Convenience Stores Play in the Restaurant Industry: Frank Beard Explains [Podcast]
- 15 Min Read
At ezCater, we want to help restaurants grow a successful catering business. Whether you’re in the early stages of building a business or an industry veteran, let us help you dip into the $61.5 billion catering market. In each episode of “The Catering Feed,” we talk to restaurant industry leaders of thriving brands who share insights and tactics to ramp up your catering business.
A wave of gas stations and convenience stores is breaking out of the mold of roller-grilled hot dogs and slushies. Taking their cue from restaurants, “c-stores,” aka convenience stores, are tapping into a growing demand for convenient feel-good food. In response to the market, some stores are offering freshly prepared meals and catering. This is big news. These stores aren’t just blurring the lines between convenience stores and quick-service restaurants—they’re also impacting the catering industry.
In Part 1 of this podcast, we go inside the mind of Frank Beard, an Analyst for the smartphone app GasBuddy, to learn about the industry landscape of convenience stores. Frank shares how gas station and convenience store operators are rethinking their business models to be more food-forward and capitalize on the catering opportunity. Listen to Part 1 below and stay tuned for Part 2, which will discuss how convenience stores are changing the catering industry.
Frank Beard is an Analyst for the smartphone app GasBuddy, where he looks at convenience store and retail trends. A thought leader in his field, Frank has helped convenience stores create a positive public perception of their food.
Want catering revenue for your business?
Genevieve Babineau: Welcome to The Catering Feed: The Catering Growth Podcast, a show about growing your catering business and restaurant industry trends, powered by ezCater.
Hi, everyone. Welcome to the podcast. I’m here today with Frank Beard from GasBuddy. I am so pumped—no pun intended—to have Frank here today to talk about his complete obsession with the convenience store (c-store) industry. Frank, thank you so much for joining me today.
Frank Beard: Yeah. Thanks for having me on the podcast.
Genevieve Babineau: So, Frank, before we dig in today, I feel like it’s always good to talk about some really cool trending news. A lot of people have been buzzing about the fact that Wawa is now offering catering at all of its locations. And I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. So I totally understand what a way of life Wawa is. And I can imagine why a lot of people want to take that off-premises. But what’s your take on this?
Frank Beard: I mean it makes sense to me. Wawa is one of those stores that you drive out of the way to visit.
Genevieve Babineau: Yeah.
Frank Beard: You know, it’s an interesting time for the industry because you really have to differentiate yourself. I mean LastMile Retail hasn’t had a lot of competition over the years, but it’s here now and it’s really good. I mean I can open an app like goPuff if I’m in a town that has goPuff. And I’ve done this. They’ll bring whatever you want to your door in like 20 minutes.
Genevieve Babineau: Right.
Frank Beard: They’re so fast. They give you a loading bar like Domino’s Pizza does, even.
Genevieve Babineau: While you’re hanging out watching a TV show.
Frank Beard: Yeah and you can spend $6—it’s like $5.95—to join the fam—their loyalty program or whatever. And they’ll knock out delivery fees for basically $6 a month. So if you’re someone who just discovered Stranger Things and you don’t want to leave your couch for maybe the next two weeks, well, they’ll bring it to you. So for convenience stores, you really have to differentiate yourself. And Wawa has done that through food service as good as anybody has. And so I mean, catering is only natural and the food’s great.
Genevieve Babineau: I think, also, they’ve built this really strong following. I met one of the leaders at Wawa and I kind of fangirled a little bit. And I said, “I’m a really big fan of your work.” And he said, “Let me guess, you’re from Pennsylvania.” Because it’s like it is! It was something that you know—people almost felt like they—it was sacrilegious to go to a Starbucks instead of going to get Wawa’s coffee.
Frank Beard: Yeah. There was an article that came out last year that said they sell 200 million cups of coffee a year and the coffee is great. They actually sell single-use cups K-Cups. I have a collection of K-Cups from all the c-store brands.
Genevieve Babineau: Of course you do.
Frank Beard: I’ll take them home and make it. It’s kind of fun to compare them, but yeah. I mean they sell their coffee to take home and make. People love going there.
Genevieve Babineau: Do you see this being a really pervasive trend in the c-store industry? That a lot of operators are seeing this opportunity not just to differentiate themselves inside the four walls, but to start expanding outside the four walls with something like catering?
Frank Beard: Yeah, it’s a challenge because I think some brands are hesitant to remove the customer from the experience they’ve created in the store. But catering is a huge opportunity. It’s like we have some operators in this industry that have absolutely incredible food service. And it’s just one more way to get that food to customers. There’s actually a lot of independents who’ve developed really amazing food service programs, who have experimented with catering as well and have had some success with it. So I think it’s only natural now that you’re seeing these larger brands like Wawa see the opportunity. And they have their food service at the point where they can actually do real catering. It’s cater-worthy, if that’s a thing. It’s that kind of food.
Genevieve Babineau: It is now. You heard it here first, folks. So, you know, to go from your 30-day challenge to now being able to, you know, just dive into the world of c-stores every single day. How many c-stores do you think you’ve been to in your life?
Frank Beard: Oh, gosh, it’s been thousands probably, at this point. I counted for a little while and then I just stopped.
Genevieve Babineau: Yeah.
Frank Beard: Yeah. So I got into this through like a very nontraditional way. Started through this thing called “30 Days of Gas Station Food.” And what that really was, is—you know, I’d gone through a massive weight loss experience and any time you do that you just kind of naturally get tuned into the whole discussion about healthy living. It just ends up happening. And I kept hearing this theme that eating on the go is like part of the so-called problem. And I’m like, well that’s not true. Because at the time I was traveling basically five days a week. I got to do something to challenge this.
And well, I thought it would be something simple like I’d eat at gas stations for a week. And I had a lot of time to think about this because I was driving to Kansas City from Des Moines. About five minutes into the drive though, it just clicked. I was like, you know what? Let’s make this really extreme. Let’s do gas stations for an entire month and then let’s document the entire thing. I mean that sounds crazy, right?
Genevieve Babineau: And for people who don’t know much about GasBuddy, tell us a little bit about GasBuddy.
Frank Beard: So GasBuddy is really interesting. Actually, this is a very fragmented industry. It’s probably like the biggest $650 billion industry that no one knows anything about.
Genevieve Babineau: Amen.
Frank Beard: And GasBuddy is unique in that we tied together a fragmented industry. I mean about two-thirds of the industry are single-store owner-operated [businesses]. Meaning it’s a person who owns one convenience store. But then your major brands tend to be regional as well. So it’s really hard to tie together this fragmented industry and GasBuddy is essentially the platform that does that. So we have about 12 million active monthly users, 80 million downloads. I think we were rated—this study came out and said we’re the seventh most positively reviewed app on the [iPhone] App Store, which is pretty impressive.
Genevieve Babineau: That’s pretty impressive.
Frank Beard: Yes, that’s a big deal. It’s a very big deal. And so people essentially use our app to find a place to go. It’s their perfect pit stop, is what we like to call it. And so for some, that’s about checking gas prices to get the best deal. For others, that’s about looking for something else. You can rate and review convenience stores. You can evaluate what’s on the next route. We even have QSRs [quick service restaurants] coming to us now to advertise on our app because they’re trying to get our app users to come to their stores instead of going to eat at a convenience store. So it’s a pretty cool feature.
Genevieve Babineau: And it seems pretty innovative for those restaurant operators and brands to be thinking about what is that share and see that c-stores are pretty legitimate competitors. But also learn some lessons from that industry. A lot of my former colleagues at California Pizza Kitchen all lived in Texas. And so I have to tell you that, you know, as a New Englander and a kind of Northerner or a Yankee, as they would call me, I’ve always thought of convenience stores as somewhere where I go in, I get my gas, I maybe go grab a Dasani and some gum, but that’s about it for me up here. That’s my experience. Until I went to a Buc-ee’s. And Buc-ee’s in Texas changed absolutely everything for me. So whether it’s a Wawa or a Buc-ee’s, can you talk about these gas stations that really are so much more than a gas station and that experience that they’re offering for their customers?
Frank Beard: I mean I think the chapstick I used a second ago that I pulled out of my pocket. I’m like, “Oh that has a Buc-ee’s logo on it.”
Genevieve Babineau: And your PopSocket [a stick-on phone grip] on your phone right now.
Frank Beard: You know, honestly, the PopSocket. So for anyone listening: I have a PopSocket on the back of my phone that has the Buc-ee’s logo. And it’s pretty worn down. But I’ve got another one ready to put on there when it expires. And the thing is, it’s honestly a conversation starter about the power of branding and that’s half the reason I have it on there. The other half being Buc-ee’s is awesome. But it’s just, it’s more than a gas station. It’s more than a convenience store. They make retail fun. And people forget that retail should be fun. It should be an experience when you go somewhere. And that gets misconstrued a lot, where people think you have to do all this just silly stuff. But it’s just about making—it’s creating a place that a person will drive out of their way to visit. Like if you can’t answer why would someone drive out of the way to visit my store then you should probably start thinking about that right now because your competitors probably are. And Buc-ee’s is a great example. The food is amazing, the merchandise is hilarious. The bathrooms are just huge. I mean you’ll see rows and rows of urinals and stalls. I’m like, “How could there ever be that many people who honestly need that?” Of course, I’m sure there are days when they do, but I mean they put artwork in the bathrooms. It’s insane.
Genevieve Babineau: I just never knew that I could be so interested to see an entire wall of dried meat. That was something that I never imagined. Or that I could go and see 25 different types of—we’re talking about slap-your-mama—about 25 different types of, you know, meat rubs and hot sauce and a full hot bar. Like something that would put Whole Foods to shame. I mean it really is a really special type of place.
Frank Beard: Their merchandising strategy is so hilarious because it’s like, alright, instead of putting a few things here, let’s build a wall of meat and then on top of that let’s put a row of stuffed animals of the Buc-ee’s Beaver. And let’s not put two or three of them, let’s put like 100 of them and line the entire wall. It’s just that everything is like bigger, louder. But what people forget: They succeed so well at just having a clean, friendly, just a nice store. The shelves are always faced. If there are scuffs on the walls, they sure seem to be fixed quickly. Like nothing feels old or dated or dirty ever in that store. It’s Retail 101, but they succeed at it and they do it with a store that [spans] 65,000 square feet.
Genevieve Babineau: And I think one of the things that I really, early on, fell in love with restaurant branding and hospitality is when you can create an emotional, visceral reaction. And they feel like they belong to that brand.
Frank Beard: Yeah, definitely. And that’s how—and Buc-ee’s does that probably better than anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s just when you, when you see that logo you get excited. And their highway advertising is the best. You’ve seen those billboards, right?
Genevieve Babineau: Yup.
Frank Beard: I mean if anyone hasn’t seen those billboards, they’ll put these massive billboards up that will say things like, “Your throne awaits.” Talking about the restrooms or the top two reasons to visit Buc-ee’s or the number one and number two. Or it’ll just say like, “Beavers.” And that’s all it says. It just says, “Beavers.” So there is a photo someone shared on Instagram, where this other—I think it’s a truck stop that had put up a billboard saying, “Clean restrooms in four miles.” Buc-ee’s put a billboard above it, that said, “You can hold it for 20 miles.” And when you see that you smile. But it’s fun. They just, they built an amazing brand. Sheetz has done a good job, too. I would tell anybody to follow Sheetz on Twitter and just watch how they interact with their customers. It’s unbelievable.
And you know this is a time when everyone’s talking about loyalty programs and rewards programs. I mean every retailer has got them. Every store you go to tries to hit you up with one of these. Just another app to download, you know, because we already have our core apps we use. And going to have a really compelling reason to download something on your phone at this point. And yeah, as a consumer, I’m really fatigued by these things. But Sheetz, they don’t say, “Oh, we have loyal customers.” No. We have Sheetz freaks. It’s part of this whole strategy to just like make this amazing, cool brand. It’s almost like this club that you’re a part of. And their customers, I mean look at them on Twitter, they go on and promote the brand for Sheetz.
Genevieve Babineau: Sure, and I think, again, so many restaurant brands are trying to think about how to create community. That’s always such a buzzword. How do you create a community inside the four walls? How do you engage with the external community and drive traffic back inside the four walls? But now we’re looking at things like virtual community and I know that Sheetz is a brand that really masters that digital community.
Frank Beard: Yeah. And there are some restaurants that have done a pretty good job at this, too. Isn’t it Denny’s that has a really funny Twitter account now? I’ll be honest, I don’t know if it necessarily makes me want to eat there more, but I sure love the Twitter account. I mean if anything it creates a positive brand impression.
Genevieve Babineau: Well, we’re talking about it right now so they’re doing something right.
Frank Beard: But it’s just, you know, some of the QSRs. You know, we’ve all had that experience where we go in a store, you see some tables aren’t wiped down, maybe the people behind the counter just clearly don’t want to be there, which reflects poorly on the brand. And it’s hard to get excited about being there as well when the employees aren’t even excited to be there. And it’s really hard to turn people into brand evangelists at that point when that’s what they get at your store. But then you go into a store like Sheetz and you get great customer service. The employees are so—they sure seem thrilled to be there when every time I visited.
Genevieve Babineau: That’s because they hear Frank Beard was coming.
Frank Beard: But they’re—it’s just a whole different experience. I mean a good example of this as you go in a Kwik Trip with a “K” or a “KT.” They are in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Northern Iowa. I don’t know how they do this, but it seems like every store has a small-town-community feel. Every single one of them. It’s like they find that one person who might volunteer in a church kitchen on a Sunday afternoon and serve up, you know, food to people who stay afterward. It’s that old lady who knows everyone in town, knows all their business—is like the center of all the gossip. And they find that person and they hire her and they have her giving samples out at the store.
Genevieve Babineau: Sure.
Frank Beard: It’s amazing that they’re so good at this. And I went to a store and I maybe didn’t want to buy glazed doughnuts. But I sure wanted to try a sample of a glazed doughnut. So this lady comes up and says, “Would you like a sample?” Yeah, I’ll take one of those and that—I mean their baked goods are off the charts. They’re amazing. And she could see it on my face. And she looks at me and winks and she goes, “You need another one of those?”
Genevieve Babineau: No better salesperson out there than that.
Frank Beard: She didn’t tell me where they’re located, what the price is. You know those awkward conversations that people who are bad at samples tend to do. She just wanted me to try a sample and be happy.
Genevieve Babineau: Yeah.
Frank Beard: And you know what. That’ll bring you back to a store.
Genevieve Babineau: Absolutely. But who is going to say no to that grandma?
Frank Beard: But it’s easy to get excited about that brand.
Genevieve Babineau: Yeah, for sure. So, again, you know, thinking of a woman who is really entrenched in the community—that kind of, that church lady I’m thinking of, like, the SNL character, you know, handing out this taste of doughnuts—again, not what a lot of people think of when they think of a convenience store. So what percentage of people are going to a gas station or a convenience store just to get fuel versus, you know, how often are people going in and engaging with that retail side of the business?
Frank Beard: Yeah, I mean there are a lot of stats that have come out on the conversion rate from the fuel forecourt to the store. A lot of them tend to come in around 50 percent. I’ve seen 35 percent drive away after refueling. I’ve seen 50. I’ve seen as high as 70. Honestly, it’s really going to vary on the particular retailer. But let’s just say for the sake of argument that it’s half of the customers who drive away after refueling. For retailers, it’s a big challenge to invite them back into the store and they have to really overcome a lot of challenges with this because, let’s be honest, here’s a reason why the stereotype of a dirty gas station exists.
Genevieve Babineau: Yeah.
Frank Beard: You know, a friend of mine likes to. A friend of mine at a cleaning company likes to describe the past number of decades as the Dark Ages of restrooms. And we finally have gotten out of the Dark Ages of restrooms and I think we have. But there’s a very real reason why that stereotype exists and still does today.
Genevieve Babineau: I remember reading a New Yorker article that talked about 82 percent of women will not go back into a place of business if the bathroom is dirty. It’s that implication of—if you’re not taking care of the bathroom, what does the back of house look like?
Frank Beard: Oh, exactly. And you know, we did the survey at GasBuddy that I put together. What’s cool is like we can run a survey through our app and we’ll get 20 thousand responses in a few days. And these are 100 percent driver audience, so it’s the people you want to survey anyway about these things. And it’s really cool. So the survey. I filtered everyone into, you know—how often do you visit a convenience store? So I took the people who are very frequent visitors and then asked them, “Well, how do you evaluate a store when you’re filling up your car? How do you decide what factors influence whether or not you go inside?” And the number one reason was just the curb appeal of the store. It’s the appearance of it because people don’t really want to visit a dirty place. And when they have the choice to not visit one, they’re not going to visit the dirty store. And when you’re getting into food service, you’re right that this makes a big difference because if you go into a restroom that’s filthy or if you go to a table that’s not wiped down, that reflects poorly on everything about that store including the food.
Genevieve Babineau: It seems, though, like the c-stores that are doing a really phenomenal job with food service are seeing immense growth and a lot of that is in part due to their attention to detail, understanding the importance of high integrity with food quality. Who are those brands that you see really thinking about food service in a different way?
Frank Beard: Yeah. There’s definitely some that have an interesting approach. So you know here’s something interesting. When you say “thinking about it in a different way”—what was it? A couple of years ago, McDonald’s put touch screens in.
Genevieve Babineau: Right.
Frank Beard: And suddenly everybody wanted to talk about.
Genevieve Babineau: And everyone was stressed about it.
Frank Beard: Yeah, I mean it’s cool. They have some nice touch screens. I’ve used them, but I guess I was sitting here thinking, “Has anyone not been—have these people not been to a convenience store that are writing these articles?”
Genevieve Babineau: Right.
Frank Beard: Wawa—I think it was in 2002 that they started doing touch screens. I mean there were operators doing this for like 10 years before McDonald’s did. And so that was definitely thinking differently about food service because it was not a common thing early on. But I mean now it makes sense. Why not just have a touch screen where I can tell them exactly what I want and more importantly what I don’t want? Maybe I don’t want a certain ingredient. Maybe you have a picky kid with you who doesn’t want green things on his sandwich. And so that ability to customize your food. C-stores are really early adopters so you see a couple of brands that are doing some neat things right now. Twice Daily is a great example. If you’re in Nashville, go to a Twice Daily. Their newer stores that have their coffee brand inside, they—rather than saying “Twice Daily coffee,” they created “White Bison coffee,” which kind of has that halo effect. It looks at the coffee shop and it is a coffee shop. I walked into a store that had a full third-wave coffee program. They’re doing single-origin pour-over coffee. Like that was amazing.
Genevieve Babineau: Just the total foodie experience.
Frank Beard: Yeah. They had the beans measured out into these little glass vials with cork stoppers on them and weighed out properly. So then they pull one of those out, they grind it up. They had this pour-over machine that’s built into the counter that dispenses a perfect temperature of water. And I mean, gosh, I think I paid less than four dollars for that. It put anything to shame that I’ve had from a coffee shop in the last couple of years. There was not a single negative aspect about that coffee when I took a sip and there was such a flavor complexity behind it. It was really impressive. And like I’m doing this while looking out the window at a Shell [gas station] canopy and the cool thing is, I ran a speed test on their free Wi-Fi. It was 75 megabits-per-second downloads. That’s better than I’ve seen from coffee chains, where I’m hitting 15, maybe 20, maybe, maybe less. Especially if everyone writing the next Great American Novel moves into the store and starts slowing down the Wi-Fi network. So, you know, the laptop brigade shows up, but it was amazing. And their sandwiches were off the charts. So that’s a great operator. Another one I would say is really good—these guys don’t get a lot of attention, PANNA down in Florida. PANNA New Latino Food. Absolutely incredible food. If you want Venezuelan or Colombian food, like, that’s where you go.
Genevieve Babineau: Alright, sign me up.
Frank Beard: They started in a convenience store near Miami and they’ve since created their own QSR locations or I think they’re in another convenience store, too. So it’s kind of a mix between c-stores and QSRs. But they have a huge hot box for your grab-and-go. But what’s impressive is their open grill that they have. Anything you want on that menu, it’s just gonna be amazing. It’s all made fresh right there. They do catering, too, which maybe they should be talking to ezCater about this. So they’re a good operator that doesn’t get a lot of attention.
Alright, let’s just mention the elephant in the room. Casey’s General Stores. Like that’s where I’m from, Des Moines, Iowa. I’ve grown up on Casey’s pizza. It’s like the Eighth Wonder of the World. That sausage breakfast pizza is astonishingly good.
Genevieve Babineau: And meanwhile we’re seeing this immense demand from the catering customer—from these really high-profile whales who are ordering on a regular basis for everything from, you know, that office party to executive meetings to client meetings—that breakfast is such a high opportunity for food service operators to start to fulfill that need. So again, now you’re thinking about c-stores coming in for that share of stomach. How are these c-stores that are really diving into catering going to change the landscape of restaurant catering?
Frank Beard: You know, it’d be interesting because let’s say you’re at an office and you walked into a conference room and you know those kinds of, like, coffee catering—I don’t know how to describe those big containers that you pour out.
Genevieve Babineau: Right. Yup.
Frank Beard: Yeah. Imagine if they were all black containers—are like, kind of like a brown, you know, like a butcher paper or whatever that is. And it just has a big Kwik Trip logo on the side, a “QT” logo. Nobody would bat an eye at that and think that that’s going to be bad. They’d probably be excited that it’s there. And that’s the thing—is, these brands people trust, these brands, like, they’re already associated with quality. So suddenly if they start doing catering, that’s really just going to crowd out some of the restaurants that are doing it too.
Genevieve Babineau: Well, I feel like from the second we both bonded over Buc-ee’s, I knew it was going to be a great conversation. So I hope you all enjoyed and learned a little bit more about how much commonality there is between the c-store and the restaurant world.
Frank Beard: Yeah, this has been great. Thanks for having me on the podcast.
Thanks for listening to The Catering Feed, powered by ezCater.