Q&A: Pilot Flying J redefining food expectations along nation's interstates

On Monday, Pilot Flying J partnered with celebrity chef Tim Love on a line of signature food items, featuring both made-to-order fresh offerings and some pre-packaged items. Own Brands Now reached out to Shannon Johnson, who joined Pilot Flying J as VP food innovation in January, for his perspective on how this exclusive offering sets Pilot Flying J apart from other travel centers and how the convenience interstate retailer will continue to push the envelope in future. Pilot Flying J’s combined network of more than 750 retail locations across North America serves more than 1.3 million customers daily.

Own Brands Now: What’s the impetus behind the new deal with Chef Love?

Shannon Johnson: The Pilot brand is really focused on offering the best possible food to the traveling public. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why we engaged with Chef Love. We really think that we can continue to make inroads into the quality delivery of food as well as enhancing the service delivery piece. This is an opportunity for us to collaborate with someone who has a great food background [and is] super talented from a chef perspective and understands what real people eat. Chef Love isn’t a real pretentious chef. He fits our demographic well and he understands the food in which the traveling public will be interested.

OBN: Is this going to be a collaboration around fresh offerings, pre-packaged items or both?

SJ: We’re going to do both. We’re going to do a twist on a lot of familiar packaged [items] and we’re going to do some new innovation and great flavors on [made-to-order]. We’ll probably limit the amount of pre-packaged stuff and really go hog wild on fresh preparations.

OBN: What about the emphasis on healthier-for-you items?

SJ: We’re focusing on ‘better-for-you’ and [items] that are based on fresh produce and ingredients that [are assembled] in front of our guests. You’ll see us open stores this year that are focused on made-to-order products within view of the guests, that they get to customize.… We want to make sure we have a real connection with our guests and we’re giving them exactly what they want. We know there’s a huge need, [especially for professional] drivers, to have healthy and better-for-you choices. We also know a lot of our guests want to treat themselves. So we want to have a good mix of better-for-you items and indulgent items for those times when people want to treat themselves to something satisfying. But all of this is done with balance in mind.

OBN: What’s the overall own brand strategy?

SJ: We want to grow proprietary food. We host and own as a franchisee a lot of [quick service restaurants], including Wendy’s, Arbys, Subway and many others. But we think there’s a niche that we can develop product for that can be proprietary for us. I don’t see us doing a great number of pre-packaged items from a retail perspective, more focusing on fresh prepared. We will do some of those items with Chef Love, but our main focus is going to be fresh prepared.

OBN: Are there other examples on how Pilot Flying J differentiates its offering?

SJ: We will make some freshly prepared snacks and dips. And we will, like we always have, innovate the space of refrigerated, freshly prepared fruit cups and vegetables as snacks. But with regard to private labeling anything other than fresh, we’ll do that in a limited way.

OBN: What’s the bottom line? What’s the takeaway for suppliers regarding this new deal?

SJ: Often innovation, whether you’re talking about in the barista space or the food space, often that innovation is done to [drive] overall business. Our focus is to satisfy our guests and start to break the mold as to what travel-related food is and what convenience means and break down some boundaries. You’ll see us do that with the way we lay out our facilities and the offerings within those facilities as we move forward. It’ll be an evolution and will take time, but the brand is dedicated to making sure we break the mold and develop food that our guests will crave and want to eat.

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