Kum & Go's new Marketplace stores are centered around an open kitchen.
Late in 2017, Kum & Go announced a run-of-the-mill store closing announcement that raised few, if any, eyebrows outside the Joplin, Missouri, area that was seeing two of the c-store locations shuttered.

But the reaction in Joplin — where hundreds of comments flooded online news reports — perhaps shows just how bold Kum & Go’s new direction is. The two Joplin locations included two seemingly prime real estate spots — one just off of Interstate 44 and another on the southwest corner of one of the region’s busiest intersections.

But there was one main problem with both locations: the footprints of the older stores were too small to allow Kum & Go to revamp the stores to its new foodservice-oriented Go Fresh Marketplace concept.

“Basically, our strategy is to get a consistent offering in all of our food stores, which includes a full food offering,” Kristie Bell, Kum & Go’s director of communications, said at the time. “We’re in the process of closing and sometimes divesting smaller, older stores, and these two fit into that category. We’re closing them to make room for future new stores, not necessarily on that location, but furthering our strategy.”

That strategy is to transform the 400-plus-store Midwestern chain into a leader in the realm of c-store foodservice. And it’s off to a strong start.

Putting food first

Kum & Go opened its first Go Fresh Marketplace store design in February 2016 in Johnston, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines, where the company is headquartered. 

The development of the model started two years before that, with store design conceptualized by New York City retail design firm CBX and a working prototype developed by Kansas City architecture firm BRR.

The process resulted in an entirely new concept for the company. President and CEO Kyle Krause, at the time, called it the “evolution of our brand promise and business approach,” saying the new footprint represented everything the company strives to be for its associates and customers.

Two years later, Kum & Go has built nearly 40 Marketplace stores throughout its 11-state footprint — stretching from Minnesota to Wyoming to Arkansas — and more are seemingly on the horizon.

“We hear very positive feedback from customers on the design with the open kitchen concept and luxe materials, as well as the extra amenities offered, like indoor seating and free WiFi,” Bell says. “Fresh food is the focus at these stores and it shows.”

The Chicken and Waffle sandwich has proven popular at Kum & Go locations.

Consumers can order from an open kitchen, where associates prepare fresh sandwiches (Philly Cheesesteak, Brisket and Cheddar, Grilled Italian Chicken Panini), salads “with flare” (Southwestern Salad, Chicken Caesar), burritos, pizza, chicken and waffles, and more.

The fresh new options are paying off and the company is already adjusting the Go Fresh concept to capitalize.

“Customers are definitely responding to our fresh food offering,” Bell says. “In 2017 we saw record sales in food, due in part to our offerings at Marketplace stores.”

The key, she says, is finding the right balance of quality food that can be prepared, purchased and consumed quickly and conveniently.

“Customers want something that’s quick, economical, but also tastes really good,” Bell says. “They also like to try new things, so we have begun to do more limited time offer items.”

LTO offerings have included a Fall Harvest Salad late last year, or the Chicken and Waffles sandwich. Last fall the company rolled out a new Grande Breakfast Burrito and, for later dayparts, a Barbacoa Burrito. Bell says both are still seeing strong sales.

The company rolled out a new pizza recipe recently and has started to focus on its pizza program more than ever before, Bell says. Promotions like “Free Pizza Fridays,” a buy-one-get-one deal, and $1 slices and $8 whole pizzas on Wednesdays has helped increase traffic and sales. 

|||READ MORE: Blurring the lines|||

THe Go Fresh Marketplace concepts have ample indoor and outdoor seating for diners.
Blurring the lines

The Go Fresh Marketplace concept has ample indoor and outdoor seating, free WiFi, charging stations and other amenities that give customers a gentle nudge to hang around and, perhaps, make some more food purchases.

“We’ve anecdotally heard from customers that they appreciate being able to enjoy their meal in the store instead of eating while driving, or sitting in their car in the parking lot,” Bell says. “We’re also seeing our stores used as a cafe of sorts — regular coffee groups meeting up to share a cup of coffee and conversation. As the lines between grocery, gas stations, quick-serve restaurants and convenience stores continue to blur, we’re always looking for ways to live up to our tagline, ‘Where & means more.’”

The success of the revamped foodservice line and the information the company is getting from the way its customers are interacting with the store design is already leading to on-the-go changes to the Marketplace.

“We’ve learned a lot about what works best in the store format, and we’ve already begun to build modified versions of the Marketplace store based on those learnings,” Bell says. 

For example, the cash wrap was initially on the back wall of the store, but the orientation has been changed so that it backs up against the front windows now. This not only serves as a way to get the cash wrap closer to the front door, but it also puts more of an emphasis on the food, coffee and drink areas.

The new store designs are built around consumer convenience.

In Iowa Kum & Go locations, customers can have their beer growlers filled by associates. This has proven to be a popular service, but associates had to walk away from the cash wrap and across the store to assist a growler customer. The growler stations have now been designed as an offshoot of the cash wrap.

The total size of the stores has also decreased by an average of about 400 square feet since the initial concept was unveiled. “We found that the stores were just a little bigger than we needed, so we were able to pare down the square footage and adjust,” Bell says.

|||READ MORE: Building a following|||

Popular food items like the Grande Breakfast Burrito keep consumers coming back.
Building a following

Most regions have a favorite c-store chain, where food is celebrated, and consumers share their visits on social media. Wawa, RaceTrac, Sheetz, QuikTrip and others have filled that role in their respective markets, and Kum & Go is doing the same.

“We’re doing a lot more with food innovation and trying out new offerings for a limited time, to gauge customer reaction,” Bell says. “We want to be known for having lots of tasty and interesting choices.”

Kum & Go also highlights its regular food-centered promotions, like a recent deal that offered 10 cents off per gallon of gas if a customer purchased a whole pizza. In addition to TV and radio advertising in the company’s major markets, its &Rewards loyalty program is a vital way for it to get those promotions in front of customers.

“And it’s the best way to earn free items for shopping with us,” Bell says. “We regularly send out emails informing customers of new food items we’re carrying, and offers show up in the &Rewards app, informing customers of what’s on special.”

As the customer base grows and Kum & Go looks into the future, the company is committed to staying in front of what consumers are looking for when it comes to food.

“We’ll always offer the slice of pizza in a warmer, or a roller grill item —  the more traditional c-store fare,” Bell says. “But we also want to help change the perception of what convenience store food can be. For us, it’s continuing to try new and fun things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.”