Keeping It Fresh

Now that customers are used to finding fresh food at their local c- stores the pressure is on the roller grill to maintain its share of foodservice sales. Thanks to the innovation of retailers and suppliers alike, the roller grill continues to turn out strong sales.

Chains are bundling meals with fountain drinks and chips and using a bigger condiments bar to satisfy a wide array of customer preferences. With  core customer satisfied, stores also are reaching out to new demographics with more healthful offerings.

Trend Watch
Retailers report there is still a strong demand for meal deals even as the economy seems to be turning around. But as customers return to buying more expensive options, most are still seeking value they can count on every day—a need roller grill programs are adept at meeting.

“When the current economic crisis first started, we saw a lot of our customers who bought deli sandwiches switch to roller grill items because of the difference in the price,” said Tim Sheehan, sales manager for High’s Dairy Stores, which operates 69 stores in Maryland and Delaware. The chain’s best selling roller grill item is a small hot dog, which it calls a grill frank. “It’s extremely popular with a lot of our workers because they can get two dogs, two rolls and condiments for $1.99.”

Foodservice managers concur that their value offerings on the grill are boosting sales. “We have several items that sell very well on the roller grill; however, our quarter-pound jumbo hot dog is our No. 1 item,” said to Melina Hall, senior category manager of fast food for Thorntons Inc., which operates 161 locations in six Midwestern states.

Meanwhile, Dallas-based 7-Eleven lists its best selling roller grill products as its hot dogs and Taquitos. “They are our core items and they consistently do well day in and day out. They are priced to offer excellent value to the customer,” said Mark Hagen, category manager for grills at 7-Eleven, which operates, franchises and licenses more than 6,840 stores across the U.S. and Canada.

Other trends that continue to define the roller grill segment are demands for convenience, flavor, speed and portability. Manufacturers are recognizing the need for diverse product options and are offering line extensions and new products to meet the demand. While some retailers preach the need for bolder, spicier flavors, not all customers are on board.

“Spicy flavors are all right as long as you hit the middle of the road,” Sheehan said. “If it’s extremely spicy, you won’t get large numbers of customers to purchase it. We’ve kept our Cajun flavor, but discontinued the jalapeño cheddar offering, which we tried four or five times over the course of the last several years because it wasn’t selling.” 

Hagen found the spicy trend to be regional. “If you ask a North Pacific division if spicy is popular they would say ‘absolutely not,’ but in the Southwest they would say ‘you bet,’” he said. 

Consider Condiments 
7-Eleven and other chains like Wilson Farms and Quick Chek use a condiments bar to address gaps in customer preference. Stores can tweak the condiments for their consumer base, so if one area has customers who like a spicier product, condiments can help them meet that preference. While some chains are beginning to charge customers for certain condiment options to help off-set the expense, High’s Dairy and 7-Eleven noted they don’t charge for toppings, including their chili cheese offering, which is a popular offering for both chains.

Thorntons learned an important lesson after the rollout of its first roller grill bar design, which excluded fresh condiments—customers preferred them. The revelation prompted the chain to make a design change after a short period of time.

“Our new roller grill bar design includes fresh condiments as well as pump condiments,” Hall said. “The roller grill bar has been designed to allow us to merchandise a variety of roller grill items and condiments to accommodate several people at a time during lunch and busy drive times.”

Keeping Up With Consumers
Foodservice managers now are reaching out to attract more than just the core, blue collar, younger male c-store demographic with roller grill programs, and they are doing it across all three dayparts.

7-Eleven launched a new roller grill burrito last month, with the intent of appealing to its core target customer as well as to tempt alternate shoppers.

“Burritos are a very popular food item, but they haven’t always been the most affordable item or the best to eat on the go, and portability is a big deal to our customers,” Hagen said. “So we developed a new roller grill burrito that is very easy to eat on the go.”

Three options are available—a breakfast sausage, egg and cheese variety, a chicken and cheese option and also a bean and cheese burrio. “What’s special about the bean and cheese, and we think we’re the first c-store chain to do this, is it’s a vegetarian product,” Hagen said. “Typically people who are vegetarian have not found a lot on roller grills to meet their needs. But the new bean and cheese we know is very well accepted from tests we did and its also vegetarian, so we think that will attract some new roller grill users.”

The chain also hopes to reach a more health conscious customer with the new offering. “Customers that don’t want greasy foods typically haven’t had much to choose from beyond sandwiches,” Hagen said. “These burritos are baked—not fried or greasy—and we think that gives us the opportunity to reach customers who maybe didn’t have anything that appealed to them on the roller grill before.” 

More chains are making an effort to get their roller grill and fresh food programs to work together. Thorntons, for example, offers multiple grill products including beef franks, smoked sausage, jalapeño sausage, Tornados, Roller Bites, corn dogs and breadsticks at many of their stores; as well as a fresh food program that includes sandwiches, hoagies, salads, cut fruit, and parfaits. While the two programs complement each other, the chain has found its roller grill program brings in more sales and revenues overall than its fresh foods segment. 

“Roller grill sales are strong all day largely because we keep the grills fully loaded,” Hall said. “Fresh food sales are steady throughout each day. We experience a spike in the morning as folks pick up salads and sandwiches to take to the office and then sales peak between 10 a.m. and noon.”

7-Eleven considers its roller grill program part of its overall fresh food offering because it’s grilled or baked on demand. “It’s a little bit different customer, and you get a lot of value out of it. Right now we are encouraging our divisions to consider $1.19 for one grill product or two for $2,” Hagen said.

The stores also features fresh sandwiches, which are made and delivered fresh everyday. More than 1,000 stores are rolling out a new hot foods program that includes pizza, chicken wings and chicken tenders. The programs were designed to complement the roller grill, not usurp sales dollars.

“Different customers look for different things,” Sheehan agreed. “Chances are a female customer isn’t going to buy a hot dog, but she might buy a wrap, a salad, a sub or a sandwich. Usually, the roller grill customer is somebody who is in a hurry and knows they can come in, order and be out the door in two to four minutes.” Having both options
helps meet the needs of families or mixed gender and age groups that want different choices.

Another way to appeal to the wide range of demands is through meal bundling. High’s Dairy, for example, has expanded its combo meals. The meal began with an option of chips and a 32-ounce drink. Now customers can combine a roller grill purchase with a bag of potato chips, two cookies, an apple or, in some stores, western fries. For customers watching their soda intake, coffee or bottled water choices are available with the bundle as well.

“A roller grill program is a necessity,” Sheehan said. “You need a breakfast item and several lunch items, but also need to somewhat limit your variety. I would think five or six items are enough as long as you’re regularly rotating in new and innovative products. Customers appreciate the quick in and out and that it is reasonably priced.” CSD

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