Turning a Profit
The times have changed. Just as c-store foodservice evolved to meet the needs of fresh, fast and friendly service, so have the items that star on the roller grill. “Gone are the days of the shriveled hot dog, whose origins and expiration date are unknown,” said Tim Powell, the c-store foodservice program director for Technomic Inc. in Chicago. “Today, we see c-stores with 100% beef hot dogs, Johnsonville bratwursts and Ruiz Foods Tornados, among other branded, premium-positioned roller grill items.”
Powell said it should be no surprise that roller grills will continue to be a permanent fixture in any successful c-store foodservice program. Other category facts to consider include:
» More than 60% of c-store foodservice operators have roller grills, second only to microwaves and coffee makers in foodservice equipment.
» Roller grills also outnumber heated holding cabinets and heat lamps—two critical components of aspiring c-store foodservice programs.
» Roller grill items account for about 15-20% of the $10 billion c-store foodservice market and its annual growth of 5% continues to outshine overall growth for the entire segment.
C-store operators looking to inject convenience and variety into their foodservice programs in 2010 without spending a lot of money need look no further than their tried-and-true roller grills.
Retailers and suppliers are growing increasingly creative when it comes to items they can stick on top of roller grills and 2010 is shaping up to be the most innovative year for the category to date. The line-up has grown from traditional hot dogs to chicken dogs, corn dogs, kielbasa, sausage, tornados, taquitos and egg rolls.
“In my experience, in order to be successful in the roller grill category you have to go big or use price to drive volume,” said Chad Prast, director of foodservice for VPS Convenience Store Group in Wilmington, N.C., which operates the Village Pantry and Scotchman chains. “In stores in which we have big grills or dual grills we tend to sell a lot more product.”
Locations equipped with smaller 30-count grills tend to struggle. “I think the customer wants to know or feel comfortable that you are in the business and support it, versus just putting out a few dogs and dabbling in it,” Prast said.
In lower-volume stores with smaller grills, Prast explained, “the one consistent thing that has helped is price. Driving units with price has helped reduce shrink, spoilage and keeps the grill fuller.”
To have successful roller grill sales, the unit must be placed in a visible spot under good light, noted T.W. MacDermott, founder and president of the Clarion Group, a foodservice consultancy in Kingston, N.H.
“The unit and the surrounding area must be kept clean so the offering is attractive,” MacDermott said. “Don’t let the hot dogs or sausages remain on the grill until they’re wrinkled. It will cost less to discard a few dogs than to lose customers who are turned off by an unappetizing display.”
MacDermott also said he likes roller grills because, as a consultant, he appreciates that they are relatively cheap to buy and operate, require less labor than other pieces of equipment, and produce an item that carries a strong profit margin. “Given the challenges retailers are facing in 2010, this distinction should not be overlooked,” he said. “Roller grills offer a fresh, affordable entry to foodservice that has a strong upside.”
Prast praised suppliers that are rolling out innovative and popular products and flavors designed for heating on the grills. Such items are not only convenient and inexpensive, but an excellent choice for two-fors or other promotions designed to attract people into the store.
When helping design a roller grill program, marketers and consultants must transcend the grill itself. While grilled hot dogs are a convenient item, they soon cease to be a viable foodservice option if napkins, utensils, sleeves and a wide variety of condiments like ketchup, mustard and relish are hard to find or the displays are empty. “A seemingly insignificant oversight like that, or a poor in-store location that blocks customers from seeing it, can hobble and eventually even torpedo an otherwise successful roller grill program,” MacDermott said.