Naperville, Illinois-based Eby-Brown is the largest privately-owned convenience store distributor in the United States. From its eight distribution centers, the company supplies 14,500 retail locations in 18 states throughout the Midwest, Mid-South and East Coast.
Eby-Brown also makes a mean sandwich — a lot of them. Its Wakefield Sandwich Co. division, created in 1994, features a full lineup of sandwiches and other prepared foods. Fresh wedge and sub sandwiches, wraps, butcher-wrapped frozen breakfast and lunch sandwiches and yogurt and pudding parfaits are among the many products on the Wakefield roster.
In September, Wakefield celebrated the one-year anniversary of a major rebranding project. Working with an outside agency, the company came up with a plan to take advantage of consumers’ desire for healthier prepared-food options in c-stores. The results include new options like fresh parfaits, egg white frittatas and other heart-healthy sandwiches and wraps.
Convenience that doesn’t compromise quality has been a mantra of Wakefield since Day One. And while the company’s core offerings have remained largely the same in recent years, it’s not afraid to innovate when necessary, as evidenced by the rebrand, says Andy Batt, Wakefield’s vice president of business and brand development.
“The core line of sandwiches has changed very little, but Wakefield has been aggressive with healthier options and with innovations that leverage flavor trends and appeal to additional regional and ethnic market segments,” Batt says.
For example, the new parfaits, which contain yogurt, fruit and granola, are similar to items popular at trendy cafes and coffee shops, and they appeal to a more upscale customer, he says. And, for a different kind of customer, Wakefield tweaked the product. “We launched a pudding version made with chocolate and vanilla pudding topped with cookie crumbs, offering a more mainstream appeal,” Batt says.
Other new items since the rebrand reflect the needs of different groups of consumers. “The new Chorizo & Egg Corn Biscuit has very strong appeal with both the millennial shoppers and with Hispanic customers,” Batt says. “The new corn biscuit adds an element of Mexican flavor authenticity, and a slight sweetness balances with the spice of the chorizo patty.”
Also popular with millennials, Batt says, is Wakefield’s Vegetarian Egg White Frittata on Whole Wheat Flatbread, Batts says. The item is also a hit with those looking for fewer calories, less fat and sodium and a lower carb count. “Additionally,” he says, “it has a higher protein value and is easy to eat on-the-go.” The product’s success, Batt says, combined with requests for vegan options at the c-store level, also led Wakefield to create a Gluten Free Vegan Veggie Patty sandwich.
New products for millennials, Hispanics and the health-conscious aren’t the only changes in Wakefield’s product offerings since the rebrand, Batt says. Also on tap is a Southern Chicken Biscuit, which should have more of a regional appeal, he says. “We anticipate that it will be popular in the Midwest and become a staple for our customers in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.”
Batts says the rebrand was designed to separate the Wakefield line from its competition. Based on the increase in sales across all categories — fresh, frozen and parfaits — he believes it was a success. More broadly speaking, there are three things, Batt says, that differentiate Wakefield from other convenience store suppliers.
“It begins with the quality of ingredients, the distinction of being fresh and never frozen in our fresh wedge sandwich product, and extends to the image of the easily identifiable packaging,” he says.
Breathing new life into the Wakefield brand was a good investment, given the growing demand the company sees for c-store prepared food products. “Consumers are more frequently looking to c-stores for snacking, as well as prepared snacks and meals that they can purchase quickly and eat on the go,” Batt says. “Even in locations where retailers have made-to-order food, prepared foods are needed as options for times when their kitchens are closed.”
And despite the success of the new products, Wakefield still relies on its old standbys and expects to see continued strong demand for them, Batt says. Popularity varies by region, but the company’s Chicken Salad Wedge, Italian Subs and Sausage, Egg and Cheese Biscuit continue to be the top performers for most customers, he says. “Healthier innovation items have added to Wakefield’s growth, but the most popular items remain the same.”
Running parallel with the expected growth of c-store sales, Batt says, will be stronger demand for Wakefield’s signature product. “Sandwiches are the most popular meal solution and should continue to grow with the c-store channel, as long as we deliver high-quality and fresh-tasting sandwiches. To maximize sales it’s important to have the core sandwiches as well as the right mix of variety for your store’s customer base.”
Another industry trend should benefit Wakefield in the coming years, Batt says. As food labeling continues to become more regulated, some retailers may not have the ability to produce and package foods for retail sale, due to the expense and labor. They’ll need options for high-quality prepared foods that look and taste fresh, he says, and Wakefield will be there to meet the need.
|||READ MORE: Savory Corner Cafe|||
Savory Corner Cafe
Wakefield Sandwich Co. is just one part of Eby-Brown’s foodservice division. Another, Savory Corner Café, provides hot prepared food options in three categories: Roller Grill, Hot-To-Go and Heat & Eat.
Roller Grill options for c-store include hot dogs, sausages, bratwurst, egg rolls and taquitos. Hot-To-Go and Heat & Eat options include charbroiled cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, bacon, egg and cheese bagels, hot sub sandwiches and many other breakfast and lunch entrees. Eby-Brown also supplies the instore equipment to store and prepare the foods in all three Savory Corner Café categories.
In some ways, says Sharon Kuncl, vice president of Eby-Brown Merchandising, Foodservice, Savory Corner Café has stayed pretty much the same in recent years, with the same core offerings of breakfast sandwiches and lunch options. In other, important ways, though, the program has changed to meet the changing needs of consumers.
“Consumers still expect burgers and chicken sandwiches when they frequent a convenience store,” Kuncl says. “What has changed is the expectation for quality. Consumers expect a quality product that tastes good. Their threshold for retail price point has emerged over the years, and most important now is having a high-quality product at a good value.”
Another change that has affected the ways Eby-Brown approaches both Wakefield and Savory Corner Café, Kuncl says, is a new industry philosophy toward limited time offerings. “The mindset used to be that retailers disappoint customers when they have an item and then replace it with a different product. Today’s consumers embrace the concept of immediacy in their dining lives with pop-up restaurants and food trucks that may or may not have the same menu from day to day.”
That, Kuncl says, gives retailers more flexibility in their menus. “Having the core is very important, but giving customers options for new products is also critical to the overall success at retail.”
|||READ MORE: Breakfast, snacking trending up|||
Breakfast, snacking trending up
Wakefield is bullish on growth in c-store demand for prepared foods across all categories, but breakfast and snacking are two areas of particular interest, Kuncl says.
Breakfast continues to be a driving force in prepared food sales, with 54% of convenience retailers expecting growth in the category in the next year, according to statistics in the Fare Foodservice Handbook 2017. Retailers should focus their efforts on this daypart to capitalize on the foot traffic in their stores, Kuncl says.
“Breakfast is a time of the day, not necessarily a food choice,” she says. “Retailers need to look at their consumers during this time and offer items which would appeal to them, realizing the food may not be traditional breakfast fare.” Consumers want variety, Batt says. For sandwiches, capitalizing fully on the breakfast daypart could mean offering different sandwich carriers and diverse flavor profiles.”
Capitalizing on the growth in the snacking category also will be key for Wakefield in the coming years, Batt says. “Snacking continues to drive sales throughout the day, with consumers looking for smaller portions of hand-held items that can be eaten on the go. Retailers can drive sales by catering to this group throughout the day with products that fill this need.”
Key to the success of all Wakefield products, Batt says, are the industry partners who help the company produce and package its products. The company uses select co-packers, for instance, to craft and wrap its sandwiches and parfaits, which are then shipped either fresh or frozen to Eby-Brown’s hub plant. Product is then shipped weekly on an Eby-Brown tri-temp truck to the company’s eight distribution plants. Daily deliveries are made from DCs to the company’s retail customers.
For packing Wakefield and Savory Corner Café products, Eby-Brown uses ProSeal equipment to seal its wedges in cartons provided by Rapid Action Packaging Ltd. For fresh subs, the company relies on an Ilapak flow wrapper to seal its subs in a custom Bagcraft roll stock paper laminated barrier film.