Ethnic Flair Drives Roller Grill

My, how the roller grill continues to evolve. No longer visited exclusively by customers hungry for a hot dog, roller grills now boast a growing variety of ethnic foods nationwide, featuring everything from Mexican tortas to pork-filled Chinese steamed buns to breadsticks stuffed with jalapeno peppers and cheese.

“We brought egg rolls and tornados into our roller grill program about 3 years ago, and they now account for 48% of our roller grill business.” said Jay L.E. Ellingson, Ph.D., director of food safety and quality assurance for LaCrosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip.

Ellingson believes the next wave of new items to hit the roller grill will be chicken and more types of burgers and sausages. “If they can figure out how to make meat into a stick and make it roll, it will eventually be on the roller grill,” Servais said.

To that end, Kwik Trip is currently testing a chicken product called Rollerbites with an eye on adding the food item to roller grills in its 350 stores, said Paul Servais, Kwik Trip’s foodservice zone leader.

Partnering for Success
Adding meat doesn’t necessarily have to involve a stick, said Chad Prast, director of foodservice for Indianapolis-based Village Pantry. Prast recently teamed with legendary local chili eatery Charlie and Barney’s to add a crock of its famous meaty mix to the roller grill area in 15 of its 179 stores.

“I was kind of skeptical at first because we’ve tried crock programs before with soup and chili and never had any success, but the majority of stores are doing very well with it,” Prast said. “The program is easy to manage—if the chili isn’t doing well in one location, we just move the crock to another store. When customers have a large variety of foods from which they can choose, hot dogs lose some of their appeal. So teaming with Charlie and Barney’s has been a big plus.”

Village Pantry first hooked up with Charlie and Barney’s when the local eatery opened a restaurant in one of Village Pantry’s stores. Wanting to expand the chili offering without incurring the expense of adding a Charlie and Barney’s to each store, company president Bill Church came up with the idea of adding a crock program with bowls and a rack for the famous chili instead. Now, Village Pantry customers can enjoy the chili by the bowlful or in a Charlie and Barney’s special layered Fritos chips and chili pie as well as on their dogs.

Breakfast Sales up for Grabs
Tornados are actually Prast’s best-selling roller grill item, mainly in the breakfast daypart with sausage, egg and cheese and bacon. In fact, egg and cheese tornados are the chain’s No. 1 and No. 2 best-selling roller grill items, statistics that don’t surprise convenience store foodservice consultant Dean Dirks.

“Data show that Generation Y (16-to-28-year-olds) skew towards spicy food, which means that Hispanic food has mainstream growth,” said Dean Dirks, president of Dirks Associates LLC. “And breakfast is the segment that is up for grabs between fast feeders and convenience stores. If the c-store marketplace can introduce quality breakfast products, it will be an opportunity to capture the breakfast segment.”

Dirks identified 7-Eleven and Rutter’s as top examples of highly successful roller grill programs. 7-Eleven offers several varieties of products on the grill at a time and the grills are always full, he noted, while Rutter’s uses a full-service strategy that works into their other foodservice by providing customers with several choices as condiments. “I think Rutter’s customers feel that the product is fresh and food safe, which is always crucial for driving sales and repeat business,” Dirks said.

One trend Dirks expects to see more of in 2009 is more retailers moving their grills behind the counter for safety reasons.
Safety is unquestionably an issue in any foodservice, but the biggest challenge in managing roller grills is getting the food products up to safe temperatures and holding them there. “We no longer use the roller grill to heat the product, only to hold it,” Ellingson said. “We heat the product to proper temperature in our kitchens and then move them to the roller grill, which prevents customers from buying cold or un-safe product.”

Multiple Products, Positioning, Sampling Spark Sales
In the past, retail accounting shot the roller grill mentality in the foot because retailers thought of a wasted hot dog as costing them their retail price of $1 instead of their wholesale cost of about 20 cents. Now, retailers are coming to realize that there are healthy profits to be made by focusing on offering multiple products.

Prast reported Village Pantry’s roller grills provide only 3-4% of its sales, with some tornado sales originating in the hot case. “It’s a lot lower than we want it,” he said. The company is expanding its roller grill program as the company remodels its outlets.

“We’re putting in condiment bars in all of our remodels so customers can add onions, peppers, cheese or whatever they want,” Prast said. Village Pantry also added a “build your own burger” section in one remodel with a two-well machine that keeps burgers warm and moist, and is trying a new chicken dog that’s basically a piece of rolled buffalo chicken that doesn’t require a bun.

“It tastes very, very good. We’re just in the first month with these, but I really like the numbers so we’ll continue to build on it,” Prast said.

As with real estate, location is important to roller grill sales.
“We positioned our roller grills as part of our hot food island where we offer pizza, burgers, breakfast sandwiches and soup in the front of the store about five years ago, which has served us very well,” Ellingson said, adding that Kwik Trip has had great success using combo sales such as two small dogs and a fountain drink for $1.99. “We also have two-for pricing on most roller grill items and this helps with multiple sales.”

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