Get It While You Can
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor

Consumers on the run are looking for meals that are quick, convenient and tasty.
Is there any wonder why convenience food is growing in popularity? A few years ago, lunch was an hour long and gave people a chance to eat leisurely while still being able to go out and run a few errands. Nowadays, however, that lunch hour has been cut to a half-hour, if that, and those errands still need to be run. As more consumers need something that they can grab and eat on the go, convenience stores and processors are obliging with more tastes and more variety.
“7-Eleven is all about convenience, and our grab-and-go sales are doing quite well,” says Margaret Chabris, public relations/marketing communications director for the Dallas-based convenience store chain. “Everyone is time-pressed with more ways to fill their hours each day — longer commutes, longer work days, more activities for themselves and their children, more choices for leisure-time activities.”
According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, the current C-store industry’s foodservice sales total is $18 million. Bryce Ruiz, president and chief operating officer of Ruiz Foods, also notes an NPD Group study that found that convenience stores, along with club stores, supermarkets and discount stores, are posting stronger foodservice traffic growth than restaurants for the last two years. “That amounts to approximately eight billion meals and snacks that were bought at retail for the year ending May 2007,” he says.
“The grab-and-go market is faring extremely well, and looking at the demand of our own El Monterey brand products as a barometer, the demand is definitely on the rise,” he adds.
Ruiz says that the growth in convenience store food came from a breakthrough in the foodservice industry. “Once C-store operators recognized the popularity of fast-food eateries and drive through windows, realizing that it is a concept that works and answering the busy demands of today’s consumer, they quickly determined that they could be more than just the answer to the need for gasoline, a cup of coffee and a bag of chips.”
With increasing demand for something on-the-go, the need to bring variety to the market has also increased. Hot dogs kept warm on a roller grill are still popular purchases, but there are plenty of other options out there for hungry and time-crunched consumers. Taste is one necessity when coming up with the new product, but there are other considerations. “Whenever we consider introducing a new product, we look at it from the on-the-go, convenience-oriented customer’s perspective,” Chabris says. “Can the product be eaten with one hand, eaten or consumed on the go? Does it fit into a car cup holder, and is it eat-at-the-desk friendly?”
One of the latest products that7-Eleven has introduced is the Chicken Bite, a chicken-tender-like product shaped like a hot dog. The Chicken Bite, a 3.3-ounce serving that is priced at $1.69, is the store’s first entry into the hot chicken sandwich market. It is made from all white meat and is breaded with Southern-style seasonings and spices. Along with traditional hot dog condiments like ketchup and mustard, it is available with sauces such as honey mustard, ranch and barbecue.
“Consumers liked the Chicken Bite both with and without the bun,” said Kathryn Humphries, grill category manager, at the launch of the product. “Satisfying customers is our goal, so we serve it either way at the same price, and we’re working on expanding into more varieties.”
Roller derby
One of the most traditional pieces of equipment in a convenience store is the roller grill. For years, it has been used to keep hot dogs warm, but 7-Eleven now offers a number of roller grill-friendly products, including the Chicken Bite. Chabris mentions that along with hot dogs and bratwursts, the store uses its roller grills for several kinds of taquitos, including pizza and breakfast taquitos, as well as cheeseburgers that roll.
Ruiz says that during the initial rebirth of the convenience store, roller grills were primarily used for hot dogs, but that they were often put into storage when customer began to look for more food choices and make use of the microwave.
“In the midst of all this, the demand for Mexican food was increasing, dramatically,” he continues. The company’s El Monterey brand of burritos, soft tacos and other Mexican foods began to rise in popularity, and Ruiz teamed with 7-Eleven to revitalize the roller grill. “It was when 7-Eleven asked us to develop a product that could work on the roller grill that our R&D department developed what has become known as the 7-Eleven Go Go Taquito.”
A year after that, Ruiz Foods developed the El Monterey Tornados to cover every daypart, from breakfast through dinner and dessert. There are 14 3-ounce flavors and four 4.25-ounce flavors. “Our El Monterey Tornados were specifically designed for the roller grill,” Ruiz remarks. “The flour tortilla is batter-dipped and fried. They can be prepared in an oven or fryer and held on a roller grill, or they can be placed frozen on the roller grill and allowed to heat and hold.”
The latest variety is the Firecracker Chicken Tornado, a hot wing-style medley of tender chicken and Monterey Jack cheese in a seasoned tortilla. It was introduced on July 4 of this year.
Seeing as how consumers are likely to never find themselves with more free time, convenience meals are going to continue to be a growth area, and the options available to them will continue to grow. “More ethnic and exotic tastes are becoming mainstream trends,” Chabris notes, adding that healthier products — natural and organic products as well as those made with whole-grain products and zero trans fats — also are gaining in popularity in this segment.
Convenience, value and portability will continue to play a role in deciding which items are hot sellers and which ones linger on the shelves, but it is important that good taste and quality not be overlooked as well. People may be on the run more and more, but a tasty meal will go a long way to making that time crunch more tolerable.