Via (CNN) — In “Vacation,” National Lampoon’s 1980s classic, Chevy Chase jokes, “I’m so hungry. I could eat a sandwich from a gas station.”
But the convenience stores and gas stations that dot America’s retail landscape have worked to improve their dinners-to-go and coffee. Today, chains like Sheetz, Wawa and Kwik Trip offer meal kits, salads, keto snacks, Kombucha and espressos.
That overhaul is driving convenience stores’ rise, unexpected survivors in an industry suffering mass store closings and shoppers shifting online. While delivery from Amazon has redefined what convenience means for many Americans, the 24-hour, 3,230-average-square-foot convenience store still fills a niche for time-strapped customers searching for a bite to eat and a fill up at the pump.
“It has absolutely been a hidden gem,” said Jeff Williams, senior vice president of retail services at Nielsen. “They are demanding that consumers view them as a destination for food.”
Convenience stores have reinvented their businesses to adjust to the changing ways Americans eat. Snacking is becoming consumers’ preferred meal of choice, and Americans are cooking fewer of their dinners at home as they eat out or order in from their couch.
To keep up, chains are hiring executives from restaurants and expanding their snack choices and prepared food in kitchens on site.
Consumers, especially Millennials, are not always willing to go to a quick-service restaurant, a fast-food joint or walk around a 40,000-square-foot grocery store, analysts say. Instead, they’ll often head to a convenience store, where the average amount of time customers spend inside the store is less than four minutes.
“People simply don’t have the time to sit down a whole meal at night like they used to,” said Carl Rick, leadership development specialist at Kwik Trip, which is building around 40 stores a year and just opened its 700th. “The more places there are where people can duck in, be out in three minutes with milk, eggs, maybe a sandwich, something to drink—those places are doing very well.”