A. Elizabeth Sloan

It’s a grab-and-go food world out there. According to Automatic Merchandiser, every day just about 100 million Americans use a vending machine, 6 million stop to nosh at one of 7-Eleven’s 5,800 stores in North America, and 55 million eat at McDonald’s worldwide.

• Take-Out. NPD Group reports that one in four restaurant meals are ordered from a car and, although take-out lunches are carried to work or back home, only in-car consumption is growing. While fast-food restaurants supply 90% of take-out lunches, five types of venue account for more than 70% of sales: burgers 37%, sandwiches 15%, pizza 9%, Mexican 6%, and convenience stores 5%. Burger chains and C-stores enjoyed increased luncheon take-out business in 2005.

Burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, nuggets, pizza, main and side salads, tacos, fried chicken, and burritos make up the top-10 most-ordered take-out lunches, according to NPD. Chicken nuggets, diet soft drinks, and bottled water were more frequently ordered with take-out last year.

More than half of all restaurant breakfast meals were ordered and eaten in the car in 2005, and 7% of all breakfasts were eaten on the run. Breakfast brown-bagging also hit an all-time high last year, with 40 million Americans carrying food from home. Fruit, coffee, carbonated soft drinks, bars, and sandwiches topped the most-carried list.

But it’s the afternoon and late-night snacking occasions that spell big business for restaurants. For the quarter ending February 2006, NPD reports that quick-service-restaurant traffic was up 7% from 5 to 10 a.m., up 3% from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., up 7% from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., flat from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and up 11% from 9 p.m. to midnight. The top 10 most-ordered foods after 9 p.m. were soda, burgers, fries, pizza, diet soda, salty snacks, nuggets/strips, tacos, chicken sandwiches, and ice cream.

Technomic Inc. asked consumers how they rate current snack offerings at restaurants; only 7% rated the selection, 10% the taste, 4% the cost, 3% the healthfulness, and 5% the value as "excellent," so restaurants have a long way to go to meet customer needs.

• Convenience Stores. Fas Mart Convenience Stores, a 140-store chain based in Mechanicsville, Va., has started focusing on home-meal replacements. Gate Petroleum, Jacksonville, Fla., has introduced its Sandwich Central breakfast program, and Wawa has added Party Platters and built-to-order Hoagies.

Convenience Store News & Industry Report 2006 ranks foodservice sales right behind cigarettes and beer/malt beverages as the largest C-store categories. Nearly nine in ten (86%) C-stores sell foodservice items prepared fresh on-site. Moreover, their potential for new products is tremendous: 86% have microwave ovens, 79% food display cases, 76% espresso/cappuccino markers, 48% roller grills, 36% deli slicers, 33% pizza-making equipment, 31% deep fryers, and 30% grills.

Chocolate, sugar-free gum, and energy/nutrition bars led sales in the C-store confectionery category in 2005, according to Convenience Store News. C-stores also reported a 58% jump in dollar sales of energy drinks.

• Vending. Food vending sales—$21.89 billion through 7 million machines in the United States—trailed the overall foodservice sector, which grew 5% in 2005, and the C-store industry, which grew 14.2%, according to Automatic Merchandiser’s 2006 State of the Industry Report.

With increasing competition for on-the-go dollars, pressure to increase healthy offerings, and new vending technologies for both frozen and fresh foods not yet in widespread use, the vending industry could benefit from more-creative product concepts, such as Novamex’s Flavors of Mexico beverage vending machines with authentic Mexican brands such as Jarritos, Sidral, and Senorial.

In 2005, non-soda beverages represented disproportionately higher vending sales for retail cold drinks. Regular soda vending gallonage fell, according to the Beverage Marketing Association. Energy drink sales grew 81%, sports drinks 21%, bottled water 11%, and ready-to-drink tea 2%, while fruit drinks fell 2%.

Candy/snack introductions in vending machines rose 30% last year, according to Automatic Merchandiser’s 2006 State of the Vending Industry report. Meat snacks sales grew 34%, fruit snacks 11%, granola bars 17%, cereal snacks and 25%. Salty snacks fell 3%, nuts and seeds 4%, confections 0.5%. With the exception of fresh brewed decaf coffee and hot chocolate, hot beverage sales grew only slightly. White Castle’s Twin Cheeseburger and Pierre Foods’ Buffalo Style Wings topped sales in the frozen vended foods category in 2005. Kraft Foods’ Oscar Mayer Lunchables and Nestlé’s Nesquik Milk Shakes ranked first and second in the refrigerated category.

With single-serve packaging driving the beverage industry, 100-calorie packs setting the pace for snacks, and frozen foods being carried more frequently for away-from-home consumption, a wide range of new opportunities exist for grab-and-go foods.

by A. Elizabeth Sloan,
Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends, Inc., Escondido, Calif.
[email protected]