rollin right along

The roller grill has spun itself into the spotlight at Fas Mart and Pump N Pantry, delivering nice returns to the bottom line.

By Kate Quackenbush, Managing Editor

Pump N Pantry hasn’t been afraid to try new items to spice up the roller grill. Not all of them have turned a profit.

Take, for instance, the potato pancake. When faced with purchasing a roller grill potato pancake or an item from the company’s proprietary line of sandwiches and pizzas, it was no contest. The pancake fell flat.

In the last 10 years, Pump N Pantry has made a name for itself with its foodservice offer, but the story really started almost 20 years ago with a roller grill. And while higher-margin items have since overshadowed it, Pump N Pantry has refocused its efforts so the roller grill could once again take center stage.

“The major portion of our sales still comes from pizzas, hot entrees and made-to-order subs,” said Sam Anderson, vice president of store operations for the 15-store chain, based in Montrose, Pa. “Roller grill is an old-style, c-store standby, but it’s progressed into something bigger for us. While it represents only 8% of our foodservice sales, the strides we’ve made have each of our stores selling 1,000 lbs. of product a year.”

Pump N Pantry is addressing the roller grill offering from many different angles. It tried switching to different flavor profiles, like Jimmy Dean and Nathan’s, but kept coming back to an Amish-type of hot dog from Berks. It also vowed not to overwhelm the customers with too many choices, opting instead to keep the offering focused.

The real strides were made when the company decided to open dialogue with the only source that mattered: the customer.

“A PLU report can’t tell you why you’re only selling 300 hot dogs a week,” Anderson said. “We used our sales associates and managers to talk to the customers, and shaped the program to what they actually wanted.

The company cut back its menu and focused on the flavors its customers were raving about—the Amish-style dogs, Bahama Mama spicy sausages and it formed a partnership with Johnsonville to carry five varieties of its sausages. The partnership turned out to be a wise move for Pump N Pantry, not only because it was a quality product, but also because it was a brand that spoke to its core customer.

“Whenever you select a supplier, you look at the type of point-of-purchase materials they can offer you,” said Anderson. “Johnsonville has outstanding advertising with messages our customers just love, like ‘Don’t be just another wiener.’ They always find that funny. But the company is also heavily involved with NASCAR and outdoor shows, which is what our customers are into.”

Brand Power
Fas Mart was also experiencing flat roller grill sales and knew the category had enormous profit potential. In 2005, the Mechanicsville, Va., marketer challenged foodservice category manager Phill Oliver to partner with a national hot dog manufacturer customers would recognize and, in turn, would work with Fas Mart to create in-store theater pieces to make its roller grill stand out.

Fas Mart chose Sara Lee’s Ball Park brand because, like Johnsonville for Pump N Pantry, it played a large role in the lives of its customers.

“Ball Park is involved in a lot of the same events we are,” Oliver said. “It’s a presence at NASCAR events and we have convenience stores in Dover and Richmond International Raceways. We don’t want Fas Mart hot dogs—we’d rather leverage Ball Park’s brand equity and tie into their promotions so customers think of us when they’re looking for a hot dog.”

The partnership was solidified in March 2005, and since it has given a considerable lift to the company’s roller grill sales—a 28% increase over the year before. Fas Mart, with its 160 Fas Mart and Shore Stop stores, wields an aggressive promotional schedule every month to drive volume. Buy-one-get-ones are very popular, along with combos like a hot dog, chips and a drink for $1.99.

Complementing the Ball Park Franks are Hillshire Farm Cheddarwurst and breakfast sausages, as well as the new craze sweeping the grills: Don Miguel Taquitos. But that’s where the company drew an important line.

“We tried to expand our offer, but we didn’t want to overdo it,” Oliver said. “Some c-store foodservice operators try to do too much rather than doing a few things very well. Too much means store-level employees have a hard time keeping up, and the one thing that needs to be consistent with food is top-quality execution.”

Finishing Touches
Both companies agree finding the right equipment is the essential for executing a successful roller grill program. Pump N Pantry realized the antiquated machines it had in place for 20 years required too much maintenance and were difficult to clean. The company converted its Star equipment to a Round Up grill from Next Day Gourmet, a subsidiary of US Foodservice.

“With the Round Up, heat comes from an angled heat plate with no turning cylinders,” Anderson said. “The tray is heated with bars that run across and the product rolls up and down the base. Because our machines run 24 hours a day, we find this style of roller grill lasts longer, standing up to the grease. It also makes clean up a lot easier on our associates.”

With its growing offer, Fas Mart removed the steamers from its southern stores and standardized equipment across the chain to either Star or APW Wyott roller grillers. An average store has three to four feet dedicated to the roller grill program, which is perfect for the grill, bun box and its toppings section.

Fas Mart is also high on its toppings bars. The company added fresh condiment stands to all of its stores. Each of the units feature refrigerated bins for onions, relish and a third topping based on regional preferences—possibly jalape®os or cole slaw. Hot chili and cheese are also offered in 95% of its locations.

To give the hot dog offering a little more spice, Fas Mart promotes one price, whether it’s plain or fully loaded. The strategy hasn’t hurt its bottom line.

“You have to have a buffet mentality.-Some people will eat $10 worth of food while others will eat just $2 worth. Cost balances itself out and customers appreciate it,” Oliver said.

Fas Mart has made a considerable investment in its roller grill program, but it’s seeing that investment returned with increased profits and margins from 45% to 50%. The theater pieces the company did in conjunction with Ball Park cost $2,000 to $3,000 per store; Fas Mart is satisfied because the needs of each individual store have been taken into consideration.

“Programs have been tailored to fit the stores because, in this case, one size definitely doesn’t fit all,” Oliver said.

“From hanging boards, counter boards and condiment stations, we found what worked best for each store. You have to invest in your business if you want to see it grow.”

The Hen and the Dog

An all-beef hot dog with Asiago and cheddar cheese, sliced tomato, a dill pickle spear with Dijon mustard on a honey wheat roll doesn’t sound like typical convenience store fare. Then again, White Hen Pantry isn’t a typical convenience store.

Created by a supermarket chain 40 years ago for on-the-go customers, the chain has always had foodservice as a cornerstone of its business. And with 275 stores in the Chicago and Boston areas, none of them offer gas.

As Quiznos and Potbelly grew in popularity, the Lombard, Ill.based chain wanted to offer a toasted-to-order facet to its deli program. So White Hen Pantry utilized high-speed impinger ovens to launch its Hot and Fresh line. It thought it had all its bases covered when Ted Beil
man, senior vice president of merchandising and advertising, started hearing murmurs about hot dogs.

“We received a lot of comments from customers and store operators wishing we had a hot dog program,” Beilman said. “Our stores have never had roller grills. But once we got our ovens for our Hot and Fresh line, we learned we could toast a hot dog in under a minute.”

But White Hen didn’t want a conventional hot dog program. It utilized its relationship with its soup and deli meat supplier, Vienna Beef, to create a gourmet offering it could sell at almost the same price point as its sandwiches.

Vienna Beef’s corporate chef helped craft 12 flavor profiles for White Hen, utilizing the same ingredients it offers at its highend delis. It tested the products and has rolled them out to about 90% of its stores.

“The profiles match our Hot and Fresh Sandwich line and we don’t have to worry about cannibalization or share shift,” said Beilman. “With Vienna Beef we’ve been able to exceed expectations.”

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