Not only is it possible to make healthy choices at gas stations and convenience stores, but they’re an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to making America healthier. And as I’ve explained, many leading brands actively work with healthful living organizations like the Partnership for a Healthier America.
But what about Iowa’s retailers? I want to switch gears for a moment and focus specifically on what they’re doing—and what you can find inside their stores.
Although Kwik Trip operates primarily in Wisconsin and Minnesota, many Iowans are familiar with their Kwik Star stores in the upper-half of the state. I often pay a visit whenever I drive from Des Moines to Minneapolis or the Quad Cities.
Kwik Trip is true pioneer when it comes to healthful food in convenience stores. As one of the first to partner with the Partnership for a Healthier America, they successfully leverage their small grocery format to offer an expansive, wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. At one location, I counted more than twenty different options.
“It’s important to Kwik Trip/Kwik Star to be able to provide our guests with options when it comes to making food choices,” says Erica Flint, a registered dietician who serves as Kwik Trip’s director of food research and development. “People have different preferences and needs for the foods they select and we want to be able to provide our guests with options.”
In addition to fresh fruit and vegetables, Kwik Trip offers quality sandwiches, a wide variety of nuts, and small groceries such as low-fat dairy, fresh meat, frozen seafood, and eggs. One customer I spoke with told me that she loves the quick and easy access to groceries when coming home from work. Erica describes another customer who visited while traveling, took note of the healthful options, and said they wish their stores back home had the same products.
“Overall,” she says, “guests have responded well to having the healthy options available.”
Hy-Vee was recognized as Progressive Grocer’s 2017 Retailer of the Year—and for good reason. It’s no secret that the company is on the forefront of innovation within that industry.
But Hy-Vee is also moving forward within convenience retailing. Specifically, their stores offer a wide variety of quality, healthful choices for on-the-go consumers. Fresh cut fruit and vegetables, low-sugar snack bar options, hard boiled eggs, and other better-for-you options fill the stores. I often visit my local Hy-Vee Gas to purchase celery and peanut butter. During a recent visit, I even noticed a sign about “dietician recommended” kombucha.
“Health and wellness is and has always been a top priority for Hy-Vee,” says communications manager Christina Gayman. “It is one of the pillars in which we base decisions across the company, and we strive to make healthy choices easy for our customers in all Hy-Vee locations, including our convenience stores.
Christina also explained how in the past few years, Hy-Vee decided to re-merchandise all convenience stores to healthful, fresh, and hot food options in easy-to-access locations. Specifically, focus was placed on catering to women and mothers who are in a hurry but looking for healthful options.
Moving forward, construction of the first of two new 10,000 square-foot convenience and meal solutions stores—named Fast & Fresh—are underway in the Des Moines area and Davenport. These will feature groceries, produce, prepared foods, “take-and-heat” meal options, wood-fired pizza, and even a Starbucks with a fireplace.
Kum & Go
You’re not alone if you’ve noticed Kum & Go’s new marketplace stores and asked yourself, “is that really a gas station?” The new stores have been recognized within the convenience retailing industry for their innovative, forward-thinking design.
Specifically, I’m a fan of the indoor seating. Similar to a coffee shop or fast-casual restaurant, it features polished concrete floors, granite countertops, and tables and chairs situated near large windows which allow for plenty of natural lighting. The perfect place, in other words, to enjoy a healthy snack or meal.
I recently had lunch at one of the new marketplace stores with Kristie Bell, Kum & Go’s director of communications. We each enjoyed a low-calorie grilled chicken sandwich on ciabatta buns, and I snacked on red grapes while she enjoyed hummus and pretzel chips. Kristie explained how Kum & Go works to provide a range of meals and snacks that appeal to all consumers.
“We want our customers who are looking for healthy snacks to find a few options at Kum & Go,” she said. “We have a large selection of nutrition and protein bars, as well as lower carb snacks like beef jerky and nuts.” Additionally, “we also carry things like fresh fruit, veggie and dip trays, hard boiled eggs, string cheese, and yogurt at most of our stores.”
It’s no secret that convenience retailers are popular destinations in the morning. Not only has the industry evolved its coffee offer to the point that major brands are directly competing with coffee shops and quick-service restaurants, but there is no quicker game in town for a breakfast sandwich. As I proved in an experiment last year, convenience stores are much quicker than the drive-thru.
But sometimes we want more than the typical sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit, and QuikTrip has an option that I really enjoy. Their breakfast bowls consist of eggs, cheese, and a variety of other ingredients to choose from. Prepared in their kitchens and ordered via a customizable touchscreen menu, they total approximately 400 calories depending on the ingredients, and they’re served in a car-friendly container that fits in a cup holder. Customers who want to reduce the calories further can simply ask for less cheese.
Customers will also find a number of healthful options in QuikTrip’s open-air coolers. During my “30 Days of Gas Station Food” experiment, I frequently purchased their chef salads. At my local QuikTrip, I generally grab a container of fresh cut fruit—my favorite being a blend of strawberries and blueberries.
“As QuikTrip continues to grow our offer on fresh foods, healthy options will a part of our strategy,” says company spokesperson, Mike Thornbrugh. “We believe that the various fresh salads, wraps, and fruit that we currently offer will continue to grow.”
Casey’s General Stores
Casey’s is one of a handful of brands that really showed the convenience retailing industry the possibilities of foodservice. It was recently reported that the company is, in fact, the fifth largest pizza chain in the United States—which is no simple feat, given the intense competition.
But some people may not realize that Casey’s also provides healthful options for its customers. When my cycling club rides on the country roads around Runnells, Mitchellville, Bondurant, Maxwell, and other parts of central Iowa, we often stop at Casey’s to refuel. The employees always allow us to refill our water bottles, and I generally purchase red grapes or a low-sugar protein bar.
Many newer stores include open-air coolers with a variety of options including salads and fresh-cut fruit or vegetables. I’ve purchased celery and peanut butter at many locations. Stores also feature a good selection of sparkling water, protein bars, and mixed nuts. The build-your-own deli also enables customers to craft a lower-calorie wrap or sandwich if they’re looking for a meal on-the-go.
Love’s Travel Stops / Pilot Flying J
I recently spoke to a reporter who acknowledged convenience retailing’s trend towards “healthy”, but wasn’t sure if this development applies to the truck stops. I was happy to inform her that major brands like Love’s and Pilot Flying J do, in fact, provide quality options for travelers.
The Fresh To Go cups at Love’s are one of my favorites whenever I make long trips. Affordably priced at two for five dollars, they feature a large amount of fresh cut fruit and vegetables. Pineapple, grapes, honeydew, carrots, broccoli, cantaloupe and strawberries—it varies at each location. I typically pair them with a sparkling water and a package of raw almonds.
Pilot has also made significant improvement in this area. At their PJ Fresh marketplace stores, travelers will find large, open-air coolers with salads, whole fruit, fresh-cut fruit, and hard boiled eggs. Customers can also choose from a variety of lower-calorie hot food, including soups. Stuffed bell pepper, tomato basil, minestrone, and broccoli cheese are just a few of the many options.
And due to a recent partnership with celebrity chef Tim Love, many Pilot Flying J locations will soon feature additional items on their menus. As one of his first experiments, a few stores near Fort Worth, TX are testing a PBJ made with organic peanut butter and grape jelly on white potato bread.
Frank Beard is a speaker, writer, and convenience retailing advocate from Des Moines, IA. His "30 Days of Gas Station Food" experiment raised significant awareness of the industry's evolution from vice to nice, and was featured in publications such as Men's Health and People.com. Frank has spoken at the Partnership for a Healthier America's 2017 Summit, the NACS Show, Outlook Leadership, and numerous regional and corporate events. He is also a regular contributor to NACS Daily, NACS Magazine, and an analyst/evangelist for convenience store trends at GasBuddy—the mobile app that helps millions of drivers find their Perfect Pit Stop. You can find Frank online at @FrankBeard on Twitter, @30DaysofGasStationFood on Instagram, and on LinkedIn.