Plenty of c-stores say they’re focusing more on foodservice these days. But with its brand new store format, Dash In is providing a fresh-focused menu that it hopes will elevate it beyond the standard retailer-provided fare and put it in direct competition with restaurants.
This focus hits shoppers immediately at the first store under the new model, located just off route 659 in Loudoun County, Virginia. As they walk up to the store entrance, they’ll see the made-to-order kitchen visible through the double glass doors.
“We talked about it being a restaurant that also sells convenience products and fuel, versus … a convenience store that has c-store food,” said Mark Samuels, vice president of retail for The Wills Group, Dash In’s parent company.
Dash In’s management team wanted to deliver on three key criteria, Samuels said. First, it wanted the food to be made with fresh ingredients — fresh-cracked eggs, fresh ground beef instead of frozen, and as little processing as possible.
That focus also helps it achieve the second pillar — less sodium and preservatives in its food.
Finally, and most crucially, “if it's not delicious, it's not on the menu,” said Samuels. “We really wanted to stick with that standard. If you don't eat it and say, ‘I would buy this again and again,’ it didn't make the cut.”
The approach seems to be working so far. At an event held at the new store on Tuesday, Samuels said that in the previous week, 50% of its sales had been food.
He said the store has been popular enough that the kitchen is basically on a 24/7 cycle. If the employees are not preparing fresh food for the customers, they’re making donuts, frying the fresh in-house potato chips or handling various types of prep work.
People typically don’t rush into a new Dash In store like this, said Samuels, which is a testament to the renewed foodservice focus. “We had to ramp up the staff really quickly … it's a really good problem to have.”
The store also has an entirely new look compared to what customers can expect at the 53 other Dash Ins in operation in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. The company expects to add 15 more of this new concept in those three states, according to Samuels, and eventually refresh all of its existing stores under the new foodservice-focused model.
Focus on the food
Dash In’s new menu covers a wide variety of foods. Foremost are the array of burgers, from a smokehouse burger that includes pork carnitas and crispy onions to the double dash burger, made using Dash In’s house-made sauce. The menu also features its stackadillas — a double-stacked quesadilla — and a variety of other sandwiches, salads and bowls.
Beyond made-to-order options, packaged sandwiches and salads are also available, as are house-made potato chips, which are fried and seasoned on site.
And then there’s the donuts.
“We have a donut fryer on site, so we make fresh doughnuts throughout the day,” said Samuels. “That's a huge hit.”
To develop a menu that met all three of its proposed food service pillars, the team at Dash In started with several ideation sessions, where they talked about what items should be on the menu and how to approach them.
“We wanted all of our food to be approachable,” said Samuels. “Mainstream, but differentiated in some way. Whether that's with the type of bread it's on, the type of preparation or the sauce that's on it, we want it to be uniquely Dash In.”
From this, the team developed a prototype menu, making sure their chosen items hit all the dayparts, and sounded appealing. Once that was done, they commenced with taste testing.
“We met at our supplier’s kitchen and had nearly a dozen sessions, where we would test recipes,” Samuels said. “We would bring in executives and people from our organization, and we took all the feedback, made tweaks, and then came up with a final draft menu.”
New look, new market
It’s not just the new menu that customers will notice. As Dash In updates its foodservice operations at its stores, it will also update their design to include new branding, packaging and other features.
“Everything is pretty much brand new with the new model,” said Samuels. “So as we roll the menu out from this new location to older locations, we will update the visual identity at that time.”
Starting from the outside, the store strives to look different from typical c-stores. The canopy over the fuel pumps is smaller than those found at other c-stores, and has exposed steel beams and bricks, all painted and with light branding.
The less heavy aesthetic extends to the c-store as well.
“It's a kind of an industrial, upscale look that we’re building,” Samuels said. “We didn't want the traditional … square box like you typically see.”
Also visible from the outside are a series of thick wooden beams which were brought across the country from Oregon to give the store a unique look — and to support the ceiling in such a way that it doesn’t need any pillars on the interior.
Samuels said Dash In had to be thoughtful about where the HVAC systems would be run, to keep them from having to be strung up over the main store area.
Adding to the sense of openness, the merchandise racks are kept intentionally lower, and the tobacco wall behind the counter also has a lower profile, giving visibility across most of the store. Seating is available both inside and outside, and a hand-washing station lets customers clean their hands before or after eating without having to use the bathroom sinks.
The store’s beer cave features plenty of local brews in addition to national brands, and there’s a wine section with a variety of options. But the most unique drink area is its 22-foot beverage wall. In addition to bean-to-cup coffee machines and a smoothie maker, it offers a series of proprietary blends Dash In calls “bubbler” drinks, a variety of fruit-based beverages like mango-peach limeade or blueberry-pomegranate-hibiscus refresher.
There are also taps, like those normally found at bars, dispensing a variety of teas and sodas. Tap-dispensed soda presents a complication, as the syrup and soda water need to be mixed as it’s served. That’s why Dash In’s is one of only a couple in the country, Samuels said.
The site also features one of Dash In’s Splash In car washes. And here, too, customers can see an upgrade. Samuels explained that while the company started out using 40-foot bays in its car washes, it eventually increased those to 44 feet, and with this location has increased them again to 48 feet, to further prevent water and suds splashing over from adjacent bays.
Don’t stop innovating
From its founding in 1979 in Maryland, Dash In has gone through a number of iterations within its foodservice program, Samuels said. At its inception, Dash In offered fried chicken and potato wedges. Over time, it changed its approach, including franchising with companies like Subway and Baskin Robbins in the 1990s.
However, in the early 2000s the company moved away from those franchises again, and in 2015 it got “laser focused on building a very strong, proprietary food program,” said Samuels. That led to building or reworking stores to what the company calls its neighborhood store standard — stores capable of offering the company’s broader foodservice option — starting in 2018.
Samuels said that within the next 24 to 30 months, all of Dash In’s locations will be able to handle their own food preparation.
“Every piece of prepared food service that's sold in our stores is prepared in house,” said Samuels. “We don't bring in any food from commissaries that's already pre-wrapped pre-made.”
Because the neighborhood store standard includes adding a commercial kitchen, these locations should be able to update to the new menu without much renovation as the new concept gets rolled out to them, Samuels said.
And then the chain can focus more on new stores.
“Our goal in the next three to five years is to open six to 10 new stores per year,” Samuels said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Loudoun County.