Roller Grills Growing Up

Thanks to a surge of new products focused on ethnic diversity, the roller grill is hotter than ever before.

There has been so much emphasis on fresh, made-to-order food and upscale coffee programs in the convenience store industry it’s easy to forget the tried-and-true roller grill.

Sometimes implicated as part of the industry’s food-image problem—burned coffee, triangle sandwiches in plastic wrap and dry, wrinkled hot dogs—roller grills have held firm to their territory.

For many chains, the roller grill has served the company well on its own, while others have found it to be the ideal complement to a larger fresh food offering. High’s Dairy Stores of Baltimore, for example, started its roller grill program 20 years ago. While fresh food has evolved in all 75 of its stores, the roller grill keeps turning out solid profits.

“We had a vision that the customer on the road needed a dashboard dining option, and that still rings true today with our roller grill program expanding to larger grills to carry a wider variety of grill products,” said Pat Kelly, director of merchandising for High’s. “I would say to anyone not already having a grill program to get one. It is profitable space management and user-friendly.”

Mary Valenza, a buyer and merchandiser for 225-store Gate Petroleum, Jacksonville, Fla., said her company also continues to invest in its roller grill program.

“Don’t go into the program half-heartedly,” said Valenza. “This requires a commitment from the executive level all the way to the third-shift employee. Each and every person needs to be realistic about the work involved, but if executed correctly, it can bring high rewards.”

Expanding Options
Most Gate stores have one roller grill, with Tornados from Ruiz. Hot dogs are prepackaged and kept in a warmer. The chain is testing a new program in one of its stores, including six roller grills.

No longer just a venue for traditional American hot dogs, roller grills that sport everything from Mexican tortas to pork-filled Chinese steamed buns to breadsticks stuffed with jalapeño peppers and cheese are popping up all over the country.

“The expansion from one roller grill to six has been a success,” Valenza said. “We are now able to have a variety of products where before we were very limited.”

A well-run program can expect a 30-35% margin. To do so, the program must be well-stocked, properly heated, tightly waste-managed, properly merchandised and promoted.

Like every other foodservice segment, you get out of the roller grill what you are willing to put into it, said Scott Kaiser, foodservice director FKG Oil in Belleville, Ill.

Fifty-five of Kaiser’s 75 Motomart locations have at least one roller grill featuring products from Landshire, Home Market Foods, Ruiz and Kraft, and is testing Johnsonville brats. About 60% of his roller grill

business comes from hot dogs. Kaiser uses Weinerminder tabs to section off different products, and has a roller grill in the office to preview different ideas.

“You really have to be dedicated,” said Kaiser. “You can’t look at the roller grill by itself. You have to look at the ring. What else are you getting out of the customer? The key is bundling.”

Motomart has a regular $1.19 or two for $2 deal, but also partners with Coke for $1 off a 20-ounce drink with a roller grill purchase. The food bar is near the fountain area, and there are deals on fountain drinks and hot dogs or chips and hot dogs. In FKG’s new stores, chips are displayed underneath the fountain machine.

“I call it ‘functional feeding,’” said Kaiser. “You’re feeding the people on the go. We’re still selling time between destination points. The key is putting food in their path and giving them an easy opportunity to add more items to the basket.”

Sign of the Times
Signage is an often overlooked tool for promoting the roller grill, Valenza said. However, she believes it is a critical driver of impulse sales.

“We need to remember that people get hungry with their eyes first,” Valenza said. “The best way to convey to the consumer that you have a good product is to have a great picture of it near where it’s being sold.”

Because of health department code, Kelly’s stores have to keep their roller grills behind a shield. Customers must ask an associate for their roller grill item, which is similar to what 7-Eleven does at its stores.

One of High’s strategies beyond freshness and cleanliness is to regularly bring in new product to keep the excitment with consumers.

“We carry Kunzler products, which is recognizable here on the East Coast,  like kielbasa and Italian sausage,” Kelly said. “Over the years we have tried many items, some with success and some not as much. We have found that rotating in new products, such as an all-beef deli dog, a five-pepper dog and a jalapeño dog is a good change of pace for our customers.”

During this rotation, Kelly said, High’s sometimes finds a product it will keep on the grill longer as the sales warrant. “We’re trying to keep up with the changing flavor of our customers,” he added. “People are looking for some spice.”

Monitoring the Competition
Before joining Motomart, Kaiser learned the foodservice business at Panera Bread. He firmly believes c-store operators can effectively predict consumer trends by looking at QSR and fast-casual menus.“A year from now, QSR trends will hit the convenience store,” he said. “It’s really kind of a cycle, but the industry can benefit by pushing that timeline up six months.”

Kaiser believes a grill can have too much variety—“it’s easier to manage three or four,” he said—and that daypart theories don’t always apply to roller grills. One of his stores sells more hot dogs in the morning than in the afternoon. High’s has observed this trend as well.

“Right from the beginning of our program it was always challenging to get the store managers to understand they needed to put the product on when we opened at 5 a.m.,” Kelly said. “One of our breakfast items is a Bob Evans Morning Sausage, and people do buy hot dogs with a breakfast sausage at 5 a.m.”

Equipment, of course, is important to these programs. Kelly’s stores have Big Dawg hot dog grills. Kaiser uses Star machines. He likes their balanced heat and that, as is standard with new units, they have digital temperature readouts, as opposed to the older dials with numbers. “There’s no guessing—what was an eight?” Kaiser said. “You can manage it with your eyes.”

All retailers seem to agree that near the top of the list of challenges with a roller grill program, as with any foodservice, is minimizing waste.

“We are using build-to forms to keep track of all dayparts,” Valenza said. “After weeks of data, we’re able to get a better grip on the waste numbers. We know that we will always have waste, but keeping that number within a manageable range is the key.”

Kaiser said product manufacturers are good partners in the fight against waste. However, he stops short of micromanaging waste. Instead, he wants each store’s staff to worry about sales above and learn how to effectively manage the business.

“We don’t punish our store managers for waste,” Kaiser said. “They understand what happens if their sales fall to unacceptable levels and the upside of having their sales spike.”

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