The convenience store (C-store) industry has thrived on being able to offer a wide array of prepared foods that will satisfy any consumer’s craving, regardless of their demographics or food preference. With the ever-growing demands of our fast-paced culture, the gas station convenience store environment has been optimized to be a one-stop shopping destination for travelers. The offering of prepared foods has proven to be an integral part of the modern C-store business model since it satisfies the assumption that, as travelers, C-store consumers do not have the time or ability to wait for a freshly made meal.  

In the past, a hungry consumer would walk into a C-store and disappointedly find a small roller grill with hot dogs, a pastry case full of stale doughnuts, and a pot of coffee placed on a counter somewhere next to cigarette lighters, car fresheners, or other merchandise. At the time, prepared foods were not advertised or promoted, and the idea of being viewed as a food destination was largely inconceivable. The reasoning was that in-store sales were primarily driven by tobacco products or, to a much lesser extent, prepackaged basic grocery essentials, like milk and bread. However, with the consumption of tobacco products significantly declining due to effective public relations campaigns and harsher regulations, C-stores needed to quickly pivot to a new driver of in-store sales, and that driver was prepared foods.

The Perfect Product for an On-the-Go Business
Prepared foods are a perfect complement to the C-store industry as these items can be consumed immediately with little to no preparation by the on-the-go consumer. The use of modern kitchen innovations, such as convection ovens, enables C-stores to offer a wide variety of prepared, hot food items without having to make the consumer wait long. Pizza, one of the most popular prepared foods sold in the C-store market, is assembled and quickly frozen by a manufacturer before being sent to a C-store. The pizza is then received and stored frozen at the establishment and placed in a convection oven to be cooked when there is a demand for the product or displayed on a hot slide. The ability of the convection oven to more efficiently transfer heat to food as compared with a traditional oven enables fast, even cooking that results in a safe product with favorable organoleptic characteristics, like a nice crispy crust or non-oily cheese. Along with pizza, many other C-store favorites, like breakfast sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese, and pretzels, can be easily prepared at store level using convection within minutes. Additionally, the ease of use of convection ovens and their ability to cook food at high temperatures translate into a relatively low-risk and cost-effective process.

Most convection ovens operate using preset temperature settings and cook times that are optimal for the production of each item. To make a product, the user simply places the food item in the convection oven, presses a button, and takes out a perfectly prepared, food-safe product a couple of minutes later. The ability to preset the desired settings and minimal pre- and postcooking preparation allows C-stores to keep the cooked food items affordable, as they avoid high labor costs associated with hiring personnel with advanced training in culinary arts or food safety (of course, all employees do receive some form of basic culinary and food safety training). 

Fresh Foods Break the Sameness Trap
While serving hot prepared foods remains an essential part of the C-store food program, they don’t lend well to differentiation between C-store brands. A vast majority of frozen foods produced to be cooked and served hot are mass-produced by large food manufacturers, making them widely available via large distributors to all C-stores. Although some of the larger C-store brands do have manufacturers make proprietary formulas of common products, such as hot dogs, they still look like competitors’ products. Thus, the average consumer is less likely to choose one C-store location over another for items that are seemingly common to all C-stores. As a viable solution to this issue, C-store brands are starting to branch out into serving fresh prepared foods.

Fresh-refrigerated prepared foods, like premade salads, sandwiches, and desserts, allow the C-store world to diversify their food programs and offer consumers items that suit their immediate needs without having to wait in line. The open nature of the refrigerated display case enables C-store companies to centralize the location of prepared foods, making them easy for the consumer to find. Additionally, the open-air, refrigerated case gives C-stores the ability to stack and widely display a variety of different foods, as compared with a vertical, closed refrigerated case. This allows the consumer to see all the choices available for purchase, making it easier for them to select what they are in the mood for. This is especially important as most C-stores have space constraints due to their small footprint (compared with grocery stores), making the construction of a workable planogram that showcases all that the store offers difficult.

For all the aforementioned benefits of utilizing an open-air, refrigerated display case, it has its food safety challenges. Open-air display cases keep food at 40 °F (with a set point of 35 °F) by blowing cold air generated by an internal compressor into the unit while simultaneously removing any hot air. This means that many factors, such as placement of the unit and the food within the unit, can have a negative effect on the open-air display case’s ability to maintain proper temperature and humidity, and to adequately prevent any premature spoilage, pathogenic bacterial growth, or interpackage condensation. If the unit is placed directly under an air vent near another piece of equipment that emits heat or too close to the C-store’s main entrance, the effect of the hot or cold air will have a significant impact on the unit’s ability to maintain proper temperature. If food within the open-air display case is overloaded or stacked too high or too tightly, cold-air flow will be hindered, and the unit will not be able to remove heat as efficiently, causing the unit’s internal compressor to struggle and leading to a potential breakdown. As one can ascertain, this creates a substantial issue, bearing in mind the small footprint of most C-stores. One of the most common times of year that C-stores experience high amounts of refrigerated prepared foods waste is during the summer, as the constant opening of exterior doors allows heat and high humidity into the store and affects the open-air display case. It’s for these reasons that constant temperature monitoring of all refrigeration and freezer units is an essential part of any C-store food safety program.

Managing Risk: Temperature Monitoring
Most large C-store brands use several types of temperature-monitoring methods. Remote monitoring, where all the refrigeration and freezer units are equipped with Wi-Fi-enabled temperature sensors, transmits temperature data via the cloud to a central terminal. With remote monitoring, facilities and food safety departments can track and trend temperature data and use it to proactively schedule preventive maintenance for a unit under stress. For food safety departments, we use the remote temperature data to investigate consumer complaints regarding foodborne illness or premature spoilage at a particular site. For all its benefits, though, remote temperature monitoring has many faults, as the data transmitted are dependent on the calibration and condition of the remote-sensing probe and the integrity of the Wi-Fi connection. Because of this, on-site temperature monitoring using a handheld thermometer or localized temperature probes is still a best practice. At a minimum, it’s been found that the best frequency of taking temperatures is every 8 hours, increasing the frequency during the summer months or in areas with harsher climates. The frequency is also dependent on the degree of risk posed by the internal and external environments as well as by simply how much product the store is willing to throw away if there is a temperature issue. The major drawback of in-store temperature monitoring is that corrective actions are reactive and not preventive. If high temperatures are observed, the associate will remove all temperature-abused food from further sale and have it destroyed. Unfortunately, it’s unknown how long the temperature abuse has occurred between checks and how many consumers have purchased potentially temperature-abused food items.

The Pivot Toward Fresh Foods
With an understanding of all the benefits and risks of offering fresh-refrigerated prepared foods and the equipment involved, the practice has certainly enabled C-store brands to differentiate themselves using their food programs. Because freshly prepared foods do not require expensive freezing equipment such as nitrogen tunnels or spiral freezers, C-store operators can choose on-site preparation, the use of an internal or external commissary, or both to produce proprietary branded products. Most fresh-refrigerated prepared foods are produced in a commissary or central kitchen. The commissary is used to produce all types of foods from breakfast sandwiches to deli salads to yogurt parfaits. Commissaries do not usually produce the individual components of a food item (e.g., the cheese, beef patty, and bun for a hamburger); these are more commonly sourced from other manufacturers and assembled, packaged, and stored on-site before being shipped to the C-store. As a result, unlike food manufacturing plants that are required to have large, heavy, and expensive fixed equipment (like high-temperature, short-time pasteurization equipment for fluid dairy) to produce a specific type of product, commissaries need only rudimentary equipment, like stainless steel assembly tables, cooking kettles, and deli meat slicers. Consequently, commissaries can be designed to have flexible floor plans that enable them to produce many different types of foods. The flexible nature of commissary operations gives C-store research and development teams or corporate chefs the capability of quickly pivoting their in-store freshly prepared food programs to align with current food trends and consumer expectations. Like anything else, using a commissary has its drawbacks, the main one being that even though products produced at a commissary are delivered to stores within 24–48 hours on average to avoid losing shelf life, several quality characteristics that make an item taste fresh are lost. Additionally, consumers are unable to customize their favorite items to their liking since foods from the commissary come prepackaged.

Considering these shortfalls, it comes as no surprise that the next step in the evolution of the convenience prepared foods program is to offer made-to-order foods. Similar to quick-serve restaurants, a made-to-order food program empowers the consumer to make their own decisions on what goes onto their pizza or into their sandwich. All food products that are part of the program are prepared at store level, utilizing prepared or prepared-in-house ingredients. Once introduced in the C-store world, made-to-order programs have become increasingly popular with consumers and have even created competition between two industries that once had a practically symbiotic relationship—quick-serve restaurants and gas stations. Historically (and currently), gas station C-stores would have a restaurant franchise within the C-store. The franchise would drive in-store traffic for food, while the C-store offered only prepackaged goods, like soft drinks or bags of potato chips. Unfortunately, this once harmonious relationship between quick-serve restaurants and gas station C-stores has been forever disturbed. Made-to-order food programs have arguably been the catalyst for C-stores to be seen as food destinations by allowing C-store operators to be truly innovative. Long gone are the days of the ubiquitous C-store hot dog, as nowadays it’s not uncommon to find C-stores offering made-to-order healthy or all-natural, farm-to-fork foods. Less commonly, but just as shocking, small start-up C-stores have even begun to specialize in certain types of made-to-order prepared foods, like sushi or fresh-baked artisanal breads made from scratch by a trained chef or baker. While this is all exciting, made-to-order programs create many new food safety challenges within the C-store space.

Making Innovation Safe
The primary challenge has been how to handle fresh, raw foods within the limited confines of a C-store. As previously discussed, heat-to-order and prepackaged fresh prepared foods had minimal food safety challenges. By contrast, made-to-order programs include significant food safety challenges, as many of them require more handling of ingredients by personnel and the cooking and storage of raw foods. For instance, the need for separation between raw and cooked foods is critical to food safety. However, considering the limited amount of space available in C-stores, the only room for expansion is into the walk-in coolers or onto the sales floor. Thus, retrofitting a made-to-order operation in an existing C-store is nearly impossible. To contend with this issue, many brands have invested significantly in redesigning existing stores to include physical barriers or additional walk-in cooler spaces to achieve proper separation. To improve personnel practices, C-store food safety departments have adopted practices from manufacturing, such as color-coding utensils and clothing, enhanced cleaning and sanitation procedures like fogging, and even the use of TempTales to monitor cooking and cooling of high-risk, time- and temperature-controlled foods. Investments have also been made in food safety-related training and tools that help promote proper handwashing and glove-use compliance, among other Good Retail Practices. Even beyond food safety, made-to-order programs have introduced new operational challenges in ensuring quality and consistency of food products. Enacting solutions for all these challenges comes with a cost and tighter profit margins, making it more difficult for C-stores to maintain low prices.

Prepared foods, whether served prepackaged, heated from frozen, or made to order, have become a cornerstone of the C-store food program. Being able to consume prepared food immediately and without any further preparation by the consumer lends itself perfectly to the C-store’s on-the-go consumer. Prepared foods have enabled the C-store industry to reposition itself from a place to get cigarettes and a bag of chips to a true foodie destination. Finally, the many different ways that prepared foods can be offered have helped C-store brands differentiate themselves from their competition by offering foods that satisfy the increasingly discerning palate of today’s consumer.  

Jeremy Zenlea, M.B.A., is head of health and safety at EG America.