,” says Lombardi.

In an effort to compete with grocery stores, Chris Oake, retail account manager at Pinty’s advises retailers to get rid of TV dinners as “it’s not 1997,” and to avoid unnecessary, excessive markup on foodservice items.

“Carry items that have brand recognition and a higher dollar margin. Pinty’s frozen products are reputable, yield a 30 per cent margin and take up little space in freezers,” says Oake, who also encourages C&G retailers to leverage sports and contesting as a means of attracting consumers to their foodservice program. “A lot of people visit c-stores to purchase sports lottery tickets, especially on Sundays during football season. Wings are a perfect complement to football.”

Boyer advises C&G owners and operators to locate their foodservice offering as close to the register as possible. “Location and prominence in-store are extremely important for a successful food program. The size of the food program and the closer it is in proximity it is to the cash register; the more customers are aware of the offerings and likely to make impulse purchases.”

Packaging is also an important consideration for a successful dinner foodservice program. While these meal options may be larger in scale, their packaging should follow certain guidelines to ensure best quality for takeout and delivery. This includes vented paper packaging over Styrofoam to release steam and preserve crispness, separating hot and cold items from each other, with condiments and napkins on the side, and sealed to avoid any perception of tampering.

Frank Beard, an analyst on convenience store and retail trends with GasBuddy, strongly encourages C&G retailers to leverage mobile advertising as a means of raising awareness and drawing in foot traffic. Not only does GasBuddy, as a mobile application, provide an outlet for advertising, it also encourages users to rate their experiences at C&G stores they’ve visited.

“People don’t go to c-stores to shop,” says Beard. “They go there to buy something quickly. That’s why it’s important for brands to build awareness of their products before customers visit.” With 2.1 million monthly active users in Canada and over 12 million in the United States, GasBuddy is a top-rated travel app. “For the dinner occasion, the challenge is for C&G retailers to go beyond a basic, undifferentiated product offering and create a true destination menu—something worth driving a few extra minutes. One way to do this is with customization and made-to-order options.”

An example of this is Casey’s, a convenience store with gas bar in the United States. Founded in 1959, Casey’s has become known for its helpful employees, clean stores and wide selection of freshly prepared food items. So much so, that its fresh pizza offering is the country’s fifth largest pizza company.

They key to successful foodservice in the C&G channel, according to Beard, is to build an offer that really resonates with the people in the community.  “After all, a convenience store is really a community store.” 

Meline Beach is a Toronto-based communications practitioner and frequent contributor to Convenience & Carwash Canada. In addition to freelance writing, Meline provides communications and public relations support to businesses across Canada. She can be reached at:

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