Americans may be eating more food at convenience stores and gas stations as opposed to quick service or fast food restaurants – at least according to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) – but a recent CivicScience study shows Americans think the food quality at C-stores and gas stations has taken a hit compared to fast-food competitors.

Three years ago, the last time CivicScience looked at the numbers, Americans thought convenience store food was of higher quality than fast food at a 19% higher rate.

But while the food quality may have taken a hit in the eyes of the general public, the NACS study shows Americans are turning to these outlets for food at a higher rate. As a result, some of the C-stores are upping their food game. The national chain 7-Eleven recently launched 100 new menu items at its 125 Los Angeles-based stores, and Wawa – a New Jersey-based convenience store company – has started offering a catering menu

Overall, a third of Americans have tried food at gas stations or convenience stores liked it, which is 33% higher than those who have tried it and not liked it. But when it comes to opportunity for growth, it’s clearly in the 45% of Americans who have yet to sample this cuisine. The question becomes, how to reach nearly half of Americans who have never had a pre-made sandwich from the cold section at a gas station.

Who Eats C-Store Food?

CivicScience data shows C-store favorables as under 55, likely male, and probably a commuter of some kind. What’s impressive is that among every age group, there were always more people who tried and liked made-to-order convenience store food than people who tried it and didn’t like it.

Since CivicScience first looked at the demographics of people who purchased food from convenience stores, younger Americans overwhelmingly thought food at C-stores was of higher quality than fast food. And they still do.

On the other hand, when it comes to gender, men are more likely to have eaten food at gas stations or convenience stores than women. There is obvious room to figure out what products and advertising would attract and keep women. 

The on-the-go nature of these food establishments are unsurprisingly popular with people who commute to work. Commuters are 31% more likely than non-commuters to have tried made-to order food at gas stations or convenience stores, and are 38% more likely to like it.

Targeting a Healthy Lifestyle

Going back to 7-Eleven for a moment: Virtually all of the new items the company is rolling out in Los Angeles are being marketed as healthy lifestyle choices. This might not be a bad idea, as Americans who say they exercise several times a week are the least likely to have tried C-store food. The menu update is clearly a part of the national chain’s strategy to attract a wider audience.

But it’s not just among people who exercise where C-stores can make a dent. According to CivicScience data, men are more likely to eat fast food than women. At the same time, women are slightly more likely than men to eat at fast-casual establishments, which frequently advertise healthier foods like whole grains, salads, or gluten free options. By pivoting to healthier options, C-stores not only attract the health-conscious, but likely more women as well.

CivicScience data also show people who self-identify as unhealthy eaters are much bigger fans of made-to-order food at gas stations and convenience stores.

But when asked why this is? Overwhelmingly, people who like C-store food say they don’t eat healthy because of the dual factors of time constraints and expense. Quick, inexpensive, and healthy choices at these food establishments might be the biggest area for growth.

Piggybacking on the above, get this: Americans who are at least somewhat interested in eating organic foods for breakfast enjoy C-store food at a 25% higher rate than people who aren’t interested in organic morning meals. There is clearly a growing demand for healthy options at C-stores.

Social Media Plays a Big Role

Women, older Americans, and those seeking to eat healthy are all obvious areas of growth for gas stations and convenience stores. But how to get to them? Social media.

Americans who say social media influences the products they buy are 25% more likely to have tried this type of food, and 28% more likely to enjoy it.

The Fast and the Convenient

One last note on the looming war between fast food and convenience stores: The customers are very much the same. The more someone eats fast food, the more likely they are to also buy food at convenience stores.

Made-to-order food at convenience stores is on the rise, and as these establishments begin to add to their menu options, it is entirely possible this segment of the dining market is going to explode.