U.S.A. — Consumers today crave fresher, more wholesome, restaurant-inspired foods when grabbing meals on the go. If such items are readily available, patrons are willing to pay a premium for them. The trend is evident across all retail channels, and vending and micromarket operators are stepping up their games to enjoy their piece of the pie.
Fast-casual restaurants, like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread, have had a big impact on expanding quick, convenient access to higher-quality made-to-order food at prices most people can afford. Vying for their share, the fast-food giants are fancying up their menus with premium burgers, artisan breads, yogurt parfaits and caramel lattes. Made-to-order wraps and sandwiches and restaurant-quality salads are edging out roller-grill hotdogs and ham-and-cheese-on-white as standard fare at many c-stores.
Contemporary customers are becoming conditioned to want more in terms of freshness, perceived healthfulness and variety in the food they purchase, and vending operators who are rising to the occasion to meet their demands say it’s worth the effort.
Greg McCall, senior vice-president of sales and marketing of Five Star Food Service (Chattanooga, TN), the largest Canteen franchise in the U.S., said the company has found that fresher, higher-quality food is increasingly important to its customer base. Vending is the largest of its four lines of business, delivered on 200 routes, and the company manages 40 corporate cafeterias. It also has 425 micromarkets on location, and it serves more than 2,000 office coffee accounts. Given the upmarket trend in convenient food, Five Star is on a mission to bring a new level of excitement to its food vending machines. Calling attention to the upgrades are new graphics to jazz up the standard black machine fronts of its refrigerated combo food/snack/beverage Crane 431 and 432 machines, and the addition of LED product display lighting.
The operation is creating planograms to make sure the top-selling foods are in all machines, just as they are in the snack and beverage categories. “Product selection in the food category at our company — and others — tends to be an afterthought,” McCall observed, “and often, drivers just order what they want. When we got involved in micro-markets and visibility to sales data was greater, we moved into planograms for food, just as we do with drinks and snacks.
“We are now ‘reverse-engineering’ that back to vending,” he explained. “We know what sells in micromarkets and are taking those learnings back to vending in food machines.”
Five Star has also installed credit card readers on all its food machines. This has facilitated the shift toward selections of higher perceived value by enabling prices higher than the traditional $3 price ceiling for cash purchases and thus paving the way for the company to merchandise more of the premium-quality selections its customers desire.
“Another challenge with vending machines is that consumers can’t touch and view the food,” McCall noted. “More and more, people want to see the freshness and ‘nutritionals’ up close, especially in white-collar locations, and that’s difficult to get around in vending. In micromarkets, we see food representing over 20% of sales because consumers can see it and feel it and read the label, which makes the sale much easier.” McCall attributes Five Star’s responsiveness, adaptability and success in the evolving food category largely to operating its own HACCP-certified commissary. With a production capacity as high as six million pieces of fresh food annually, the company has become adept at controlling the quality, variety and cost of the items it produces to meet market demands while minimizing waste and maintaining margins. Five Star packages its fresh foods under three brands: its value $1.50 to $3 Fresh To You line; upscale Avenue C brand, which ranges in price from $3.50 to $5; and “better-for-you” Choice Plus offerings.
While fresh food is a big selling tool for Five Star, managing waste remains a challenge, with most items carrying a seven-day shelf life at best. “We need to be real careful to put out the right items,” the Five Star executive emphasized. “Only 8% of our vending sales are from food; it’s pretty low in the mix. We have to throw away 10% of it, and that’s if we manage it well. Food has always presented challenges, and it’s still tough.” Adding commercial prepared foods to the mix, including standbys like AdvancePierre and Deli Express sandwiches and White Castle burgers — which stay fresh when thawed for upwards of 21 days — helps minimize throw-aways. And in both vending and micromarkets, there always are customers who prefer brand-name items to those that are freshly made. “In vending, fresh food is a huge point of differentiation for us; 80% of foods sales are fresh offerings we produce,” McCall said. “In micro-markets, we have a much larger variety of fresh selections, and manufactured foods represent about half of the mix.”
In its micro-markets, Five Star merchandises food in single- and double-door refrigerated coolers, which generally display 50 or more SKUs of salads, sandwiches wraps and lighter snacks. The No.1 seller in the food category is Kraft’s Cracker Barrel-brand sharp cheddar mini cheese block, followed by its string cheese. Also in high demand are fresh snacks like hummus, yogurt and pickles. Branded prepackaged handheld foods round out the options. Five Star created its own line of sandwiches and wraps that meet the calorie, sodium and fat criteria specified by Canteen’s Choice Plus brand, and offers them daily in its micromarkets and machines.
“Customers recognize these items and know that they’re considered ‘better for you’ than some other items,” said McCall. “Our chicken salad sandwich has moved to the top 10 of total food sales, reflecting the trend toward ‘better for you.’ It’s increasingly important to make sure you’re vending the right product and taste profile to meet consumers’ tastes and nutritional concerns.” Clear, tamper-proof packaging and custom-made labels give Five Star’s food a high-quality, upscale look that McCall compared to Starbucks or Panera’s presentation. “You have to position upscale food in that way to get $5 per ring,” he emphasized.
Most Five Star micro-markets also include a reach-in display freezer, primarily merchandised with ice cream plus a few food items like frozen pizza and entrees in select locations.
Despite Five Star’s success with micromarkets and its push to continue expanding deployment of the self-checkout stores, McCall emphasized that they are not a fit everywhere. He said that the company expects at least 50% of its food business will be done in vending, going forward.
“This is why it’s so important to refresh our food machines and take advantage of a sales opportunity that we’ve ignored in the past,” said McCall. Substantiating that opportunity is the fact that Five Star has seen an upswing in demand for higher-priced, more premium fresh food in vending, even before its program upgrade, particularly at white-collar locations.
“People are willing to pay for quality food in vending and micromarkets, especially when it eliminates the need to get in the car, lose their spot and burn 30 to 35 minutes getting lunch,” said McCall. “The trend has been somewhat more downward at blue-collar, lower-wage accounts, where employees are struggling, and more price-conscious and sensitive to value; we also see more brown bagging in many of those locations.”
See more at: Vending Times