Coffee’s Comeback – CStore Decisions

As traffic to c-stores slowly increased in 2021, c-store retailers drew customers back to the coffee segment with seasonal and unique flavors, a variety of blends, as well as cold-brew options. Now, as the year comes to a close, retailers are adapting to a more consistent flow of consumers, especially in the hot dispensed category, and that’s meant positive news for category sales.

At Cliff’s Local Market, 2021 hot dispensed sales are outperforming 2020 sales, now that more people are returning to the store, confirmed Derek Thurston, director of foodservice operations for Cliff’s, which operates 20 locations in New York. 

In fact, during October 2021, Cliff’s coffee, cappuccino and cold brew sales were up 13.3% for the month compared to last October, he said. However, the category is still falling short of 2019 sales. 

At Tiger Fuel Co.’s The Market convenience stores, hot dispensed sales also dropped in 2020 due to the pandemic, but they continue to rise in 2021.

“We are up around 11% from 2019,” said Lisa Dollins, pricebook manager of Tiger Fuel Co., which currently operates 10 locations in Virginia.

Both retailers expect growth in the hot dispensed segment to continue in 2022.

Fresh and Bold Flavors

Five years ago, Cliff’s Local Market started a relationship with local roaster Utica Coffee and offers customers a steady year-round selection of blends that perform well. 

“What we typically do is we have our house blend, our Dark Adirondack (and) our ‘Wake The Hell Up!’ blend, which is one of their most popular blends,” said Thurston.

Cliff’s is also known for its seasonal and unique flavors. During the last quarter of the year, a new flavor is released in October for Halloween, November for Thanksgiving and December for the winter holidays. Cliff’s recently finished serving the Great Pumpkin and Apple Cinnamon flavors and has Mocha Mint available in December.

“And then in January, we’re going to go to Half Moon, which is a regional favorite around here; it’s a cookie,” said Thurston. 

Finding new, bold and fresh flavors to sell to customers has been a successful strategy for Cliff’s, which caters the flavor to the market. For example, Cliff’s developed a blueberry pancake flavor and specifically marketed it to the younger generations. A dark chocolate raspberry-truffle flavor has also performed well around Valentine’s Day.

“We’re just keeping the flavors new and interesting and constantly moving,” said Thurston.

Tiger Fuel’s The Market began partnering with Ronnoco Coffee for its coffee program about two years ago. The Market stores offer multiple coffee flavors, including breakfast blend, decaf, dark roast, Colombian, extreme caffeine, French vanilla, African sunrise, Costa Rica and an organic Guatemalan.

The Market also features a variety of flavors for its cappuccino, such as hot chocolate, mocha, pumpkin spice (seasonal), French vanilla and caramel.

Both c-store chains offer different creamer and syrup flavors, as well, so shoppers can customize their beverages.

Rise of the Cold Brew

In addition to offering exciting new flavors in the hot dispensed segment, retailers have found cold-brew coffee to be in demand. 

The Market offers cold brew at four of its locations. “This is new to The Markets due to the trend of what our customers are looking for,” said Dollins. “Next year, I believe that cold coffees will be the trend, and the stronger dark coffees, also. We are a college town, and the students are trending in that direction.”

Two local cold brews it offers are Snowing in Space — both in 12-ounce cold cans and in the coffee area with Kegerators — and Trager Brothers Coffee in 16-ounce cans.

Cliff’s is also watching the growing popularity of cold brew and adapting to the trend. First it tested nitro cold brew, but when that failed to catch on with its customer base, the chain shifted to offering a regular black cold brew and a salted-caramel latte variety that resonate better with its cold-brew customers.

Traditional Brewing Still Sells

While an increasing number of c-stores are trending toward bean-to-cup dispensers due to the improved freshness, quality perception and reduced labor required, some c-store chains, like Cliff’s and The Market, prefer the employee interaction, space-saving attributes and speed that they say traditional brewing allows. For instance, Cliff’s uses soft-heat urns.

“Bean-to-cup’s good because it eliminates labor, but with us, we’re committed to labor, to going over there and taking care of it,” said Thurston. “You can get a lot more people in and out when you have six or seven urns fully stocked. (Employees) can fill them up, and you don’t have to wait a minute-and-a-half to get your coffee to come out. You can just pull the nozzle, and you’re good to go. You fill up with your creamers, and you are out the door.”

The Market features one store with bean-to-cup dispensers, but space constraints make it a challenging offering for the location. “It requires more space on our counters, and we just do not have that kind of space,” said Dollins. 

While bean-to-cup dispensers offer many benefits for c-stores, traditional brewing remains a classic and efficient option.

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