Several years ago when the Oklahoma-based QuickTrip convenience chain began moving to more healthy offerings, management knew that tea was not just a fad but a category that would continue to grow.
QuickTrip made the commitment to emphasize tea three to five years ago as part of a plan to remodel every single store in the 759-store chain, said spokesman Mike Thornbrugh. Large displays in the 5,000-square-foot stores announced an expanded line of fresh-brewed teas, sweetened and unsweetened, green and black, and flavored with a variety of tropical fruits and berries. Customers were encouraged to mix and blend their own personal thirst-quenching solution or reach for a take-away can or bottle.
The brand new QuickTrip in Bonner Springs, Kansas, sure looked inviting several hours into a long dry road trip across the state. We were following the trail of Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado who spent the winter of 1541-1542 there, lured by the refreshing natural springs.
A large tea in a 52-ounce foam cup costs $1.39, but customers pay only 79 cents for refills. Fresh-brewed varieties included black mango and original as well as a raspberry black tea. Fountain tea includes premixed lemonade and black tea (popularized by Arnold Palmer) but there are also pineapple papaya green tea and passion fruit sweet tea. In a cold case exclusively displaying tea there is QT private label and tall cans of Xing Green Tea and Xing Energy iced teas. Xing is a line from Denver-based New Age Beverages available in 12 flavors including grapefruit, tangerine and mad melon. Lipton offerings rounded out the selection.
Teas are even paired with made-to-order meals selected at a kiosk and prepared in a flash in the in-store kitchen. Sweet and savory stuffed Kolaches (a Czech/Slovak roll); breakfast pizza; and gourmet toasted or flatbread sandwiches top an extensive menu that includes salads with desserts and both smoothies and ice cream.
Fresh-brewed tea and iced tea made in BUNN brewers and dispensed from colorful canisters have been a standard but QuickTrip has since invested in concentrates and fountain teas, introduced a range of seasonal flavors and began bottling its own private label tea.
“Tea has paid off and the numbers prove it,” said Thornbrugh. The company closely monitors changes in spending and correctly predicted some years ago that carbonated sodas would continue to lag. Category managers could see that people were moving away from one of our biggest sellers leading stores to search for a replacement, explains Thornbrugh. They saw an uptick in bottled waters and tea. “People tell you what they want,” said Thornbrugh, adding they wanted flexibility to mix and lots of variety.
“We discovered mix and match at the fountain a long time ago and did the same for tea,” he said.
In convenience outlets customers look for good value, beverages that are priced low in larger quantity. Little things matter. Sales rebounded strongly when the company switched from thin plastic back to Styrofoam cups, for example. “You could see it in the sales,” said Thornbrugh. Moving away from a big seller like soda was a gamble but QT “put in the time and money to get behind the product and it turns out iced tea and water is where the growth is.”
The latest innovation is sparkling tea, dispensed from the soda fountain in a variety of flavors. Next up could be a trial of premium teas that are selling well in select convenience locations in Missouri.
QT is a $9.1 billion company of convenience and filling stations and one of America’s largest privately held companies ranking 17 on the Forbes list of America’s Best Employers. The company operates in 11 states and is led by Chet Cadieux III, the son of Chester Cadieux who co-founded QuickTrip with Burt Holmes in 1958.