Onsite c-stores are evolving as operators capitalize on growing demand for sustainable, organic and natural foods.
When The University Marché, a multi-platform retail venue featuring a locally-sourced grocery component, opened in 2001 at the University of Vermont in Burlington, it was something of an industry novelty. Marché catered to a unique clientele: an assortment of vegetarians, vegans, and those (at the time) seeming oddballs who were interested in connecting with their local food growers and providers. The concept was friendly, functional, and intensely concerned with its products' zip codes.
Nine years and a quantum market shift later, sustainable, natural and organic foods own the hottest corner of food retailing. Sales of organic products alone reached $24.6 billion in 2008, growing 17.1 percent over 2007 sales*, while sales of “natural” products — a term that's slicker than soymilk — have seen similar growth.
Those benefiting from this boom include the increasing number of c-store operations augmenting (and in some cases, replacing) their inventories of traditional retail food products with alternative choices in dedicated eco-convenience stores or c-store sections.
Many of the customers looking for such products find that the traditional convenience store model too often leaves them out in the cold. Marché is changing that. Its footprint measures 4,000 sq.ft and includes a number of grab-and-go type options. Its surprisingly stylish approach to convenience centers around Vermont-produced items that support the state's sustainability initiatives.
About 35 percent of the space is home to the convenience grocery area that features items such as maple syrup, jams, jellies, salad dressings, salsas, chips, ice cream, cheeses, yogurt, and specialty condiments. The list has grown over the years to include soymilk, pastas, cleaning products, toothpaste, and even paper products.
“As awareness has grown over the years — both within our campus community and within Sodexo — we have added layers of sustainable, organic and all-natural products to the mix,” says Paul Bahan, director of marketing, Sodexo Campus Services at University of Vermont.
“A local produce purveyor supplies us with products from a network of over 60 local farms,” says Bahan. “We are also contracted with a local orchard that delivers over 43,000 lbs of locally grown apples to our campus.”
As demand for these types of foodstuffs has increased over the years, so have the challenges associated with procuring, stocking and selling them.
“A campus c-store doesn't have the buying power of large grocery chains and, as a result, some organic/specialty products can border on being very pricey,” says Bahan. “Delivery can sometimes be a challenge at both ends of the spectrum, whether it be meeting minimums or, in the case of limited storage, getting more frequent deliveries.”
To maintain its substantial product mix, the University of Vermont invites local purveyors to introduce products with tastings in the Marché during high traffic times. “We also feature new products in recipes or as part of a meal at the Marché's dining platforms,” says Bahan.
Establishing a network of suppliers has also been an important factor. The University of Vermont's chefs, marketing director and account general manager are involved in a statewide consortium called The Vermont Fresh Network (VFN). VFN encourages farmers, food producers and chefs to work directly with each other to build partnerships.
“Building these regional connections contributes to stronger local communities and their economies,” says Bahan.
VFN recently hosted a “Matchmaker” event that introduced new state producers and their products to select food service operations, like the University. “At that event, we selected a number of new products that we have since introduced to Marché,” says Bahan.
At Portland's Oregon Health & Science University Hospital, (OHSU), Registered Dietitian Jessica Gutgsell runs the hospital's natural foods convenience store. Dubbed “It's All Good,” the store, which does over $2,000 a day in business from 425 sq. ft. and touts a retail merchandise philosophy centered on sustainability, good nutrition, and convenient service.
“We provide mostly grab-and-go foods such as bottled beverages, nutrition bars, yogurts, frozen entrees, and small bags of chips or pretzels,” says Gutgsell, who with fellow dietitian Jennifer Chastain helped to develop and open the store in December 2007.
Products sold at “It's All Good” are chosen with purchasing guidelines derived from the School Nutrition Program, the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans and sustainable environmental policies. They include limits on sodium and bans on trans fat and high fructose corn syrup.
“The guidelines for sodium that we stick to — less than 480mg of sodium per serving and less than 600mg for frozen entrees and dried soups — can make product selection a challenge,” says Gutgsell.
To meet that challenge, Gutgsell and her team work closely with vendors to research and obtain products that adhere to the guidelines. Unfortunately, many of these specialty items come with a higher price tag than more conventional convenience foods. In fact, food costs at “It's All Good” are higher than at any of the other café locations that purchase grab-and-go products.
Still, the finances balance out in the end because it was located in a high traffic corridor and because it offers the kind of product choice many hospital employees find attractive. It was also designed to keep labor costs to a minimum.
“We are able to save on staffing since we only need cashiers,” explains Gutgsell.
“We are also very conscious of our pricing strategy. OHSU is located on top of a large hill with limited parking. The staff and visitors cannot easily leave for lunch, so they have fewer dining options. We do not try to use our novelty and location to drive up prices, but to be able to continue to offer these choices it's important that we still make a profit.”
Since opening, this modest-sized c-store has seen consistent traffic growth. As a result other cafés on the large university campus have started offering similar organic, local and sustainable options.
“Increase in demand has led to the store's success,” says Eecole Copen, M.S., RD, LD, OHSU's Sustainable Food Programs Coordinator. “It's as simple as that.”
Jennifer Krise is used to eating organic. After she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease at the age of 27, Krise, an assistant manager at Penn State University (PSU) in University Park, PA, changed her eating habits to avoid foods loaded with preservatives and chemicals for coloring and flavor.
“When I came back from sick leave, I wanted to add organics to Penn State's offerings,” she explains. And so, Sisu was born.
Sisu — a Finnish term translated as physical strength and courage — is an on-campus c-store that presents students with many healthful, organic, and all-natural choices. At the same time, Sisu isn't a “health food” store, Krise says.
“Stores like ours tend to be very nature-focused,” she adds. “We wanted to take a different spin and push the idea of a straight-edge and active lifestyle.”
Hence the name: Sisu.
Wall climbing grips and skateboard shelves showcase the active, healthy lifestyle that Sisu promotes. The look and feel matches the healthy options the store has inside, from fair-trade coffees to fresh fruit smoothies to cleaning products, personal items and paper supplies.
Sisu replaced Moxie, a general convenience store, in the fall of 2008 and it took students a few months to get used to the new shop. Since then, features like the store's to-go section and peanut butter and jelly bar — outfitted with a nut grinder, all natural hearth breads made in PSU's bakery and organic jams from a local farm — have become very popular.
“The margins are lower than non-organic,” says Krise. “But in our case we made up the difference with the higher check averages. Before, students would come in and buy a hot to-go sandwich and a soda. Now they come in and buy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a fruit cup, a bag of chips and a drink.”
Sisu's products change each week depending on what students like and request, reports Krise. “The 18-22 year old demographic tends to really focus on brand names,” she says.
“At the same time, many organic and all natural companies haven't established their brands to the degree many traditional food manufacturers have. But I've found that once students taste and like a product, they will buy it. So, to spur product sales, we do a lot of sampling.”
Everyone loves free stuff — college students especially. At The Provisions On Demand (P.O.D.) Market at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, sampling also drives sales and helps to promote new items.
“Local produce and cage free eggs remain our two best sellers, closely followed by Honest Tea,” says Jessica Hill, director of retail for Brandeis University Dining Services.
Similar to Vermont's Marché, The P.O.D. Market combines all the charms of a corner store with the convenience of a modern market. Most importantly, the store offers all of those necessities near and dear to a college student: health and beauty aids, snacks, coffee, fair trade items and freshly made sandwiches and salads. Not everything is organic, all natural or sustainable, though; so competitive shopping helps to drive sales.
“When The P.O.D. Market was designed, an open air cooler was designated specifically for organic products,” says Hill. “There is a produce section that features sustainable, locally grown produce with signs that identify which products are local.”
Demand for these products has continued to increase since the store opened in August 2008, adds Hill. In response, Dining Services has expanded the number of vendors they use and products they offer. Even with an expanded network, fluctuating prices are a constant challenge.
“The students are aware of the produce issues and understand the local selection changes seasonally,” she says. “We work closely with the vendors so that we know what is available, for how long and for how much. This helps us with our marketing efforts.”
Underscoring the school's sustainability initiative, The P.O.D. Market also sells travel coffee mugs and offers refills for 99 cents to encourage less paper use. “We sell reusable shopping bags, filtration pitchers and replacement filters for students to use in their dorms to cut down the bottle usage,” says Hills.
“We also sell reusable water bottles and, beginning in the spring semester, we will be selling reusable to-go containers.”
At The Employee Store at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Durham, NC, eco-convenience extends well beyond food to include a vast range of products and services such as clothing made from recycled materials and items like soda bottles. It also features a variety of organic snack items, Shade Grown Coffee, environmentally-friendly dry cleaning services, locally-grown items, and bags that are made out of recycled or composted materials.
“We look at it this way,” explains Alan Wood, Aramark General Manager at the EPA. “The more services and products we offer the more it makes us a much more sustainable provider. The more we keep our guests from leaving the campus, the more we reduce the emissions that driving off site would create.”
“Working outside the box is not always easy, but because we are located in North Carolina, we have access to locally-packaged meats and locally-grown fresh produce, in addition to other items,” says Wood.
“This program is extremely important to the client and the demand has increased continuously, especially over the past few years.
“Our practice of incorporating eco-friendly products has become progressively easier as new products come on the market,” says Wood.
“Additionally, this initiative has contributed to the greater goals of the operation: The Employee Store helps the staff of the EPA reduce their own carbon footprint.”
Xcetera, located in the heart of the University of Oklahoma's on-campus residence hall community, provides students with a range of healthful, flavorful and locally sourced options. Since it's grand opening five years ago, Xcetera has been the on-campus “go-to” for heat and serve entrees, snacks, personal-care items and much more.
In the last two years, the student population has been a driving force in the increased availability of healthier, natural and organic items within Xcetera. So much so that a section of the store is devoted to “Au Naturale” items. Residents are able to quickly identify where these items are within the store and browse from snack items such as all natural bagged popcorn, gluten-free cereals, trail mix, spreads, salsas, desserts and meals.
“We also offer eco-friendly cleaning supplies, chap stick, shampoo and conditioner,” says Lauren Royston, Marketing and Public Relations Specialist for OU's Housing and Food Services. “We continually research new local vendors that may have items of interest for our residents. Then as new or additional items become available that may interest our residents, we introduce those items into the store.”
Availability of organic items is an obstacle OU sometimes encounters. As is stocking and turnover. “Organic items do not contain preservatives,” says Royston. “Expiration dates come much sooner than with traditional convenience foods so its important to stay on top of the inventory.”
More info on sustainable C-store product strategy is available on FM's website:
Ahead of the Curve with Oregon State University's Associate Director of University Housing and Dining Services, Richard Turnbull - View the story here.
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How to Buy from the Little Guy: Sourcing Local Products - View the story here.
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Northwestern University's c-store mix - View the story here.