There was a time when chains feared that offering their food in supermarkets would keep consumers away from the restaurants. But that archaic notion has gone by the wayside as quick-service brands are increasingly finding a great deal of success offering some of their products at retail.
Take, for example, Marie Callender’s, which operates as a restaurant in only a handful of states, but whose iconic pies and frozen meals can be found in every major grocery store chain in the U.S. Restaurant chains Bob Evans and White Castle each have divisions that meet retailers’ needs far beyond the regions where their restaurants reside. And Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee, made by Smucker’s, continues to meet consumer expectations for both price and quality in the retail space.
“The restaurant industry has grown increasingly fickle, and partnering at retail can help brands not only survive, but thrive,” says Stephen Reily, managing director of IMC, a creative brand strategy firm based in Louisville, Kentucky. “Among the country’s biggest advertisers, [quick-service] brands benefit from every impression and consumer interaction they can afford.”
By licensing supermarket food products, a brand gains advertising and customer-loyalty opportunities. After all, someone who eats Taco Bell or Whataburger food at home is more likely to buy it at the source. Additionally, Reily says, these impressions help raise the profiles of brands looking to attract new franchisees in an increasingly competitive market.
In August, Cinnabon launched its branded baking kits exclusively at 2,500 Walmart stores so consumers could bake its iconic cinnamon rolls in their own kitchens.
“The Cinnabon brand is built on a foundation of fresh baking. It’s at the core of what we do and a critical ingredient to our success,” says Patrick McGuire, Cinnabon’s director of licensing. “We know our fans love the aroma that comes naturally from the baking process, and they constantly ask us for ways to re-create that in their homes. Baking with our ingredients at home accomplishes just that while bringing families and friends together.”
The company has had other products in the retail space for about 10 years, and it’s a growing part of its strategy. These retail products include some unexpected items such as Air Wick Cinnabon Classic Cinnamon Roll fragrance and Cinnabon Classic Cinnamon Roll K-Cup packs for Keurig brewers, also both available on Walmart shelves. McGuire says Cinnabon is a global multi-channel brand, not just a restaurant brand with a few retail products. With more than 70 consumer products in 60,000-plus points of retail distribution, it’s a major part of how those who love Cinnabon experience the brand, he says.
Similarly, Auntie Anne’s launched its Pretzels & More Homemade Baking Mix in 1999 and sold it originally just in restaurants. The mix became nationally available to retailers and grocers in 2010. Today, it’s available at nearly 50 retailers, and this fall, the mix will be available in 1,000 Walmart stores in the baking aisle.
“It’s important for the brand to be recognized outside of our traditional and nontraditional locations [like] malls, travel venues, etc.,” says Wayne Garnes, Auntie Anne’s vice president of new revenue initiatives. “As we continue to grow in new venues, it was only natural to provide our customers with an opportunity to experience Auntie Anne’s at home. At the end of the day, Auntie Anne’s wants to be where our customers are.”
The baking mix opens opportunities for Auntie Anne’s to be recognized as more than just a snack and allows for a different experience at home. And the baking mix is for more than just soft pretzels; consumers can make everything from monkey bread to Stromboli, with recipes for brunch, dinner, and snacks. Fans can even submit their own creations online.
Justin Massa, CEO of Food Genius, says the retail space for quick serves has seen marked growth over the last five years, and it’s only expected to gain more momentum as more chains tweak signature menu components to extend their brand.
“It was a big topic of discussion at this year’s National Restaurant Association [Show], and what was most notable in the conversations is that everyone is painfully aware that consumer spend at grocery has been taking back from foodservice, and there’s not a ton that brands can do to combat that other than getting inside the grocery stores,” Massa says.
Texas-based Whataburger saw an opportunity in offering its Signature Sauces in the retail space. Flavors like Peppercorn Ranch, Creamy Pepper Sauce, Honey Mustard, and Jalapeño Ranch are available in the condiment aisle at H-E-B and Central Market stores. Whataburger also announced the retail launch of its Original Mayo, which joins the company’s Fancy Ketchup, Spicy Ketchup, and Original Mustard.
“Whataburger’s entry into the retail market over the past year has been an exciting ride for us. The response from our fans has been overwhelming, and we’re thrilled to offer customers a wider variety of Whataburger products they can take home,” says Dino Del Nano, senior vice president of Whataburger retail. “We’ve enjoyed a fantastic partnership with H-E-B and look forward to introducing more products in the coming months.”
Taco Bell recently launched its own taco kit, and CMO Chris Brandt says customers have been telling the company for years that its iconic hot sauce packets should be sold in stores.
“Taco Bell is always listening to its customers so that we can remain relevant by giving them what they want and crave,” Brandt says. “Most recently, we’ve even started rolling out newly branded hot sauce packets, which feature sayings for each distinct personality—whether bold like Fire sauce or dependable like Mild sauce.”
This type of opportunistic thinking could propel more quick serves into the retail space, Food Genius’ Massa says. “If restaurant brands aren’t thinking about opportunities to insert themselves into the stores, they are going to miss out and lose brand equity with a lot of customers.”
However, operators shouldn’t bring all of their offerings to the retail environment, and also shouldn’t stray too far from what they do best.
“They should develop retail products that promote their most unique dishes and flavors and their strongest ‘ownable’ brand equities,” IMC’s Reily says. “For Cinnabon, that meant owning the flavor cinnamon—giving a commodity its own brand name. For TGI Friday’s, it meant a focus in grocery on appetizers and frozen drink mixes, which helped support marketing campaigns that stressed their bars and happy hours.”