While the COVID-19 pandemic forced c-stores and restaurants to pull back on limited-time offers (LTOs), the popular promotions have now returned in full force, driving new and existing customers into stores.
Total restaurant and c-store LTOs jumped from 3,213 at its pandemic low in 2020 to 4,514 in 2022, according to statistics from Datassential. From January through September 2023, c-stores and restaurants have issued 3,472 LTOs — putting them on pace to eclipse the number of LTOs issued last year.
LTOs are critical to c-stores’ financial success, according to Claire Conaghan, associate director of publications at Datassential. Sixty-one percent of operators say they are a profit center for their businesses and 54% call LTOs a central part of their offerings, according to the firm’s research.
Around 22% of LTOs perform so well that they end up permanently joining the menu, Conaghan noted.
Effective LTOs are exciting and allow customers to try new foods or drinks in a “safe” way, Conaghan said. They also offer value, utilize fresh and colorful ingredients and are often easy to execute, experts and c-store operators say.
C-store and restaurant LTOs
C-store LTOs offer wide variety
As the leaves turn and Halloween approaches, the c-store LTO landscape predictably includes a lot of pumpkin spice and maple flavors. However, many companies are also mixing in other adventurous food and drinks.
In September, 7-Eleven released its caramel macchiato, along with a French toast breakfast sandwich, pumpkin muffin, and gingerbread cookie. These came after the retailer debuted a pumpkin spice latte, spicy meat pizza, cheesy garlic bread sticks and other new foods in August.
QuickChek unveiled a slew of LTOs in September, including seasonal picks like a pumpkin cookies & cream shake and pumpkin mocha espresso drinks, alongside Nashville hot & spicy chicken mac & cheese, a frozen watermelon Red Bull infusion and NFL-themed subs like the tomato mozzarella touchdown.
Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s also unveiled its own seasonal items, including maple pumpkin spice coffee, pumpkin crunch donut, and caramel apple pie. Other key LTOs that the company launched this year include its "pepperoni pepperoni pepperoni pizza,” a King’s Hawaiian BBQ brisket sandwich and the ultimate waffle breakfast sandwich, said Tom Brennan, Casey’s chief merchandising officer.
The company’s Single Barrel Select Buffalo Trace Bourbon program, which launched in April, has also been very popular.
“These LTOs were centered on delivering on the wants of our guests, what they crave, and what they're looking for when stopping into a Casey's store to grab a food or beverage item,” Brennan said.
While enticing, unique flavors may be the main draw for LTOs, price also plays an important role for c-stores. When asked if various LTOs were a good value for their price, 51% of consumers surveyed by Datassential in 2022 said c-store LTOs were a good value, slightly more than the number of people who said QSR LTOs were a good value.
Despite this perception of value, operators don’t have to discount to create a winning LTO, Conaghan said.
“Most LTOs consumers buy are priced similarly to other items on the menu, and more carry a premium than are value priced/discounted,” Conaghan pointed out.
Effective LTOs are exciting, but ‘safe’
C-stores are adept at launching LTOs that push the boundaries of consumers’ taste adventures, but they must also be approachable, experts say.
Successful LTOs drive consumers back to that operator and inspire them to spread the word, according to Datassential. About 85% of consumers say they would return to a restaurant or c-store and reorder an LTO they liked, and about three-quarters of those surveyed said they would tell people about the item.
Consumers’ favorite LTOs are decidedly indulgent, Conaghan said. The most popular options include burgers, desserts, shakes and specialty coffee.
York, Pennsylvania-based Rutter’s is known for edgy, indulgent LTOs such as a peanut butter burger, grilled mac & cheese, egg nog shake and s’mores extreme shake.
“These items have not only performed well in terms of sales but have also generated tremendous enthusiasm within our program,” said Chad White, Rutter’s food service category manager.
Rutter’s made a significant effort to offer exciting short-term choices this year — even dedicating a special rotating LTO menu.
“These LTOs enhance our menu by introducing items that might not have been on our customers' radar otherwise,” White said. Consumers may need some reassurance when venturing to try a new LTO, Conaghan said. The top factor that discourages trial among consumers is being unsure if they will like it.
“LTOs do best when grounded in the principles of safe experimentation — balancing new elements with familiar ones can help consumers feel more comfortable trying new LTOs,” Conaghan added.
Offering a new twist on a familiar format such as burgers or pizza can reduce risk for consumers but drive excitement and get them to try the new offerings, Conaghan said.
To that end, Sayre, Pennsylvania-based Dandy Mini Marts has realized success with brisket — including brisket pizza, a brisket sandwich and a brisket flatbread melt this year, according to Ryan Bublavy, food service director for the company.
Specialty hot dogs — pizza, bacon and cheese, dilly (dill aioli and pickles) and spicy — on pretzel buns were also popular, while Dandy’s “Hot Dog Flight”, which featured all four hot dogs, was “an interesting way to promote our concept and increase sales on an inexpensive idea,” Bublavy said.
Dandy’s hot dog promo also performed well because “it was easy for our teams to execute and provided great value to our guests,” Bublavy said.
High-quality, colorful ingredients across all seasons
Visual appeal is key to spurring trials of new LTOs, according to Conaghan. And operators say they try to feature fresh, high-quality, local ingredients when possible.
Around 30% of consumers say they were influenced by advertisements in which a particular item looked appealing, according to Datassential.
Spiceland, Texas-based TXB ensures that its LTOs feature fresh, regional ingredients.
“We love offering LTO items that celebrate the Lone Star State's unique culinary heritage. Whether it's a BBQ brisket sandwich or a Tex-Mex breakfast taco, we keep our LTO offerings genuine to our Texan roots,” CEO Kevin Smartt said.
Successful LTOs from TXB this year include the brisket quesabirria, a quesadilla stuffed with savory brisket, cilantro and onion and topped with cheese; the brisket egg & cheese quesadilla; and fish taco with Yellow Bird serrano aioli.
TXB likes to use fresh, seasonal ingredients, but “some of our recent LTOs have been doing so well, we have stuck with them instead of changing,” Smartt echoed. For example, TXB’s chicken bacon ranch quesadilla is so popular, the company has continued to feature it.
Finding seasonal ingredients, however, can prove challenging amid both supply chain difficulties and inflation, Conaghan said, “so don’t feel restricted to seasonal items in order to create a new, exciting item.”
Still, Brennan said seasonality is a major factor when considering which LTOs Casey’s will offer.
“People are looking for different things in the summer versus during back-to-school season, versus the holidays and so on, so it's important to think through external factors,” Brennan said. “Getting these right in regards to the LTO can be a big unlock in performance.”