New comfort food and family meal offerings from some c-stores chains aim to help operators grab the lucrative but elusive dinnertime crowd.
While grocery stores and restaurants heavily promote their take-home meals — particularly family bundles and meal options — c-stores traditionally lag behind.
Only 6% of consumers buy prepared foods and beverages at c-stores at dinnertime, while the majority buy them earlier in the day, per Datassential’s 2023 C-Store Keynote Report, published in January 2023. Thirty percent of consumers buy prepared food and beverages at lunch, 30% snag them in the afternoon or for a snack and 17% buy prepared foods and drinks at breakfast, the firm’s research found.
“[C-stores’] format and associated occasions (like quick bites) are not in line with how most Americans view dinner,” said Ann Golladay, senior director of publications at Datassential.
However, Golladay is optimistic that c-stores operators can still become dinner destinations since many have significantly enhanced foodservice offerings since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Consumers were getting takeout from locations where they would have never gotten takeout before and were looking for new ways to get prepared offerings in a safe way,” Golladay explained. “What's more, we saw operators across the industry invest in technology that reduces friction and makes it easier than ever to order — things like loyalty apps and online delivery/pick-up options.”
How TA, TXB and more approach dinner
To appeal more to families and professional drivers, BP-owned TravelCenters of America (TA) recently released a limited-time Comfort Classics menu, which includes Maira’s meatloaf, “road trip” pot roast, “untraditional” spaghetti & meatballs and bread bowl chili. Available at its full-service Country Pride, Iron Skillet and Fork & Compass restaurants, the meals are priced between $11.99 and $16.99.
“In the travel center industry, we serve guests from all over the country — professional drivers and others who are on the road for work, families on road trips and those living [in] the communities where we have locations. It is important that we have options for all dayparts … and the dinner daypart is just as attractive for our guests as the breakfast or lunch may be,” said Tina Arundel, TA’s senior director of communications.
The new menu signifies an “exciting area of opportunity,” according to Arundel.
"We often have bundle opportunities in different day parts — breakfast, lunch and dinner — and will start implementing more bundle activity in the future as we continue testing what products are most attractive to our guests,” Arundel said.
The idea for the Comfort Classics originated from guest feedback and national restaurant trends, Arundel explained.
Top sellers in the new lineup so far are the meatloaf and pot roast. Other popular dinner items at its travel centers and gas stations include chicken-fried steak and pork chops. In its full-service restaurants, pot roast, pork chop dinner, chicken parmesan and smash burgers are the most favored options.
Tips for success at dinner
While boosting dinner sales will be a challenge for c-store operators since most consumers don't consider such locations for their evening meals, there are several ways convenience retailers can better compete with restaurants and grocery stores for their piece of the pie.
1. Promoting freshness, food quality and cleanliness is critically important, a Datassential spokesperson said. “While consumers will always lean toward c-stores for convenience, improved freshness and quality will help them differentiate themselves.”
2. High-quality food and exciting LTOs are essential. “Like any restaurant or foodservice business, craveability spurs repeat visits like nothing else, so innovation is always important,” the spokesperson said.
3. Operators should consider how consumers get their dinner food and make it easier and more convenient to choose their local c-store than a restaurant or grocery store, according to Golladay. “Stopping in to pick up food on the way home from work may be an option, but stores are likely to get even more traffic if they have order-ahead pick-up cubbies or offer delivery,” Golladay said.
4. Signage, marketing and loyalty programs are still important ways to get the word out to consumers who may buy more than they intended to in the right circumstances, according to the Datassential spokesperson. A majority (80%) of consumers go into a c-store knowing exactly what they want — or at least the type of item they want — but nearly half (47%) end up buying other items.
Similar to TA, TXB Stores recently added two Family Take Home Meals for $19.99 through the end of the year. Its chicken tender meal includes 10 tenders, two 16-ounce sides selected from mashed potatoes, mac n’ cheese, rice, or refried beans, and four rolls. Its tamale meal deal includes a dozen tamales, Spanish rice and refried beans.
“We wanted to offer meals that could feed the family for under $20,” said Anna Felz, marketing brand manager for TXB. “Our guests have responded positively to both of these meals so far.”
TXB has also experienced increased demand for its meals on the go in general, Felz said.
The Texas-based convenience retailer is also working on adding family meals that can be easily prepared, re-heated and/or cooked at home in the stores’ chilled grab-and-go section, Felz noted.
Felz believes TXB’s meal offerings are “better-for-you, cheaper and more convenient for coming together and enjoying dinner family-style” than most fast food chains.
Pizza still a strong lure
While recent limited-time menu rollouts are promising, many c-stores are looking to entice consumers with more traditional pit-stop fare like pizza and sandwiches at dinnertime, according to Datassential and operators.
“If c-stores want to grow their dinner sales they should highlight their menu items that are most suited to a sit down meal (since dinner skews that way) — things like a full pizza or fried chicken,” Golladay said.
Overall, C-store customers are seeking personal, fresh and customizable pizzas, all-beef hot dogs with high-quality buns, and sandwiches made on-site, a Datassential spokesperson said.
About 66% of c-store operators surveyed for Datassential’s 2023 C-Store Keynote Report currently offer pizza, and 18% say they plan to offer it. Ninety-five percent offer hot dogs and 3% plan to add them. And 87% sell sandwiches/wraps, while 8% plan to add them in the future.
Operators are also highly interested in adding globally inspired and easily portable foods, such as calzones, tacos and tamales, according to Datassential. Additionally, 26% of operators want to offer soup bars and 16% currently offer them.
In TA’s c-stores, “warm foods” like pizza, tacos and sandwiches are very popular, said Arundel. The chain is looking to add more selections under these comfort favorites.
“It is important that c-stores have a variety of easy-to-access delicious, warm food items to meet the needs of families and professional drivers on the go. We are focused on elevating our food offering with more delicious food, and making these offers quick and convenient to heat up,” Arundel added.