Do you want chips with that?"
As QuikTrip continues to soar in the world of convenience stores, it also must continue to reinvent itself to stay fresh and new.
One of the most successful endeavors of late for QT is the line of fresh foods prepared and packaged under the name QT Kitchens. As QT spokesperson Michael Thornbrugh said, QT Kitchens foods have been around a while -- about six and a half years -- and the concept originated out of necessity. "There was a lot of discussion about how, as an industry, we had to change," he said. "QT knew the tobacco industry was on the decline, and we looked at what we wanted to be in the future."
Thornbrugh emphasized that tobacco historically has been an outsized portion of convenience store revenue. "An average convenience store ... anywhere from 35 to 38 percent consisted of tobacco products. QuikTrip's is much less than that," he said. "We do so much volume that we recognized 10-15 years ago that that was not a growth category."
Thornbrugh described three ways they began the planning: the current store design was not conducive for offering fresh foods, so they remodeled some stores. QT likes to do all things internally -- from beginning to end -- so they needed a facility (located around East 55th Street & South 129th East Avenue) to prepare fresh foods and quickly transport it to all the QT stores. Finally, before the food went out to the customers, it needed to be tested to see how it would be received.
While QT Kitchens has caught on as a viable option to the other, processed foods in the QT stores, is it really a healthy option -- even if you forgo the chips?
Thornbrugh said QT's "biggest hurdle" was how would "we be received as a convenience store that has quality and fresh products." For so many years, convenience stores just didn't do that. The QT Kitchens "goal is we want to be as good in the fresh food business as we are selling gas and as a convenience store," Thornbrugh said. After thorough research and planning, 13 different sandwiches made the cut under the QT Kitchens moniker, offering a variety to "people's palates," using "high quality meats and products," Thornbrugh said.
"Chefs have poetic license to be creative" with the foods they design under the QT Kitchens label, he added. "We test, test, and test the foods on current employees and focus groups made up of the general public." And today, since people are so health conscious, he said the salads and sandwiches such as the oven roasted turkey and sliced baked chicken have been very popular.
I was hoping to secure an interview with QT corporate chef Nick Powell, but Thornbrugh was unable to arrange one. Thornbrugh did say, though, that all the QT Kitchens foods (pastries, sandwiches, and salads) that are in all the QT locations throughout Oklahoma are made in Tulsa each day, shipped out each day, so items on the shelves are made that day. "Nothing is on the shelf beyond 48 hours," he said.
Alongside the QT Kitchens branded foods in the QT stores are the Hotzi brand items and some others that Thornbrugh said are from QT-approved distribution centers.
How has QT been received selling fresh sandwiches, salads and pastries? I put the QT food to the test. What would it be like to eat QT Kitchens' foods twice a day for week? Is there enough variety to keep me interested in coming back for more? Can it really be healthful eating, appealing to the senses and, more importantly, to the body?
I decided to spend a week frequenting a number of QT stores in the area, especially the newly remodeled stores. Thornbrugh said these are the "new generation" of QT stores -- not only "a bigger footprint, 5,700 square feet rather than 4,600, but also a full-service area for smoothies and a pastry case." While all QT stores carry QT Kitchens foods, for convenience, I mainly visited the stores at West 15th Street & South Denver Avenue, I-44 and South Peoria Avenue, and East 21st Street & South Harvard Avenue.
Day 1. On the first day of the week, Sunday, I began this venture. I quickly learned something about QT etiquette. On my first trip to the 15th & Denver location, the Sunday morning rush was in full swing with street walkers, churchgoers, travelers, and employees. I learned quickly that it is essential to have cash or card in hand as you step to the counter.
It's a herd mentality.
Next, catch the eye of the cashier and move up to the next open counter -- even if it is not your turn. I had to be assertive; there's no turning back. The encounter is cordial yet curt: moving the line is key in this business.
There was no supersizing me on this Sunday; I wanted to begin this adventure slowly. For breakfast, I ordered a 12-oz. mixed berry smoothie ($2.99) and a Hotzi Sausage, Egg & Cheese Square Wrap ($1.69; 460 cal, 34 g carbs). The smoothie was refreshing and filling. The Squarewrap was a breakfast of sausage with eggs and cheese mixed with peppers and onions, wrapped in a flour tortilla. For gas station food, the sandwich was not bad. It is a perfectly handy meal to eat while driving. (Just for the record, for all seven days, no food was consumed while driving, albeit the less cautious could consume most everything I ate and drank behind the wheel.) The sandwich was not messy; the sausage was mild, not spicy and it had a southwestern feel about it. There was a lot of wrap to it -- possibly because it had to be folded over and over to form the square.
For dinner, I selected the Sante Fe Salad ($4.69; 470 cal, 32 g carbs) and the Penne Pasta with Meat Sauce ($3.99; 430 cal, 68 g carbs). The salad was excellent! This salad was made of fresh mixed green lettuce with shredded mild cheddar and Jack cheese, grilled breast of chicken, guacamole, roasted corn, black beans, and tortilla strips. It was very fresh, a little sweet because of the grilled corn, but there was a little hot spicy kick because of the red pepper. The label said the salad is best with ranch dressing -- I tend to agree.
The pasta was disappointing. Packaged for QT -- not a QT Kitchens' item, it was pasty and mushy -- the consistency of pudding. The meat was almost nondescript. And, the aftertaste was odd enough that I would not go back for this item.
For dessert, I had a QT Kitchens New York Style Cheesecake with Strawberry Topping ($2.49; 460 cal, 45 g carbs). The cake was good, airy, and light. The graham cracker crust was loose and moist; the topping was syrupy with little pieces of strawberries.
These two meals were full of calories and carbs -- a foretaste to the future.
Day 2. The energy inside this Denver QT was high this Monday morning, so I was mindful of queuing up properly. For breakfast, I grabbed a Hotzi Sausage & Egg Griddle Cake ($1.69; 390 cal, 45 g carbs) and a Strawberry 'n' Yogurt Parfait with Granola ($2.99; 240 cal, 42 g carbs). The griddle cake came with maple-flavored syrup on top, a thin slice of sausage and egg patty rested between the two griddle cakes. The cake was spongy -- the texture of an English crumpet; the maple syrup was paste-like and artificial tasting, on just one side of the sandwich. It was okay, sweet with the savory, and it was filling. It was about a 2-inch sandwich. The yogurt parfait was fresh and refreshing; I especially enjoyed the crunchy granola mixed in. For dinner, I had the Fettuccini & Chicken Alfredo with Asiago Alfredo Sauce ($3.49; 420 cal, 50 g carbs). Slices of chicken breast and Alfredo sauce topped the pasta. The pasta was nicely firm, the chicken was very tender and fresh, but the sauce was plain, not too interestingly prepared.
Day 3. Mentally, I was still excited about trying something new. I decided to try the donuts for breakfast. I had a cup of QT cappuccino ($1.19), blueberry muffin ($1.39; 400 cal, 54 g carbs) and a QT's signature glazed Hole Bunch ($1.09; 360 cal, 54 g carbs). A glass counter full of pastries and donuts are made fresh each day at the QT Kitchens facility: cinnamon rolls, glazed donuts, muffins, apple fritters, maple bars, and more. Nine donut holes made this signature QT "bunch"; laden with glaze, they were non-greasy and fresh with a dense texture. I did not think I could eat them all, but I consumed each hole with little effort. The muffin had sugar sprinkled and baked in for a nice crunchy top; the inside was yummy good: moist, soft, and fresh. After this breakfast, I did not feel too energized as previous mornings -- heavy stomach and lethargic after a quick sugar high.
For dinner, I had the Beef & Bean Burrito ($3.99; 520 cal, 79 g carbs), Snack Fresh Mixed Apples with Caramel Dip ($2.29; 140 cal, 31 g carbs) and a Blue Raspberry Freezoni ($1.09; 110 cal, 28 g carbs). The burrito came with Spanish rice and a side of sour cream. The tortilla wrapped around the beans was soft, gooey and somewhat pasty. The rice was firm and had a little red sauce on it. It was like eating a patio dinner -- in a pinch, it satisfies Mexican cravings. The red and green apples were refreshing -- the caramel dip was a nice sweet treat with them. The Freezoni was a waste of money: after a few sips, all that remained was snow cone-like ice with no flavor.
Day 4. I was a bit less eager to come in on this 4th day. Breakfast started the day with a Hotzi Sausage, Egg & Cheese Croissant ($1.69; 430 cal, 23 g carbs) and a cup of coffee ($1.19). The croissant sandwich was tasty and filling -- the flavors blended well. The croissant was flaky, fresh and a little flat -- what you'd expect from fast food. The coffee was hot, but on the weak side.
My QT lunch consisted of a new item, the Roast Beef Sub with zesty garlic horseradish sauce ($3.99; 630 cal, 47 carbs) and a Strawberry/Banana Yogurt Parfait ($2.99; 250 cal, 46 g carbs). The sandwich might be the best item eaten at QT thus far. Stacked high, this sandwich had multiple layers of thinly-sliced fresh roast beef, lettuce, a slice of cheddar cheese, and the sauce. Less bread would have made it even better. Very daring, and nicely done for QT -- but loads of calories and carbs in the sandwich.
Day 5. Over half way through the week, I was feeling good so far; the meals have been filling and satisfying. My calorie, carb, and fat intakes have skyrocketed with these meals, however.
For lunch I selected the QT Kitchens Triple Stack ($3.99; 730 cal, 65 g carbs). The triple stack, according to Thornbrugh, is one of the more popular sandwiches. It has layers of ham, turkey, beef, and cheddar cheese on honey wheat with a few leaves of fresh green leaf lettuce, tomato, and a mayo sauce. It was hearty and very filling. The bread was sweet and held up well against the layers of fillings. Lots of calories for one sandwich!
For dinner, I had the QT Kitchens Cucumber Chicken Caesar Wrap ($3.99; 590 cal, 38 g carbs) and a QT Kitchens Peanut Butter Big & Chewy ($1.49; 630 cal, 93 g carbs). Diced chicken breast with cucumber, lettuce, parmesan cheese and a mayo sauce were wrapped in flatbread. It was very tasty, fresh and hearty. The Big & Chewy was a peanut butter rice crispie square with a layer of chocolate on top. These two meals of three items were packed with 1,950 calories. Glad I skipped breakfast!
Day 6. Two more days. Lunch was the QT Kitchens Southwestern Chicken Wrap ($3.99, 670 cal, 58 g carbs) and QT Kitchens Peanut Butter Cookie 2 pack ($1.59; 390 cal, 48 g carbs). The cheese/jalapeño wrap was filled with diced chicken breast and rib meat, romaine lettuce, tomato, and cheddar cheese with a chipotle mayonnaise. The wrap was filled tightly, fresh and tasty. The peanut butter cookies were fresh and firm, but lacked a homemade taste. One was all I could eat. Dinner was the QT Kitchens Oven Roasted Turkey sandwich with cheddar on 100 percent whole wheat bread ($3.79; 260 cal, 28 g carbs). The bread made this sandwich: fresh and flavorful. The fillings were ordinary -- fresh, but nothing that would set this apart from something elsewhere. It's the convenience of a fresh sandwich at the QT locations that makes this sandwich special. I felt like I was doing something good to the body. It had to be better than taking one of those forever-spinning hot dogs or taquitos, I thought.
Day 7. I must say I was thrilled to see day 7 come. Eating two meals at QT became more challenging as the week went on -- just navigating in and out among the morning, noon, and after work crowds. And I felt I had exhausted the options: all was beginning to taste the same. For lunch today, I had the QT Kitchens Classic Italian Sub ($3.99; 740 cal, 46 g carbs). The white hoagie bread was tall and thick. Inside was slices of pepperoni, Genoa salami, smoked maple ham, cheddar cheese, tomato, romaine lettuce with creamy Italian dressing. The sandwich was filling, fresh and a tasty combination of flavors; the pepperoni gave it a little zing. For dinner, I had the QT Kitchens Sliced Baked Chicken sandwich with cheddar cheese on 100 percent whole wheat bread ($3.79; 250 cal, 27 g carbs) and another Sante Fe Salad. The sandwich was light -- slices of reduced-fat cheddar cheese and chicken and tomato. It was fresh, but was not as filling as the larger sandwiches. The salad was as good as the first one I had.
Two meals a day for a week of QT Kitchens foods was definitely doable. I did not feel hungry throughout the day from the breakfasts and lunches; I was thrilled to have fresh food such as this from a gas station convenience store, but my main concern was product contents. Are the meats laden with artificial preservatives -- especially nitrates? What about the breads' ingredients? Was the high calorie and carb consumption counterproductive to the otherwise "fresh" ingredients? Finally, I did notice some (perhaps inevitable) weight gain on this QT week-long diet.
What about the competition?
QT is cutting into the market of fresh foods on the run. The competition can be fierce as businesses vie for attention in this market. To that, Thornbrugh said, "We just like to do what we can do and not rely on anyone else. We want to do all we can do ourselves -- quality control and cost."
While not in direct competition with convenience stores, Whole Foods has their own line of prepackaged fresh foods to pick up on the run. No need to even order at the deli counter: the food has been prepackaged for customers in the "Grab & Go" area, according to Lorah Gerald, marketing specialist at Whole Foods.
One important element that sets Whole Foods apart from the fresh foods at QT is that "everything has no artificial preservatives, no artificial colors, no artificial flavors or sweeteners and no hydrogenated fats," Gerald said. In addition, the salad bar items are all organic. Also, it is important to note that the deli meats used in the premade sandwiches contain no artificial ingredients, "especially no nitrates, which is what you get in meats at conventional stores," said Gerald. Prepared food team leader and food service manager Chef Reggie Carmon added, "We have a high quality standard" to follow. The deli meats have no antibiotics and are farm raised."
Meats used at Whole Foods come from either Oklahoma or Texas, so "things can stay within the region and not have to travel far," Gerald said. In addition, she said Whole Foods strives to use as much locally produced foods as possible, such as mushrooms, hummus, tabouli and salsa. They prepare foods according to what is in season, Carmon said, such as butternut squash and brussel sprouts.
Gerald explains that the four pillars of healthy eating begins with Whole Foods foods: whole, unprocessed foods, such as unrefined and unprocessed foods, eliminating artificial preservatives, colors and sweeteners; plant strong, such as vegetables, legumes, fruits, beans; healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds, avocadoes; and nutrient dense, such as bok choy, leafy greens, and kale. Gerald even mentioned a way to begin eating healthier is to do the 14-day Blast Off to a healthy diet. She explains it is a program on their web site which encourages eating better.
Like QT Kitchens selections, Gerald said the "food is prepared fresh every day; it's not left over from the night before. There is no shelf life to this food because it has no preservatives." Some are maintained hot and cold, she said, but they are replaced when they are low. She said someone is assigned to check the temperature of the foods to be sure they are all at the proper temperature for safety. "We make sure we have a safer option for people. All is hand-made fresh daily," Carmon said.
The food prepackaged on the Grab & Go shelves "are straight from behind the counter, so it does not move far from where it was made," Gerald explained. There is a large team of people back there -- 12 to 14 -- who prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner items. Carmon, who has been with Whole Foods for six years, three here in Tulsa, said "our team of chefs' goal is to satisfy every guest in preparing top quality food and meals that are affordable." Carmon said people should come in and look at the menu and what is available on the Grab & Go shelves. Mock Chicken Salad, a vegan version of chicken salad, fresh ciabatta bread, penne casserole and chicken Alfredo are meals that can serve up to 3 to 4 for under $9.
While I didn't repeat a week of two-meals a day at Whole Foods, I did compare some foods for taste and cost at Whole Foods. For example, I compared Whole Foods' Roast Beef Signature Sandwich ($6.99), Roast Turkey & Provolone Sandwich ($5.99), Mesculun & Goat Cheese Salad ($8.29), Garden Wrap Sandwich ($4.99), Turkey Provolone Sandwich ($5.99), Cheesecake Slice (43.29), Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad ($8.05), Lemon Sugar Cookie ($1.29), Spelt Blueberry Muffin ($1.99) and an Alfredo pasta, where the pasta is packaged separately ($1.25) from the Alfredo sauce ($6.71).
Overall, the Whole Foods selections tasted better and were prepared better -- nicely put together, more aesthetically pleasing to the eye -- and healthier just because of the ingredients used. Whole Foods definitely cost more, however -- almost double in some instances.
Whole Foods doesn't carry donuts at all. Despite that, Carmon said, Heidi the pastry chef does a great job of keeping a good number of sweets available, such as the new cookie bar which has up to 25 different cookies each day. Another area has fresh cookies, scones and muffins -- larger in size than the cookie bar.
And while QT shelves have food round the clock, Whole Foods only serves breakfast items from 8-10:30am, lunch from 11am-3pm, and dinner 4-7pm.
In some ways it is unfair to compare the two. Yet convenience eating (prepackaged and prepared meals) grab and go foods is all the rage today, and the competition continues to heat up -- even if it is between a convenience store and a specialized foods store.
For convenience, price and fresh food selections, QT serves the public well because of their numerous locations. Still, staying on top of outside competition based on convenience and price is not enough in this competitive market -- healthier selections for consumers might be the next big test-market push for QT. Physiologically addictive yet physically harmful might not be where the convenience store market should go.
So, next time you pop into QT to pay for gas, don't be surprised if the cashier says, "Do you want tofu with that?"
Spoiling Your Appetite
By Katharine Kelly
Ask almost any nutritionist or dietician about the pros and cons of fast food dining and you're bound to hear what you probably already know. Think you are healthfully eating as you down a baked chicken sandwich or a turkey sub with lettuce and tomato? Think again.
For 30 years, Suzanne Forsberg, healthy lifestyle dietician of St. John Medical Center, has been studying eating behaviors and habits over the years and working with people to improve their health through healthy eating.
Naysayer or not, her logic is sound. When I told her about my week-long eating challenge at QT, all I heard was a pause followed by a heavy sigh -- not so much of disbelief but rather it was like a collective sigh of disenchantment with humanity, which for just at this brief moment, I felt I represented. Calories and sugars and carbs, oh my. These are three burdens we bear with our fast-paced, fast-food-eating lifestyles.
"Poor eating habits will take a toll on one's body," Forsberg said. She cited such culprits as hepatitis, high blood pressure, fatty liver, obesity, and diabetes as being directly related to poor eating choices. How can a basic donut at QT every now and then be bad for you? "Avoid them if you can," is what Forsberg advised. Rather, she says to grab "a protein bar and a banana."
Forsberg says it is easy to be fooled by marketing ploys which tout the freshness and healthfulness of foods. Read the labels to get to the truth. A purist to the core, Forsberg would advise preparing your own breakfast, lunch, and dinner rather than eating in the grab and go fashion.
One main concern Forsberg has with premade foods on store shelves is if the food is being handled too much. "From human touch in the kitchen to the time it is put out on the shelves -- where has it been? Has it been setting out on a truck for a while before it goes on the shelf?" she asked
How many times has it been touched and looked at by customers before you put it in your mouth? She cited a concern that food poisoning is a big problem today. "How do you now if the food may have spoiled?" she said. She claimed there can be too much "jostling around of the food" before it has been eaten.
Another issue she takes up with eating premade sandwiches -- whether at QuikTrip or Whole Foods--is that they can be too bready. Even wraps, she says, can have up to 32 grams of carbs. "They are all too high in fat, sodium, and carbs," she said. Getting a sandwich and chips when you get gas can cost you more than you think, according to Forsberg. "People are eating too big of a lunch. All that is needed is something like whole grain crackers and cottage cheese." That just does not satiate like a QT Kitchens Triple Stack sandwich, 730 calories and 65 grams of carbs in this sandwich of ham, turkey, beef and cheddar cheese on honey wheat bread.
She recommends reprogramming one's mind to a different type of lunch. Only people who work in hard labor, such as building roads or some profession where they are burning a lot of calories, should eat that type of lunch, she adds. Still, even for this group, "fast food lunch meats will tend to have nitrates [artificial curing agent] in them and they will still have a certain amount of touching before being eaten."
"People would be better off to grab and go at Walgreens, getting Frito Bean Dip, yogurt or beef jerky," she said. "A good lunch is something like cottage cheese, banana, apple, or grapefruit. These are not premade foods." Forsberg has this to offer those wishing to have a change of eating lifestyle. "Plan your day, and pack your own lunch. Look for added sugar in foods and drinks," avoiding those when you can. "Keep calories within a good range. Ideally, one should try to keep breakfast calories between 200-400, lunch 400-600 calories and dinner 500-600." She added that men can have more calories at meals than women. Also, she recommends limiting fat grams to 50-60 each day, 10 at breakfast, 20 at lunch and 30 for dinner.
Forsberg has a simple suggestion: "We need to get back to getting our time back, and making meals ourselves. We don't know how to do this anymore because we eat out all the time. Do your own thing," she suggests, "and do it healthy."
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