C-Stores Grab a Slice of the Pizza Pie

Sales boost of nearly 10% attributed partially to LTOs

PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. -- The secret is in the sauce. Literally.

Just when you thought pizza couldn’t get any more popular, it has. According to The NPD Group, customers are paying greater attention to pizza—even more than they were two years ago.

Servings of pizza sold in the c-store arena rose 9% in the year ending May 2015, according to The NPD Group’s SupplyTrack study.

This impressive performance comes after the channel saw servings rise 18% in May 2014 vs. the previous year. The growth of pizza servings is a result of handiwork by both proprietary and franchise models, said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for The NPD Group.

“The c-store is getting more recognition with pizza because various aspects of the overall offer are standing out and, by extension, people are noticing it more,” Riggs said. “C-stores and supermarkets are both making this connection,” while both fast-casual and quick-service-restaurant pizza programs are flat.

Limited-time offers (LTOs) are key category drivers, Riggs said. Pizza LTOs can test the market to gauge whether a flavor will stick permanently.

“LTOs also attract new buyers and bring in lapsed users,” Riggs told Convenience Store Products. “When you have an LTO, over six weeks’ time it creates a sense of urgency among consumers to try it before it’s gone.”

In the c-store industry, much traction is coming from what NPD calls “food-forward” chains, Riggs said, citing Wawa, Sheetz, RaceTrac, Cumberland Farms, Kwik Trip and Casey’s General Stores, to name a few.

NPD’s findings that LTO pizzas are a smash hit is a trend that Paul Servais, retail foodservice director for La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip, knows about from experience. This year Kwik Trip released a Wisconsin natural: a bratwurst-infused pie. (Coincidentally, Tombstone Pizza in June rolled out a frozen LTO Bratwurst pizza featuring slices of bratwurst, green bell peppers, onions, a blend of Wisconsin cheddar and mozzarella cheeses and a tomato sauce with a hint of spicy brown mustard.)

Overall, Kwik Trip finds that sales of its proprietary Cheese Mountain pizza brand are on autopilot, thanks to a solid reputation garnered over the years. “We don’t do much in offering discounts or bundled offers, such as a slice of pizza with a drink or hot wings. We stick to our price points and stay basic. We execute employee contests to motivate them to sell more whole pies and slices,” Servais said.

He sees some of the pizza-franchise models, such as Hot Stuff and Hunt Brothers, as ones that continue to help lift the pizza segment higher at the c-store level. “The franchise model is an easy way for small operators to get into the game—plus the franchises bring the key expertise,” he said.

So what can c-stores do to keep the momentum going?

“Keep LTOs going and keep them vibrant,” said NPD’s Riggs. “You have to always have the traditional sausage and pepperoni, but to attract new or lapsed buyers you need to emphasize the unique. With a group like millennials, they are key drivers of that Asian chicken variety, plus they appreciate the whole farm-to-table dynamic that emphasizes fresh ingredients over artificial.”

It would serve retailers well to tout that their fresh-made pizzas source vegetable toppings from local farms or farmers markets to further attain the pizza gold standard, she said.