PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The days of stale gas station hot dogs are gone. Convenience stores and gas stations are upping their food game and people are taking notice.
Wawa landed a spot on America’s Favorite Convenience Stores list, but 7-Eleven is still the largest chain with more than 9,000 outposts.
The National Association of Convenience Stores says over the past decade, chains like Wawa have increased sales inside their stores by about 30% and the number of convenience stores in the United States has grown by 28%.
Around 93% of Americans live within 10 minutes of a convenience store, a highly-fragmented sector where regional chains and mom-and-pops dominate. Close to 80% of convenience stores have a gas station attached.
For years, convenience chains relied on tobacco, soft drinks and fuel to draw in customers, a business model often known as “Cokes, smokes and gas.” But Americans today are smoking less and steadily cutting out soda.
And increased regulations on tobacco and the decline of sugary drinks will continue to chip away at the areas convenience stores have long relied on to grow. This has forced convenience stores to adapt.
“When we look at what’s going to make us competitive in the future, it’s what’s going on inside the store,” said Rick from Kwik Trip.
Top chains see an opening to cater to customers hunting for breakfast, a quick snack or a prepared meal for dinner.
These food trends are pronounced among Millennials, who eat out more often and visit the grocery stores less frequently than their parents, according to the agency.
“Millennials exhibit a higher preference for convenience” when it comes to buying food, a 2017 USDA study found.
“Our bullseye is kind of that younger age group — the late teens to the early thirties for food and beverage,” said Travis Sheetz, chief operating officer at Sheetz, a family-owned chain that has more than 600 stores on the East Coast and topped $7 billion in sales last year. “They tend to be much more accepting of eating at a gas station.”
Sheetz offers made-to-order sandwiches and salads and has espresso bars. Everything is done on touch screens, which it introduced in the 1990s.
Wawa, which has more than 800 convenience stores along the East Coast and is known for its hoagies, has added custom salads, artisan sandwiches and organic coffee in recent years.
7-Eleven is attempting to transform its food and drinks, too. It has launched private-label meal kits and tested keto and paleo snacks at 125 Los Angeles stores. At a 7-Eleven lab store in Dallas, it has a growler bar stocked with local craft beers and a bar with frozen yogurt and ice cream. There is also a patio and inside dining areas.
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