We’ve been talking for a while now about the food-to-go opportunity on the roadside. The gas station, or petrol forecourt (depending on where you happen to be in the world) brings with it certain preconceptions when it comes to the food & drink on offer. These have been driven traditionally by many operators considering food-to-go as a secondary, or even tertiary focus, compared with the core operation.
But things are changing fast. Fuel is already becoming a less important driver of traffic – a trend which will inevitably continue as more drivers switch to electric vehicles, which can be charged in a wider variety of locations, including at home. So food & beverage overall – with food-to-go at its heart – will become a more critical differentiator, when it comes to where drivers will choose to stop. Several operators and markets already stand out for how they are creating destination food & beverage led appeal on the roadside. Norway and Ireland offer excellent examples of this, while there are a growing number of examples to learn from elsewhere, not least Germany and the Netherlands.
While our primary focus is in Europe, we keep one eye on developments in the rest of the world. And more & more operators globally are now thinking differently about their roadside opportunity. Among the most impressive and inspirational of these is Alltown Fresh, in the North Eastern United States. We were delighted to be able to visit the operation recently at its site in Marlborough, Massachusetts, one hour west of Boston. Here’s what we found.
Alltown Fresh: redefining roadside food
The Alltown Fresh concept, to our minds, would impress in any location, whether roadside, neighbourhood or city centre. And it certainly delivers a great first impression, with messaging around fresh, natural and organic, that is very removed from traditional product and messaging in fuel-adjacent retail environments.
In-store, we were lucky enough to meet up with Joshua Smith, who heads up the development and expansion of the concept. A chef by trade, he’s used his expertise to develop and curate an extremely well differentiated roadside proposition. Alltown Fresh is a relatively new concept set up under the umbrella of its parent business, Global Partners, which operates c. 1,600 gas stations across the North East of the US. There are currently eight roadside Alltown Fresh sites, plus one ghost kitchen. More openings are imminent.
Targeting key roadside missions, better
The goal of creating better quality products to meet core roadside missions has underpinned development. We experienced this being delivered in two ways: a chef-led kitchen creates better quality food-for-now staples, such as breakfast rolls and lunchtime burgers. But at the same time, the team have also taken the opportunity to develop the proposition in terms of adding better for you options into the offer – for example with a range of freshly prepared salads, made to order smoothies and kombucha on tap. There’s also been a focus on ensuring the hot drinks range benefits from the same principles as the food – high quality bean to cup drip coffee machines sit alongside a barista counter served offer.
Using culinary expertise to spread into new areas and missions
A core principle around the operation is employing chefs to underpin and develop the offer. And the offer has developed in many different ways, notably using online ordering as a business development opportunity. Some of this is about providing new ways to order core menu items, and these can be delivered or collected in-store. But what is very different is how the offer pushes into meal kits. These chef prepared meal kits, typically at USD50-60, are designed to feed families. These can then be collected at any of its eight locations, or directly from its ghost kitchen, located in Boston.
Meeting the family evening mission, as well as special occasions
The meal kits are designed to feed 4-6, and the core range includes a taco night box, a Japanese bento box, roast chicken dinner and Mediterranean meze dinner. But it adds to this core selection with a series of seasonal specials, for example around Thanksgiving, Christmas, or most recently, around a date night meal kit box.
A new and differentiated roadside environment
The environment is key for any roadside destination, and it will become a more important differentiator as fuel reduces in importance as a driver. This is why the differentiated design at Alltown Fresh made such a positive impression on us. The store we visited was a conversion, and delivered a differentiated look and feel, albeit one that if you looked hard enough was still recognisable as the core forecourt shop footprint. But development also includes new builds, which benefit from larger, more distinct seating areas (the small one in the store we visited was closed due to covid), helping to drive relevance for a wider variety of missions throughout the day, and moving the operation further away from the reliance on fuel.
Team members at the forefront of creating that differentiation
On our visit, we were highly impressed by the friendliness and helpfulness of the team members in-store. From discussions with Joshua, his focus on creating the right environment for team members as well as customers came through strongly. Standards in-store were extremely high – Joshua comes across as someone who wants to do everything properly, something which is underpinned by a strong focus on team member opportunities and career development. What this means is that Alltown Fresh probably expects more from its employees than a typical gas station store, but we took away a strong view that it offers a lot more in return, in terms of benefits development and career progression. And this in turn helps create a better environment and experience for customers.
Grab & go alongside counter served
Across the board, we’re seeing more operators seeing benefit in offering a counter served and a grab & go food-to-go offer alongside one another, recognising that the two can fit together well to drive incremental missions. And this is very much the case at Alltown Fresh. In the grab & go offer, there’s also a strong focus on in-house production, helping to create an elevated level of quality and freshness across the range vs. many roadside competitors.
A wider grocery range, linked to the needs of the onsite kitchen
On entry to the store, customers are met by a range of differentiated, typically premium and often local, FMCG grocery lines. While some are focused on snacking categories, others are more ingredients – these are the products used in the kitchen. So while it’s potentially a stretch right now to be selling artisan premium ingredients along with fuel, this very much helps longer term to build the brand. It also has the advantage that even if they’re slower stockturn items, that don’t sell as well as Alltown Fresh would like, they will be used by the kitchen.
Plans for further sites are already in play. It’s fair to say that the model won’t be suited to all Global Partners 1,600+ locations. However, the team at Alltown Fresh have already identified sites across the broader estate where they see potential for Alltown Fresh concept to do well – and this sits alongside keeping a lookout for new build locations.
It’s a concept that offers extensive inspiration, and crucially its differentiated proposition meets a much wider variety of roadside – and non-roadside missions and customer needs than would traditionally be the case. In brief, it is a very well-considered and rounded concept that deserves to do well, and one that we see as a key influencer as we look to the future of roadside food & drink.