They’re labeled “coffee cafes” in the Top 500, and while most consumers still stop by for a cup of joe, their menus have expanded way beyond coffee. And for good reason. Following Starbucks’ lead—No. 2 on the Top 500 with 8.3% sales growth—smaller players are stepping up their game. Creative breakfast items, savory and sweet snacks and trend-setting coffee and tea drinks are tempting customers to visit more often and often buy more than just a cup of drip coffee.
While hot coffee drinks are still the beverage of choice at these concepts, consumption of cold brew grew by 36% year over year, according to Technomic Ignite menu data. The cold-brew craze started with chains making their own cold-press iced coffee. Then technology made it possible to offer nitrogen-infused cold brew on tap. Caribou Coffee (No. 136) was the first to debut nitro cold press, but now all the big players are serving it up. And expect to see even more nitro on display: High-tech, design-forward nitro cold-brew systems were showcased by a number of equipment manufacturers at the 2019 NAFEM Show in February.
Younger consumers are boosting the popularity of cold brew and iced coffee drinks. Technomic’s recent Beverage Consumer Trend Report found that 18- to 34-year-olds are building sales of these drinks. This demographic is also pushing chains to turn coffee into a better-for-you beverage option. Nondairy milks are a must-have, with menus touting the plant-based benefits of almond milk, coconut milk and the latest—oat milk.
Peet’s Coffee & Tea (No. 138) has taken health a step further, going in the direction of “food as medicine” with its Golden Caffe Latte. It gets its golden color from turmeric, an ingredient with anti-inflammatory properties. Peet’s extended the line with a Golden Cappuccino and Golden Cold Brew Fog Latte, as well as a Golden Matcha Latte, a drink that offers the antioxidant benefits of green tea along with turmeric. Several other coffee cafes are expanding their tea offerings to drive traffic among non-coffee drinkers and get with the health trends.
Thought for food
While coffee cafes are streamlining menus overall, food sales are a focal point of many brands’ growth strategies, Technomic revealed in its Bakery and Coffee Cafe Category Menu Insights report. Several concepts are innovating with breakfast sandwiches. Dunkin’ (No. 8)—which officially dropped the “Donuts” from its name to align more as a coffee brand than a snacks brand this past fall—has ramped up R&D with several new entries, including a Power Breakfast Sandwich featuring a veggie egg white omelet on multigrain bread and a Smoked Sausage Breakfast Sandwich. The chain also introduced the Dunkin’ Run snack menu, tempting customers with items such as donut fries and pretzel bites to get them in the door after breakfast and in late afternoon.
Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report
The competition for coffee drinkers in a hurry is steep and broad, encompassing not only an army of quick-service restaurants but also convenience stores. Which brands across the two channels are winning America's wake-up business?
Here are the 25 quick-service and c-store chains that were scored highest by the consumers who participate in Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics tracking program, an ongoing gauge of perceptions and preferences. Consumer Brand Metrics surveys about 700 recent customers per chain.
The scores here are based on the percentage of recent customers who rated the chains’ coffee quality as “very good.”
Caribou Coffee regularly releases new coffee flavors and seasonal limited-time offers. Late last year, it rolled out slow-brewed, cold-press coffee with cream that is steamed hot. Caribou also removed artificial flavorings from its beverages last year; it now only uses flavor syrups with what it regards as clean labels.
The iconic Canadian brand has spent the past year focusing on social media tie-ins, from contests for customers who follow the chain’s U.S. Twitter handle to Snapchat-inspired holiday coffee cup designs. Outside of offering seasonal beverages, the chain has not fussed with its coffee program too much in the past few years, aiming instead for simplicity.
A leader in c-store foodservice, Rutter’s holds the highest score for the 27 c-store chains included in the Consumer Brand Metrics survey. Several years back, Rutter’s added high-end coffee bars that are tied to the chain’s touchscreen ordering systems. Customers can choose from a list of beverages such as lattes, cappuccinos, espressos, Americanos, iced lattes, frappes and smoothies. The coffee bar allows customers to add extra flavors, syrups, sauces and toppings at no additional charge, with the exception of an added shot of espresso.
Using coffee to engage fans and drive loyalty, the Wawa c-store chain often runs coffee-themed promotions, such as its Free for All rewards giveaway last year. The chain offers numerous coffee roasts, including mild, medium, rich and bold. Specialty coffee options range from a White Chocolate Cookies & Cream Macchiato to a Mocha Mint Latte.
The brand continues to strive for a more upscale experience. It expanded its Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room coffee concept over the past year, while putting the kibosh on its Evenings program. The chain also began selling single-origin coffee at its Seattle upscale Reserve concept, and it rolled out affogato-style beverages, combining espresso with ice cream.
The QuikTrip c-store chain has been expanding its QT Kitchens full-service counters to more locations, selling made-to-order specialty coffee items alongside a wide array of food items. QuikTrip regularly offers seasonal coffee LTOs, such as its Pumpkin Spice Latte. Its specialty drink menu includes cappuccinos, lattes, chai tea lattes and frappes. The chain has also been testing a drive-thru concept and launched a foodservice-focused location without fuel in Atlanta.
The regional favorite has stressed its food offerings in recent years, but that doesn't mean it's neglected coffee, the main source of a store's profits. It recently added a permanent premium espresso beverage that combines two shots of Rainforest Alliance-certified espresso and hot water. Around the same time as Starbucks, Dunkin’ also rolled out almond milk as a nondairy add-on alternative. On the cold front, it launched cold-brew coffee last summer and offers a blended beverage platform that features Coolatta Lites and Frozen Dunkaccinos.
With more than 500 stores stretching along the East Coast, in the very heart of Dunkin' territory, Cumberland Farms uses its coffee program as a promotional tool. The c-store chain regularly offers coupons and Free Coffee Fridays in order to encourage repeat visits for coffee. It boasts that its coffee’s 99-cent price tag has “been that way since 2008.” Last spring, the chain added a Farmhouse Bold iced coffee to its lineup, which already featured a Farmhouse Blend in hot and iced varieties. The chain also offers customizable flavor shots for its coffee, which often include limited-time seasonal flavors such as caramel apple.
While countless coffee flavors and customization options are available, the c-store has focused its messaging around the quality of its beans. Its coffee bar features four signature blends—Breakfast, Classic, Sumatra and French—served in an environmentally friendly cup. Coffee drinks are ordered via touchscreen and prepared to order by baristas. Sheetz used National Coffee Day last year to launch a cold-brew coffee offering at all stores.
A c-store leader that’s recently put a heightened focus on foodservice with its “Real Kitchen. Real Food.” fresh food program, Thorntons also scores high for its coffee program. It recently partnered with Cinnabon for a number of menu items, including a Cinnabon-flavored cappuccino beverage in December. The previous December, it added new dark roast and light roast coffee blends to its coffee lineup.
Kwik Trip has long been known for its Karuba coffee. A few years back, the regional c-store stalwart invested in a fleet of self-serve, touchscreen beverage machines that grind espresso beans and steam fresh milk to order. The machines offer the chain’s Karuba Gold drinks in Americano, latte, iced latte, macchiato, cappuccino, mocha and iced mocha varieties. Guests can also customize their beverages with extra sweetener and flavored syrups using prompts on the touchscreen.
Ricker’s exemplifies the class of regional c-stores whose industry leadership makes the chain feel larger than its store count would suggest. A longtime innovator at the fountain, Ricker’s began rolling out premium, brewed-by-the-cup coffee to all of its stores a couple years ago. Stores also now offer cappuccino, iced coffee and frappes, along with different flavors of syrups and creamers. All machines use reverse-osmosis water filtration.
It may be best known for its pizza program, but Casey’s General Store also delivers a highly rated coffee program. It offers Mocha and French Vanilla Iced Coffee, French and Fat-Free French Vanilla Cappuccino and three sizes of hot coffee. It also releases a few seasonal coffee drinks a year, including a Pumpkin Spice Cappuccino in the fall.
New Jersey c-store foodservice powerhouse QuickChek offers an extensive coffee line, often pushing coffee promotions via its mobile app. Touchscreen ordering has long offered a point of differentiation for the chain, while new sites feature Q Cafe, where baristas make beverages to order from a menu of more than 60 options. It also regularly offers limited-edition drinks in flavors such as Pistachio Coffee, Hazelnut Cappuccino and Whoopie Pie Coffee, as well as seasonal hot coffee blends.
Chick-fil-A reflects the quick-service restaurant industry’s heightened focus on the breakfast daypart. Several years ago, the chicken chain partnered with Thrive Farmers Coffee to launch sustainably sourced hot and iced coffees to all of its units. Two years ago, it launched cold-brew iced coffee in original and vanilla flavors, and last year, it offered a limited-time Frosted Coffee—cold-brew iced coffee combined with Icedream soft-serve ice cream—for the spring and summer seasons.
Sunoco’s Stripes brand is best celebrated for its Laredo Taco Company concept, but more than half of consumers surveyed also applaud its coffee. The chain calls its coffee beverage station Cafe de la Casa, where customers can help themselves to a variety of hot coffees and cappuccinos. Coffee roasts include House Blend in regular and decaf, Dark Roast and Cafe Canela with hints of cinnamon and vanilla. Cappuccinos include Banana Nut, Chocolate Hazelnut and Caramel Macchiato.
RaceTrac has been developing a foodservice-focused c-store prototype, RT6K, which includes seating, free Wi-Fi, build-your-own frozen yogurt concept Swirl World, and a revamped, expanded coffee area. Coffee guests can customize their drinks with at least six blends of fresh-brewed coffee, from Colombian to hazelnut, and a selection of creamers, sweeteners and toppings such as whipped cream and marshmallows.
Krispy Kreme has been trying a new prototype, featuring a revamped layout, a barista and free Wi-Fi, to boost coffee sales. The chain also recently debuted new limited-time coffees with premium Arabica beans sourced from Sumatra, Colombia, Guatemala and Brazil.
Seldom mentioned in recaps of the fast-food breakfast wars, Whataburger sports one of the simplest coffee programs in the sector, though one clearly beloved by customers. Whataburger offers freshly brewed Colombian regular and decaf hot coffee in three sizes. This chain scores in the top 10 overall among its quick-service peers because of its cultlike following in Texas.
A quick-service restaurant that can also be found in some c-stores such as Pilot Flying J, Cinnabon balances its sweet menu lineup with a line of coffee beverages. Last year, Cinnabon added smaller-sized, 10-ounce versions for select cold or blended beverages, including its Cinnamon Roll Iced Coffee and its MochaLatta Chill. The chain also rolled out single-serve coffee pods to stores. Cinnabon’s standard coffee lineup includes hot coffee and flavored iced coffees as well as frozen, blended beverages such as its Chillattas.
The c-store chain offers Perfect Harvest Coffee Co. coffee at self-serve hot beverage stations. A few years back, the chain updated its coffee equipment and redesigned its cups and signage with a soft-purple logo meant to convey a message of freshness. Coffee is just one part of Fas Mart’s foodservice portfolio: It also features fried chicken, panini sandwiches and fresh grab-and-go items.
Regional c-store leader Family Express’s Java Wave coffee bar offers cappuccino, latte, espresso and iced coffee options along with coffee blends and an extensive creamer selection. Family Express regularly adds new flavors to its espresso and coffee lineups, from a Toasted Marshmallow espresso flavor to a Cinnamon Spice coffee flavor.
Offering toasted subs, malts and smoothies for all dayparts, Potbelly features dark roast coffee for a low price at the limited number of locations where a breakfast menu is featured. Several Potbelly locations also co-brand with other coffee shops, such as Classic Rock Coffee in Fargo, N.D., and Intelligentsia at Midway International Airport in Chicago, to better service the breakfast daypart. Its Midway location offers a lineup of lattes, cappuccinos and other espresso drinks.
APlus Convenience Stores, a Sunoco brand, serves freshly roasted coffee made with Arabica beans in Lowcountry, House, Dark Roast Sumatra, Hyperbean, decaf and Hazelnut blends. Espresso drinks are available at select locations and include flavored lattes, cappuccinos, mochas and specialty items such as Dulce de Leche and Cafe Americano.
Widely regarded as one of the c-store industry’s most dynamic chains, Maverik has long led with sophisticated food and beverage offerings. It opened its first full-service Bodacious Bean barista bar inside its new fuel-free c-store concept in Salt Lake City last summer. The bar offers hot coffee, nitro-tap cold-brew coffee, espresso, cappuccino, hot chocolate and other handcrafted drinks.