As on-the-go needs of convenience store shoppers evolve and change, New York’s NOCO Express is positioning itself as a go-to destination.
By David Bennett, Senior Editor
Like many regions, western New York is a microcosm of the convenience store industry and its developing penchant to provide more wholesome snacking and food offerings, reflecting the growing demand for healthier options.
Such demand is being driven by both old and young consumers—as baby boomers don’t wish to trade convenience for nourishing selections, and Millennials don’t want to trade convenience for anything.
As Millennial use of convenience stores and fast-casual chains grows, more chains such as NOCO Express are tweaking their operations to reflect shifting preferences. To drive newer strategies to meet such expectations, Tonawanda, N.Y.-based NOCO Energy Corp., parent of NOCO Express, bolstered its executive team in the last few years to spearhead new initiatives at the 36-store chain. Those initiatives include a revamped foodservice program, store renovations and reinforcement of its workforce programs.
Jim DeFilippis, vice president and general manager of NOCO Express, has been near the forefront of the c-store’s effort to update and enhance its offerings. DeFilippis in 2015 was promoted to vice president of NOCO Energy Corp. Before joining NOCO in 2012, he served as director of fresh food for Acosta sales and marketing.
In his career, DeFilippis has served in positions in the supermarket channel, including vice president of operations at Tops Markets. Over time, he has noticed that the convenience stores have closed the gap with grocers in terms of food offerings and customer service.
“Most people are on the go so much they don’t want to go through the trouble of finding a parking space and walking into these larger units unless they have a need for multiple options,” DeFilippis said.
NOCO Express, the official convenience store of the Buffalo Bills, has invested in several operational upgrades, part of a renovation effort at several store locations. Known for 24-hour service and a host of amenities, the upgrades have resulted in increased sales across the chain.
With the promise of convenience has come a commitment to fulfilling customer expectations. As NOCO Express has committed to fresher snacking and food options, it has changed the way it does business including revamping its proprietary foodservice program, Nickel City Foods.
For history buffs, the name Nickel City derives from when the region was celebrated in the early 1900s, when a U.S. mint there made the first Indian Head Nickels with a prominent buffalo on the back. People began calling them buffalo nickels, and the City of Buffalo became known as the “Nickel City.”
At NOCO Express locations, customers can choose from a variety of sandwiches, wraps, salads, yogurt parfaits and snack packs featuring fruit, cheese or hummus. The c-store features a different Nickel City specialty sandwich each month in addition to more convenient food options with an increased variety of fresh items such as sandwiches, salads and healthier snacks.
A family-owned and -operated company, NOCO Express produces its prepackaged sandwiches out of its local commissary. In the past, traditional subs were top sellers, but consumers are now seeking healthier options, such as sandwiches made with tortillas or flatbread, as well as smaller, more affordable portions for grab and go.
New choices have spurred a new store design that highlights the chain’s popular U-Swirl yogurt bar and grab-and-go selections, housed within a new interior design meant to enhance the shopper experience through clarity in layout and bright, easy-to-shop interiors. One of the latest store refurbishments was completed earlier this year in the city of Niagara.
“The remodel included the addition of custom wall shelving and a new register area. With this update, customers will have better visibility of products displayed throughout the store,” DeFilippis said. “A new cooler island features freshly-prepared and prepackaged sandwiches, salads, wraps and snack packs from Nickel City Foods, which are available throughout the day, offering customers options for fresh, grab-and-go meals and snacks. New wall graphics installed throughout the store provide an overall updated look.”
Another site that was upgraded was a store in Grand Island, which connects bridges to and from Niagara Falls.
“When we were looking for foodservice options most QSRs (quick-service restaurants) existed within a one to two mile radius of our site so we needed something different,” DeFilippis said. “The resident families often frequented the local Wendy’s or Burger King so we wanted a unique additional option for them. The island also provides a large popular theme park that draws a lot of seasonal visitors. The response has been very good. In addition to satisfying the families, you will often see other guests from business workers to landscapers frequenting at all hours of the day. We made a conscious decision to add a complete franchise versus a smaller convenience store setup.”
The store remodeling program has resulted in functional and aesthetically pleasing sites. The revamped programs are also designed, in part, to entice more of the younger customer segment.
“We continue to learn that our younger consumers are snacking more frequently and are always mobile and we need to capture and satisfy these new customers and prove we value their time,” DeFilippis said.
That includes a wider selection of food items and hot-meal options.
“With the discoveries we continue to learn with our commissary we feel we have the right experience to expand our Nickle City Food menu to include hot food options. Without a long-term commitment, we can react to these changing needs and uncertainty,” he said.
To this end, the chain has created solutions that have made it efficient while meeting patrons’ expectations.
“Every year we are introduced to new, easy-to-prepare, slack and heat items. Many of these items offer an upscale quality-grade versus traditional c-store items,” DeFilippis said. “With the constant innovation with cooking equipment this affords us, we can create an efficient model that will deliver consistency and quality.”
Moreover, the chain is honing processes of creating self-serve items, focusing on faster preparation time.
“For example, we are working with a local pizza supplier to offer a breakfast item wrapped in pizza dough. For lunch, locally-branded hot dogs and sausage will be wrapped in the same great dough along with personal pan pizzas. There are other great items to add, but the key will be to test what the customers tell us,” DeFilippis said. “For neighborhoods that may demand healthier options we are looking at implementing our own freshly-prepared salad menu and are also looking at smoothie options.
NOCO Express is also known for its co-branding partnerships, including its burgeoning relationship with Tim Hortons. Various store locations include Subway, Mighty Taco or a Charlie the Butcher co-branding operation. Even with the expansion of its proprietary food program, those partnerships will continue.
“The question for us is ‘What’s the next best QSR and can it sustain its popularity over time?’ These are big commitments that can get you locked in, not knowing what the future holds,” DeFilippis said. “Newer options are popping up each year. The emphasis now is the young consumers preferences like customization and choice.”
Just as the Nickel City brand tips its hat to the roots of greater Buffalo, NOCO Express embraces the community in which it has thrived for the last 83 years. The company was founded in 1933 by Reginald B. Newman; it was incorporated as R.B. Newman Fuel Co. in 1948.
“Our market is pretty unique versus other areas I’ve lived. The consumers here are very loyal in supporting locally-owned businesses. With that in mind we are committed to maintaining strong relationships with all of our local partners/vendors,” DeFilippis said. “A great example is all of the local vendor assistance we had during the November storm in 2014 where we kept almost every store open throughout a difficult two weeks of unbelievable snowfall.”
To ensure that customer service remains a priority, NOCO Express continues to make employee training a top priority, from improving its hiring processes, to boosting management opportunities from within.
“Every July our store managers, foodservice managers and the merchandising department attend a three-day retreat at a local country resort. There they have options for spa treatments, horseback riding, skeet shooting, golf and many other activities. Individual and store awards are presented to the managers during day one,” DeFilippis said. “We also have invested in an outstanding training program to ensure we grow from within to minimize the cost of turnover.”