A trip to the convenience store doesn’t necessarily imply a fill-up, a six-pack and some smokes. Not anymore.

Convenience stores are stocking up on produce, according to many produce marketing and sales agents.

But produce distributors have to be choosey, or the plan to supply the convenience store segment could backfire, said Steve Kenfield, vice president of sales and marketing for HMC Group Marketing Inc., Kingsburg, Calif.

“There’s a wide range of convenience stores,” Kenfield said. “There are some that look almost like a fresh market, and there are some that you pump your gas and buy beer and cigarettes, which won’t hold much value for produce.”

Those stores that do carry produce have to know what they’re doing, or the exercise will be a waste of time, Kenfield said.

“You put a one-off item in a convenience store, and nobody will see it or expect to find it there, no matter how much the concept resonates with upper management, unless they see it understand it and expect to find it there and enjoy their experience when they buy it there,” he said. “I think you’re going to see in the right venue, with the right product, that’s a point of contact with consumers with that right item. But you’re not going to see it overnight.”

It has worked for Dallas-based 7-Eleven Inc. for years, said Jim Richter, who today is Overland Park, Kan.-based executive vice president of sales and marketing for Rexburg, Idaho-based Wilcox Fresh, but earlier in his career was vice president of fresh foods at 7-Eleven.

“When I left supermarkets and went into the convenience store industry in April of ‘99, we saw there was a real need for cut fruit and vegetables in the c-store side, just as we had seen in supermarkets,” he said. “We went to work immediately on improving the supply chain and finding processors we could work with that could cut the fresh food and vegetables and deliver them to our stores.”

Richter said 7-Eleven had an advantage that lent itself to carrying fresh-cut produce that some convenience stores don’t enjoy: daily delivery of fresh foods.

“By using that delivery system of fresh foods, we were able to get fresh-cut fruit and veg in a store on a daily basis at 7-Eleven and that has been in place since 1999,” Richter said. “So, we were blazing the trail, so to speak.”

In addition to subs and wraps, 7-Eleven offers salads and cut fruit bowls.

“Obviously, you see people like 7-Eleven adding cut fruit products to their mix,” said Steve Lutz, vice president of the West Dundee, Ill.-based Perishables Group. “There’s obviously a lot of excitement around c-stores and what they’re potentially able to add to the mix.”

A “tremendous growth channel” is how the United Fresh Produce Association’s Jeff Oberman described the opportunity in the convenience sector.

“It’s a natural fit,” said Oberman, Salinas, Calif.-based liaison for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh’s fresh-cut processor board and vice president of membership and trade relations. “When we talk about new channel development, we see the c-store segment to be a real champion for fresh-cut produce in emphasizing our strengths on convenience.”

Richter said the so-called grab-and-go concept that works so well with convenience stores is ideal for fresh-cut and value-added fruit and vegetable items.

“You are seeing it and again I go back to eating in the car,” he said. “If you can eat it in the car, it supports what we used to call ‘dashboard dining.’ If you can support that, you’ve got a winner. So many items are consumed in the car, that’s kind of the first avenue for that. The second would be getting it in the lunchboxes of students.”