Kum & Go transforming into fast casual brand?

Kum & Go has created a line of freshly prepared sandwiches, grain bowls, pizzas and blended beverages worthy of any fast casual brand, according to Jac Moskalik, VP of Food Innovation at Kum & Go.

Kum & Go transforming into fast casual brand?Kum & Go’s ChimiChicken Bowl is available in 35 locations. Provided

Convenience stores have never been known for their five-star menus as the phrase, “gas station food,” usually conjures up images of stale doughnuts and soggy hot buns. Kum & Go, a 410-unit c-store chain based in Des Moines, is hoping to change that perception, however, by creating a line of freshly prepared sandwiches, grain bowls, pizzas and blended beverages worthy of any fast casual brand, according to Jac Moskalik, VP of Food Innovation at Kum & Go.

“The new menu delivers the quality of fast casual with the speed a convenience store shopper expects,” she told FastCasual during an interview. “Based on our research, we’ve hit that sweet spot.”

The company is reimagining itself as a “restaurant that serves gas,” instead of a “gas station that serves food,” said Montina Filice, the associate director of strategy at The Culinary Edge, the incubator behind several fast casual concepts — including Starbird — which Kum & Go tapped to upgrade its food offerings.

“Their goal is to redefine what ‘convenience store’ means to consumers and not be a place where health is sacrificed for convenience,” said Filice, whose team took a “human-centered approach to the menu design” in order to help meet those criteria.

“We began by researching the target guest — a Young Healthy Striver— identifying core needs and occasions, how Kum & Go might establish a new food credibility, and what kind of offering might be most attractive,” she told FastCasual. “We explored both existing competitors in the convenience store space and target competitors in the fast food and fast casual space.”

Creating a restaurant experience
Developing delicious recipes was just the first step in the long process, however. Figuring out how to create food within a gas station was where the real work started.

Since the stores had never cooked food within their walls, the menu enhancements required each store to reconfigure operations — a strategy that TCE’s team of R&D chefs took on by recreating the stores’ operating platforms in its in-house, modular test kitchen, said Nina Berman, senior project manager at The Culinary Edge. In its first phase of work, for example, TCE provided Kum & Go executives with a variety of possible menu platforms, focusing on bringing brand-worthy but operationally feasible menu items to life on paper. From there, the Kum & Go team selected what items to take into product development.

“For items served from the counter, food is freshly made inside each location and assembled to order,” Berman said. “Bread for the stackers is baked fresh daily. Grab-and-go items are made by a trusted commissary partner using recipes developed by Kum & Go internally or by the TCE team.”

Those operational changes required TCE to help the chain source ingredients, vet suppliers and develop recipes.

“After collaboratively finalizing the recipes with the Kum & Go team, the TCE culinary team developed training materials and flew to K&G headquarters for a ‘train-the-trainer’ session,” Filice said. “From there, Kum & Go managers have trained individual store-level employees.”

After all those details were ironed out, the team began testing the menu in three Des Moines-area Kum & Go locations before expanding to Little Rock and Omaha, Moskalik said.

“Today, 35 of our store locations have the menu,” she said. “We do have plans to expand into other markets in 2022.”

Building a kitchen
The menu upgrades also required kitchen remodels within all stores, which meant investing in new layouts and equipment to not only produce the food but to also optimize employee efficiency and improve guest service. Kum & Go, for example, invested in oven and beverage technology and eliminated items like the Roller Grill that failed to align with its vision for freshly prepared foods.

Given the variety of store prototypes across the footprint, there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all remodel, Moskalik said.

“Our teams had to get creative about how we could shift each location from a pre-assembly configuration to three live makelines for sandwiches, grain bowls, pizzas, and blended beverages,” she said. “By fundamentally rethinking the spaces and introducing some newer, smaller equipment, we ended up with more productive kitchens overall. These remodels were a part of a broader store remodel that align with our long-term plans for continued store enhancement.”

The stores also added self-ordering kiosks, and customers may also order via the mobile app. (Kum & Go did not disclose the costs associated with the remodels.)

Spreading the word
Getting customers to change their mindsets about Kum & Go being only a convenient place to fill up their tanks is a challenge in which the chain is still tackling.

“We’re telling our customers to expect made-for-you items that fit their tastes and ensure maximum freshness,” Moskalik said. “In markets with the new menu, we’ve launched an integrated marketing campaign and revamped messaging around the stores to help solidify Kum & Go’s positioning as a food destination.”

That messaging emphasizes how the c-store is delivering a fresh perspective on how to eat healthier without sacrificing time, flavor and fun.

“Our customers are describing our food as ‘surprising,’ ‘creative’ and “fresh,'” she said. “With only a few months of new menu sales, it’s too soon to tell if we’re hitting our long-term success metrics. As sales continue, we look forward to hearing more from our customers about how they’re enjoying the new menu.”