New Fast & Fresh stores are healthy hybrids
The phrase “gas station food” is often loaded with negative connotations, but that’s beginning to change. As I discovered firsthand when I spent a month eating at convenience stores, the industry is evolving in response to changing consumer needs.
And it turns out that one of the boldest new concepts is right here in Iowa: Hy-Vee’s new Fast & Fresh stores represent a new approach to on-the-go convenience.
Ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 square feet, they’re a hybrid between a traditional convenience store and a grocer. Beyond the fuel pumps and pre-packaged snacks, customers also have access to grab-and-go meals, made-to-order flatbreads, meal kits, groceries and produce.
For those who have larger shopping needs but are short on time, grocery pickup is available outside through Aisles Online lockers. Self-serve coffee is available inside the convenience store, but there’s also a full-service Starbucks with outdoor seating.
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It’s a store designed for people like me. Even though I work from a home office, I travel often and don’t always feel like cooking. Or maybe I only need a few items and don’t want to walk through a large grocery store to find them.
I recently visited a newly constructed store in Altoona. I also sat down with Curt Sills — HyVee’s assistant vice president for convenience stores — to learn more about the Fast & Fresh concept and what it says about the future of convenience retailing.
Here are three takeaways from our conversation:
1. Consumer needs have changed, and retailers have to evolve
“I think people are time-starved,” said Sills. “They get up and work out in the morning, take their kids to school, go to work, and then they pick them up and have activities all night. They don’t have a lot of time.”
Hy-Vee's Fast & Fresh concept was created to bundle the full range of on-the-go convenience into a one-stop shop. Something that serves everyone, including those who seek healthful options.
“Honestly, traditional convenience items kind of limit customers,” said Sills. “We want to make it so that customers don’t have to search for healthier products.”
This is especially important since the majority of Americans’ food and beverage spend is now for meals outside the home. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the at-home share fell to 49.8 percent in 2016.
MORE: 6 healthy products coming to a c-store near you
As I’ve written before, this has implications for everyone concerned about health and food security. One size doesn’t fit all. Putting a grocery store in a food desert doesn’t necessarily fix the access problem if people are relying on transitional, on-the-go solutions such as quick-service restaurants and convenience stores.
“This is one of the reasons we continue to expand on things like Mia Pizza, sushi to go, and ready-made meals,” explains Sills. “Our customers need options.”
2. It’s about something for everyone
Healthful products don’t have to come at the exclusion of indulgent options. Sometimes we all like to indulge. I’ll gladly admit that I love a good slice of breakfast pizza.
Rather, it’s about providing choices for everyone. But some retailers have struggled to find the right approach to healthful fare. Case in point: I regularly eat broccoli, but I prefer that it’s cooked. I’m not a fan of veggie trays with raw broccoli and ranch.
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Hy-Vee’s Fast & Fresh concept takes a different approach. At their Mia Pizza stations, for example, there are options that will satisfy everyone. I watched employees slice an assortment of fresh vegetables, and I was able to build a flatbread that was loaded with pesto, zucchini, spinach, chicken, mozzarella dollops and balsamic vinaigrette. It only took six minutes to bake in a brick oven. Altogether, it’s a delicious meal that I didn’t feel guilty about eating.
Other healthful options in the store are tailored to specific needs. Beyond basic produce, Hy-Vee’s “short cuts” are great if you want to prepare a meal and avoid slicing fruit and vegetables, and their ready-to-go meals include creative recipes like sweet potato, kale and chicken bowls.
3. A touch of Midwestern hospitality
Outside the store, Hy-Vee has even implemented a system to better serve customers with disabilities.
Although many gas stations are technically ADA compliant, the pumps are rarely practical for individuals with disabilities. Inclusion Solutions addresses with their FuelCall system. Customers can simply press a button to notify employees that they require assistance.
VISIT THE STORE: Find Fast & Fresh Altoona on Facebook
As Curt Sills explained, Hy-Vee installed these company-wide after a store director fell from a tree stand while hunting and had to use a wheelchair following his injury. His experience informed the company about the need for it.
“Customers have told us that without FuelCall, they would have to take a friend or relative to the gas station with them — or honk their horn or flash their lights,” says Sills. “This helps preserve the dignity and independence of drivers with disabilities.”
Will Hy-Vee bring a Fast & Fresh in your neighborhood? Stay tuned. The company had plans to build additional locations.
Frank Beard is a speaker, writer, and convenience retailing advocate from Des Moines, Iowa. He is also a regular contributor to NACS Daily, NACS Magazine, and an analyst/evangelist for convenience store trends at GasBuddy. You can find Frank on Twitter @FrankBeard, on Instagram @30DaysofGasStationFood, and on LinkedIn.