|Kwik Trip offers better-for-you options in its convenience stores.|
BOSTON — If you think whole grains are only for supermarkets and restaurants, think again. Kwik Trip, Inc., a convenience store operator in the upper Midwest, is on the cutting edge of an extensive whole grains program.
With 465 stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, Kwik Trip’s scale may make it a model for similar convenience store chains looking to incorporate healthier food options.
In a Nov. 11 presentation at the Whole Grains Council conference at the Hyatt Boston Harbor, Jim Bressi, director of product development for La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip, described several ways the company is trying to make a mark.
Currently, the convenience store chain has an EATSmart program and healthy concessions program. The EATSmart program contains a menu guide, meals that are balanced and fat-controlled, and shelf markers.
“We’re trying to change a lot of misconceptions, and we’re trying to add things,” Mr. Bressi said. “We’re trying to be an innovator and a leader and get other convenience stores on board. By having over 400 stores … we’re able to do that.”
Impressively, Kwik Trip is making the move on its own, taking on the task of not only selling product, but also making and distributing the product.
“We’re not only a retailer, we’re a food manufacturer,” he said. “We operate our own dairy, our own ice cream plant, our own beverage plant, our own bakery, our own kitchens where we produce the soups, salads, sandwiches and also we have a whole distribution system that we use to get our product out. We’re our only customer. We’re pretty privileged to be able to do that, and control that whole supply chain.”
Specific to grain-based foods, Kwik Trip has been a member of the W.G.C. for six years, and has offered three whole grain bread options since 2011. The varieties are fiber enriched whole wheat, white whole wheat and hearty eight grain. The company is aiming even higher.
“I just challenged the team to develop the (hearty eight grain) into a bun so we can start using it in our hot foods program and also sell it as a retail six pack,” Mr. Bressi said.
The Kwik Trip baking “team” traditionally came out of the industrial baking background, Mr. Bressi said, and he has challenged them to move beyond the reliance on vendors. He said Kwik Trip wants to sell products that are just a little bit different than what’s currently on the market.
An advantage to being your own supplier is the ability to control costs. The price point at Kwik Trip is cheaper than at many supermarkets because the middle man has been eliminated. For example, customers may buy two loaves of Kwikery classic white bread for $1, and Kwikery specialty bread and buns are currently available for 99c each.
“We can sell them at a discount because we make the product ourselves,” Mr. Bressi said. “Our bakery is state-of-the-art. It’s only two years old. It’s one of the best in the nation.”
Product innovation is also a focal point at Kwik Trip. Earlier this month, the convenience store chain added an artisan harvest whole grain bagel.
Like any business, though, Kwik Trip is up against some challenges, including undesirable ingredients. By 2015, Mr. Bressi said Kwik Trip plans to be azodicarbonamide free. Trans fat is also an issue, he said, adding that the company has spent two years working to eliminate the inclusion of trans fat where possible.
“We’re getting there, customers are demanding it, but we’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said.
Clean label is another issue that Kwik Trip is up against. Mr. Bressi said the company is going through all of its products looking for removable ingredients.
“It’s a big project for us, but we’re going to get there,” he said.
Finally, sourcing is a challenge. Mr. Bressi said Kwik Trip is focused on making sure its sources are clean.
Mr. Bressi said Kwik Trip was the first convenience store to partner with the Partnership for a Healthier America. Among its commitments, Kwik Trip has pledged to offer four categories of fruit, four categories of vegetables, six whole grain products and four non-fat or low-fat dairy products. All of the foods will be priced less than Kwik Trip’s regional average price to increase the affordability of such healthy products for customers. Kwik Trip also has agreed to promote at least two EATSmart combination meals that meet specific nutrient and affordability criteria, and encourage healthy behaviors among both consumers and employees by labeling all EATSmart items and fountain beverage machines with their caloric content information, offer a free piece of daily fruit to all working employees and provide bicycle racks at every new store that is built.“(Our goal is to) get the healthier product out there in front of the customer instead of the Cokes and smokes and making sure the healthy choice is the easy choice,” Mr. Bressi said.