Muffins and other grab-and-go breakfast items target morning consumers.


Seeking shelf-life

Shipping baked goods to c-stores isn’t always easy. That’s because the c-store channel remains incredibly diversified with 63.1% as single-store operators representing 42.6% of the channel’s growth, Mr. Swanson noted. He mentioned that regional chains with 50 to 100 stores are large enough to support their own distribution networks or commissaries for food service operations.

Many bakers rely on a combination of D.S.D., warehouse distributors or even redistributors. As a result, one of the primary challenges with c-stores involves shelf life for baked goods and snack suppliers.

“Because of the multiple layers in today’s distribution chain, it is necessary to have a long shelf life on products,” Mr. Cason said. “Many wholesalers/distributors/c-stores require goods to have a certain amount of life left when they are received. Without a D.S.D. network that can put product on the shelf and properly rotate it, lengthy shelf lives at production are very important.”

Some cookies often require a nine-month or longer shelf life not only because of warehouse distribution but also because of the uncertainty that can happen at the store level. All too often, store clerks don’t understand the nuances of stacking shelves and rotating coded products. Consequently, bakers of shorter shelf-life products — those with 30 to 45 days for individually wrapped foodservice items — tend to opt for D.S.D. or frozen warehouse distributors who can monitor code dates.

For Hill Country, this complex distribution model means arranging a variety of options.

“If you want it D.S.D. from us, we can offer it, and if you want it through frozen distribution, we’re in all of the big houses there,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “We have a hybrid distribution model now. It’s not easy to do, but it’s one that’s helping us serve this channel better.”

Servicing the channel often involves taking no chances.

“Sometimes, products sell in a rapid pace,” Mr. Cason said. “At other times, someone may put another product in front of yours that’s already there or not do the rotation properly. If you only have a six-month shelf life, you might end up with an out-of-code issue.”

As a result, the push for fresher, clean-label foods runs into a bit of a conundrum. Supplying a c-store often requires advances in formulations that remain on-trend with today’s consumers.

“Ingredient technology has come a long way,” Mr. Anderson said. “Years ago, you could load up a product with preservatives, but it would totally take away from the quality of the product. It wouldn’t stale on you. It wouldn’t get moldy. Today, shelf-stable additives are much more tolerable when you are eating them. It’s not all calcium propionate. It’s not something you put in your gas tank. You can put it in your mouth. Those types of ingredients are changing, and bigger companies have access to that technology more than smaller companies.”

When it comes to eating healthy, impulse still reigns in the c-store world. Mr. O’Donnell cited what he called the “50-50 rule.”

“Around 50% of consumers really care about what they eat, what the ingredients are, what the nutritionals are, where the ingredients are sourced,” he said. “Those 50% are concerned about bakery products and all of the nutrition. The other 50% of consumers don’t care at all about nutrition. They only care about a product’s taste.”

As c-stores continue to evolve, bakers will have even greater opportunities if operators further push to compete up and down the block to broaden their consumer base.

“We’re seeing c-stores slightly diversifying because of the new products and healthier ones, but much of the market is still mainly made up of truck drivers,” Mr. Anderson noted. “For many of them, they’re just picking something up with a cup of coffee, and they don’t care how it tastes because they’re just putting something into their stomachs for the sake of putting something in their stomachs. But it’s changing.”

In this market, the easier it is, the better for everyone.